“He never pushed himself forward. He was never in the front line. He was always very kind.” That was how a senior figure in the Stasi in Dresden remembered a young Russian KGB officer who had been stationed in the East German city in the 1980s.
“I thought he was liberal, young,” reflected another man who knew him well. Men like him “cannot change”, said the late oligarch Boris Berezovsky, in a rare voice of warning. “You don’t understand who Putin is.”
The cast of supporting characters in Catherine Belton’s study of the Russia of Vladimir Putin is extraordinary and worthy of a Netflix mini-series. There are leading officials who fall out of windows at opportune (or inopportune) moments; politicians who are murdered as an apparent “birthday gift”; coiffed former antique dealers who have moved on to more lucrative projects; obscure thirtysomething metal traders who turn out to own the Armenian energy grid; and organised crime looking for recognition in the Sunday Times rich list. This is modern Russia in full, horrifying technicolour.
In Putin’s People, Belton, a former FT Moscow correspondent, leaves no stone unturned in her exposition of how the Russian president and his “people” dominate the largest country on Earth and how they have come to do so.
In the chaos of the years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a tight-knit group of former intelligence officers who had been trained to maintain and control the apparatus of the state looked on with a mixture of anger and envy as a lucky few got obscenely rich extremely fast. These few did so by gaining control of state assets through subterfuge, shady deals and dirty tricks.
They were assisted by western institutions who showed themselves willing to turn a blind eye to — and even facilitate — the process by which seven bankers secured control over 50 per cent of Russia’s economy. That had an obvious and direct impact on the country’s trajectory in the 1990s — and consequences for Russia, its neighbours, allies and rivals in the 21st century.
What the cabal of officers lacked was a protector, a co-ordinator and a figurehead who could also give them some of the action while curbing the power and wealth of the new oligarchs, who had forgotten, as one well-placed source puts it, “to whom they owed a debt”.
The answer to this, and to the additional challenge of making Russia great again, was the softly spoken, efficient former KGB officer who had the knack of being in the right place at the right time and saying the right thing. “I am just the manager,” Vladimir Putin was fond of saying. “I have been hired”, he would say, to help do what is right for Russia.
Few would have guessed at Putin’s ascent to the top. Then again, one of his great skills is to convince others to underestimate him — including Boris Yeltsin, who handpicked him to succeed him as president and even stepped aside before the expiration of his own term to ensure this happened. Yet on election night in 2000, in a telling harbinger of what was to come, Putin claimed to be too busy to even take a call of congratulations from his predecessor.
To the outside world, who saw only what they wanted to see, Putin set Russia on a course of reform and liberalisation. As the economy grew, boutiques and restaurants sprung up, and a new middle class began to emerge. Russian businessmen with apparently bottomless pockets bought top-end properties in London and elsewhere, hiring PR consultants and dining out with members of the House of Lords keen to solicit political donations. The huge fees on offer to bankers, lawyers and advisers were enough to stop too many questions being asked.
That was all well understood by Putin and those around him, explains Belton. Understanding how to manipulate with soft money and flattery were all well-practised techniques from the days of the KGB. Not only did they buy silence, they served to obscure what was really happening: “For a long time, it seemed the west didn’t understand the depth of Russia’s transformation,” she writes.
That transformation centred on being able to control the state from the judiciary to the media, but also on the creation of a new circle around Putin, where the primary quality — and indeed pre-requisite — was absolute loyalty. “If the state says we need to give it up,” said Oleg Deripaska in 2007 about the aluminium giant Rusal that he controlled, “we’ll give it up. I don’t separate myself from the state.”
Those who did not share those sentiments were dealt with ruthlessly — such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky or Sergei Pugachev, who had once been “like a kidney . . . essential for the functioning of the system”. Once Pugachev decided to go his own way, “of course the order was given to destroy him”, says another of Belton’s sources. The accumulation of powers, and the willingness to use them, has focused many minds and made Putin’s position in effect unassailable within Russia.
That comes at a price. The Putin regime’s “original sin”, as Belton calls it, is that control of the state is so total that outside investment into Russia has dried up because of concerns that assets might be seized, legal authorities weaponised, or worse. For many of those around the Russian president, the cold war never ended, the author notes — something that has only recently started to dawn on commentators in the west.
Belton does not explain how to engage with Russia or how to stop making the same mistakes when doing so. But this riveting, immaculately researched book is arguably the best single volume written about Putin, the people around him and perhaps even about contemporary Russia itself in the past three decades.
It also brims with surprises, vivid details and anecdotes. My favourite is when Putin attends a service on Forgiveness Sunday, the last Sunday before Orthodox Lent, and is asked to prostrate himself to beg for forgiveness. “Why should I?” he asks in astonishment. “I am the president of the Russian Federation. Why should I ask for forgiveness?” The manager has, after all, just been doing his job.
Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Turned on the West, by Catherine Belton, William Collins, RRP£25, 640 pages
Peter Frankopan is professor of global history at the University of Oxford
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Cafe. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
Get alerts on Political books when a new story is published