Review | Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West – Catherine Belton

About the Book

Interference in American elections. The sponsorship of extremist politics in Europe. War in Ukraine. In recent years, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has waged a concerted campaign to expand its influence and undermine Western institutions. But how and why did all this come about, and who has orchestrated it?

In Putin’s People, the investigative journalist and former Moscow correspondent Catherine Belton reveals the untold story of how Vladimir Putin and the small group of KGB men surrounding him rose to power and looted their country. Delving deep into the workings of Putin’s Kremlin, Belton accesses key inside players to reveal how Putin replaced the freewheeling tycoons of the Yeltsin era with a new generation of loyal oligarchs, who in turn subverted Russia’s economy and legal system and extended the Kremlin’s reach into the United States and Europe. The result is a chilling and revelatory exposé of the KGB’s revanche—a story that begins in the murk of the Soviet collapse, when networks of operatives were able to siphon billions of dollars out of state enterprises and move their spoils into the West. Putin and his allies subsequently completed the agenda, reasserting Russian power while taking control of the economy for themselves, suppressing independent voices, and launching covert influence operations abroad.

Ranging from Moscow and London to Switzerland and Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach—and assembling a colorful cast of characters to match—Putin’s People is the definitive account of how hopes for the new Russia went astray, with stark consequences for its inhabitants and, increasingly, the world.

650 pages (hardcover)
Published on June 23, 2020
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This book was a library loan.

The first thing you need to know, is that I have a massive, huge, just absolutely overflowing obsession with Russia. The whole entire history of it, from the Kievan Rus, to the tsars, to Soviet style communism (Stalin, specifically, keeps me reading), to the fall of the USSR, to now. Russia is a really dynamic, changing country with a long, long history, and I think that’s part of what interests me. To understand why Lenin came to be, you have to understand the system of Tsars, how they started, and what they turned into throughout time. You’ve got to understand how the people functioned under those laws and rulers, and how they were oppressed and how they survived and the like. To understand Stalin, you have to know where he came from, and the various situations that made him who he was. The influences. The tug and pull of politics in his day and age. 

Things don’t just happen in a vacuum. In Russia, the cause and effect between people and events are crystal clear, and it’s fascinating

Likewise, to understand Putin, you’ve got to know where he came from. Life in the USSR, and especially life under its collapse, really formed a lot of who he is today. But to understand the collapse, you have to understand what, exactly what collapsing. You also have to understand a bit of the KGB, and just how many pies it had its fingers in (Honestly, the KGB’s vast, international reach really surprised me.) And while this may seem really heady stuff, Belton does an absolutely magnificent job of boiling it all down, and giving it to readers in nice, digestible chunks.

“The KGB playbook of the Cold War era, when the Soviet Union deployed ‘active measures’ to sow division and discord in the West, to fund allied political parties and undermine its ‘imperial’ foe, has now been fully reactivated. What’s different now is that these tactics are funded by a much deeper well of cash, by a Kremlin that has become adept in the ways of the markets and has sunk its tentacles deep into the institutions of the West.” 

That’s what Putin’s People does really well. It draws a line between what was, and what came from it. It paints a picture of how the USSR broke down, and details the various people that came out of the collapse to, often times, take advantage of what was crumbling and become something more. Oligarchs. Real estate moguls. Political power brokers.

Vladimir Putin. 

The fall of the USSR was catastrophic for nearly everyone who lived in the region. The economy collapsed and was not ready for the transition to a more open marketplace. People went hungry. There was never enough in the stores. Lots of people started import/export schemes, which made a few people a lot of money, while leaving a lot of people with absolutely nothing. There was job loss, insecurity, sudden and dramatic inequality. Basically, a whole lot of chaos and misery. 

Mixed into this was a new class of business person. These people saw a niche and a vulnerability, and knew they could take advantage. There was a whole lot of theft from the state and depletion of resources. A lot of import/export schemes. Crime bosses took over. Oligarchs became a Big Deal. Now, this happened at the fall of the USSR, but even before as well. The author paints an amazing picture of the KGB, and their theft of money from the state, just how they managed it, and how they kept it hidden. As soon as people saw the writing on the wall, even before the collapse of the USSR, those with the knowledge and knowhow to take advantage, were circling the carcass of the old Soviet system, and picking at what it had to offer.

