Steve LeVine’s “Putin’s Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia”

Here is a book review I wrote for the New York Post. The “house style” and headline choices are quite painful for me, but beyond my control – bear with us here. putinslabyrinth062208.jpgSTRONG MEDICINE By ROBERT AMSTERDAM June 22, 2008 Putin’s Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia – by Steve LeVine (Random House) In 2002, when terrorists took over a Moscow theater, government troops responded by gassing the building, killing over 100 terrified hostages. On July 4, 2004, Paul Klebnikov, the American-born editor of Forbes Russia, was shot four times in the street by assailants following him in a slow-moving car. It took an hour for the ambulance to arrive at the scene, it had no oxygen bottle and when Klebnikov finally reached the hospital (still alive), the elevator taking him to the operating room broke down. Klebnikov bled to death. On Vladimir Putin’s 2006 birthday another prominent Russian journalist and government critic, Anna Politkovskaya, was gunned down in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building. (This was after she survived drinking poisoned tea in 2004.) Later in 2006, in London, KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko was died from polonium in his tea. The world was outraged. The Russians yawned.

In “Putin’s Labyrinth,” author Steve LeVine argues that not only is Putin responsible for these bloody events – through “the complicity of his inaction” – it is exactly what his people expect, perhaps even want.”After sixteen years of living in or visiting the former Soviet Union, I have come to believe that Russia’s acquiescence to this bloody state of affairs sets it apart from other nations that call themselves civilized,” LeVine writes. “Now Russia is again Russia,” LeVine ventures, “its dark side emergent and, for the most part, tolerated by the populace . . . There does seem to be a straight line to the present from Ivan the Terrible and the Russian tradition of fear-based rule.”LeVine interviews the families of the victims to closely document what he calls “a disturbing picture of assassination and other brutality” that “leaves the unmistakable impression that the Russian state under Putin is at least partly responsible.” The only difference he comes up with between the czars, Josef Stalin and Putin is that today’s FSB (successor agency to the KGB) answers to no one, and is willing to use whatever tactics it deems necessary to accomplish its goals.What tactics indeed. Take the information Levine uncovers about the cruelty of Litvinenko’s murder. “The few scientists familiar with polonium-210 struggled for metaphors to describe its agonizing effects. Perhaps the most chilling likened the relatively large atomic particles it released to bullets, firing away mercilessly at Litvinenko’s soft tissue. Another evoked a football image, the particles knocking over cells like a rampaging fullback flattening every defender in his path. All said, polonium-210 was many times more hazardous than poisons usually associated with excruciating death, such as hydrogen cyanide.”To his credit, LeVine doesn’t canonize his subjects, whether allies or opponents of Putin. “I had difficulty viewing [Litvinenko] as heroic or especially admirable as a number of articles and documentaries rushed to describe him after his death,” LeVine confesses. Instead, he describes Litvinenko as “difficult” and “friendless” and portrays him as a hardscrabble man struggling to earn a living beyond his subsidy. “In the end, he was a determined but ordinary man consumed by events far larger than him,” LeVine concludes. Meanwhile, he posthumously accuses Klebnikov of possessing “Lord Jim pretensions,” and an improper willingness to play an activist role in Russia’s sovereign affairs. “Klebnikov’s reporting on Russia was flawed from the beginning because he was less knowledgeable than he thought,” LeVine explains. “In the end, he became the victim of a Russia whose nature he never fully grasped.””Putin’s Labyrinth” is essentially a polemic, and many will reasonably ask whether or not the complexity of a people who survived the horrors of the 20th century and the depredations of the last decade can be understood through such isolated events. In fact, given his central argument, LeVine should have worked harder to link together the murders in support his thesis. Instead the books reads more like a collection of “if it bleeds, it leads” articles about Russia’s recent low points. And there are glaring omissions as well, such as the atrocities committed by the Chechen terrorists at the Beslan school siege; there is no discussion of the murder of central banker Andrei Kozlov and there isn’t much reporting on the recent signs of thaw, or consideration of how the use of state instruments in business (such as Gazprom) relates to these events.LeVine’s belief that the Russian psyche is permanently consigned by history toward dictatorship, strong-armed rule and state-sanctioned violence makes for some exciting reading, but is ultimately unconvincing. The people of the Russian Federation have choices, and we do them and ourselves a great disservice to cast them simply as passive victims.Robert Amsterdam blogs at