Catherine Belton’s rigorously researched account of the rise of the Russian elite provides a rare glimpse into the activities of Putin’s inner circle. Such workings are often shrouded in mystery, behind the closed doors of the Kremlin. Belton presents us with a rare gift, an in-depth account of how the inner circle has consolidated its hold on Russia’s political system and the country’s vast resources to turn it into their own cash cow. Putin is often portrayed in the west, wrongly, as a kind of Bond-style villain, at the apex of power, constantly calculating foreign and domestic policy moves to disrupt Russia’s enemies. While he is undoubtedly the central force in Russian politics, he exists more at the forefront of a clique of former KGB associates who at times dictate the direction of policy as much as Putin does himself.
Putin’s People challenges these conventional narratives around the Russian government and gives us an insight into how Putin’s former KGB associates have joined him in government in order to stage a creeping coup that has dismantled the democratic freedoms of the 1990s, re-established Russia as an imperial power and brought vast wealth to the new elite in the process. Among the various groups of businessmen, lawyers and technocrats who have influenced Russian politics over the past 20 years, the former KGB men loom large and have grown in stature and influence as Putin’s presidency has matured.
The country’s resources have become the plaything of this elite, who have constructed vast industrial, financial and media empires out of the post-Soviet chaos. The arrest of Russia’s richest man in 2004, the oil tycoon Mikhail Khordokovsky, for fraud and tax evasion served as a blueprint for the subsequent subordination of the judicial system and expropriation of businesses from the oligarchs that followed. In recent years Putin’s allies have strong-armed the most lucrative industries into their possession and pocketed the proceeds for themselves.
The money has been used to fund luxury lifestyles and funneled out of Russia and into the London financial and property markets. These practices have deep roots, argues Belton. In the 1980s, when Putin was a midlevel KGB agent in Germany, he and his colleagues used a system of front companies, hidden bank accounts and smuggling operations to maintain their networks and funnel money out of Russia. In the 1990s, as deputy mayor of St Petersburg, Putin and his colleagues enriched themselves at the expense of aid programs destined for ordinary Russians and made an unholy alliance with the local mafia to share control of the city’s port. The current economic and political climate is much better understood when looking at this background and the context in which Putin grew.
Belton’s research is thorough. She has not only been aided by Russian investigative journalists who have brought these stories to life (often at great personal risk), but as FT correspondent to Moscow she has the eye of what to look for in financial transactions. Her investigations and analysis of company takeovers is excellent. Belton’s account is rounded off with first-hand interviews of the subjects whose activities she has explored. Backroom operators, such as Igor Sechin, Putin’s feared gatekeeper, Vladimir Yakunin, the bluff exKGB head of Russian Railways, Sergei Pugachev, Putin’s former banker now living on the run in France, and many others all feature prominently. Their portrayals bring to life a rich cast of Kremlin characters.