This was Putin’s world. This was what he came to power knowing. This system of espionage and secrecy mixed intoxicatingly with advantageous crime bosses and power brokers.

… ever since the sixties the Soviet Union had found its strength lay in disinformation, in planting fake rumours in the media to discredit Western leaders, in assassinating political opponents, and in supporting front organisations that would foment wars in the Third World and undermine and sow discord in the West.

Putin is not a nice guy. Let’s be clear about that. A whole lot of people in this book had some very bad endings, poisonings, fatally falling off a yacht, randomly deciding to jump out a window, lots of questionable suicides and convenient deaths. Putin isn’t afraid to clean house. That’s part of what keeps him somewhat untouchable and mysterious to us out here in the West. People are afraid to speak out about what they know, and what they saw or experienced, because so many people who do not toe the line… end. Fatally. 

“Pugachev told Putin he should prostrate himself in front of the priest, as was the custom, and ask for forgiveness. ‘He looked at me in astonishment. “Why should I?” he said. “I am the president of the Russian Federation. Why should I ask for forgiveness?’”

This makes the author’s extensive, detailed, incredible research all the more impressive. A lot of her sources are anonymous, for obvious reasons, but she does get a good number of people to tell their stories and stick their names to it. Furthermore, she has done her reading and her archive searching. When considering the obstacle of learning anything in a country that has spent the past mumble-mumble years of its history learning how to hide literally everything from everyone, it’s impressive that she managed to unfold that many secrets and that much information and distill it into one digestible work of nonfiction, as seen here. 

There is a new revelation on just about every page of this book, and the authors easy to understand, almost aggressive writing style makes this book read almost like a thriller. I was constantly turning the pages to see what would happen next, and who was doing what, where. That’s quite a mark in the book’s favor, I must say. A lot of nonfiction reads like a textbook, but this one decidedly does not. 

This book is, quite frankly, almost too surreal to believe, and there were quite a number of times I was thinking, “no way… there’s NO WAY this is true” but Belton’s research makes just about everything laid out in these pages irrefutable. There’s just too much evidence to not believe all the threads of the stories she’s weaving together. That makes all this espionage, spycraft, deep state, organized crime stuff almost surreal. Like, to the point where I had to take a break a few times and remember I wasn’t reading some fiction book that someone wrote, but this is actually real life. People live it. 

Putin’s People isn’t just about internal politics, and the rise of Putin and those near him. It’s also very much about international politics. Belton discusses a lot of modern day international issues and how Putin and his cronies reacted to them. The conflict in Ukraine, various events in the Middle East, why London is such an important city to Russia (I didn’t know Russia had such a big impact in the Vote Leave campaign in the UK), and, of course, its dynamic and ever-changing relationship to the United States, as well as, yes, Trump’s personal connection with a whole lot of prominent Russian oligarchs dating all the way back to the 1980s. 

“Yevgeny Dvoskin – Brighton Beach mobster who became one of Russia’s most notorious ‘shadow bankers’ after moving back to Moscow with his uncle, Ivankov, joining forces with the Russian security services to funnel tens of billions of dollars in ‘black cash’ into the West. Felix Sater – Dvoskin’s best friend since childhood. Became a key business partner of the Trump Organization, developing a string of properties for Trump, all the while retaining high-level contacts in Russian intelligence.” 

Putin, as I’ve said, is not a nice person, but he has worked in the KGB and spent many of his formidable years flexing his muscles during the collapse of the USSR, navigating its crime-ridden economy, and consolidating his power. Now, he is turning his eye West, and the results of his pressure and influence are obvious, if you know where to look and what to see. Belton paints a very stark, cold, scary picture of one man’s rise to power, his control and mastery over said power, as well as the people around him, and his ability to manipulate events to fall in his favor. 

This book is a fantastic study of how the modern Russia came to be. The story of what comes next remains to be told, but Putin’s People gives you some ideas of what to expect, and it leaves me cold.

5/5 stars


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