In Putin’s Labyrinth, acclaimed journalist Steve LeVine, who lived in and reported from the former Soviet Union for more than a decade, provides a gripping account of modern Russia. In a penetrating narrative that recounts the lives and deaths of six Russians, LeVine portrays the growth of a “culture of death”—from targeted assassinations of the state’s enemies to the Kremlin’s indifference when innocent hostages are slaughtered. Interviews with eyewitnesses and the families and friends of these victims reveal how Russians manage to negotiate their way around the ever-present danger of violence and the emotional toll that this lethal maze is exacting on ordinary people. The result is a fresh way of assessing the forces that are driving this major new confrontation with the West.
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|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
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Russia’s Dark Side
A Land in the Grip of a Brutal History
The boulevards of Moscow are very much twenty-first-century Russia, a kaleidoscope of flashing neon, ostentatious wealth, and the hectic traffic of a city too busy to stop. But walk down Maliy Karetniy Pereulok, a backstreet in the city’s prestigious central Petrovski district, and step through the wooden door of the simple red-brick building at number 12. Here, time reverses itself. Visitors find themselves inside a musty archive of repression. Photographs of Russians executed during Stalin’s purges in the 1930s are displayed in open shoe boxes. Storage boxes and cardboard file folders, their contents a history of state-sanctioned savagery, are stacked floor to ceiling along narrow corridors and crammed into seemingly every niche. Personal items that belonged to prisoners of the gulag invite inspection.
A human rights organization called Memorial, which documents the crimes of Stalinism past and present, maintains this museum and has its office here. The quarters have the feel of a relic, and the museum visitor traffic is low. But during the golden era of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika—roughly from 1988 through the first half of 1991—the building buzzed with researchers, journalists, visitors, and foreign dignitaries. Curiosity about the Stalinist period was intense then. (Remarkably, the reform-minded FSB, which had replaced the KGB in a convoluted bureaucratic change in 1995, assembled the photographs of purge victims that ended up in the museum’s collection. “The current FSB wouldn’t do something like this, but then they did,” said Nikita Petrov, Memorial’s KGB expert. Petrov himself is a throwback to an earlier time, with long gray hair parted on the side, green T-shirt, denim jacket and pants, and trimmed gray beard.)
Perestroika was a flash in time when many Russians dared to hope for a break with the past. Tens of thousands marched in the streets for an evolving list of causes, scanned newspapers for the latest exposés of the Communist Party, and forced genuine change in the country. But when the economy crashed and the government of Boris Yeltsin wiped out their savings—not once, but twice—by summarily devaluing the ruble, Russians felt tricked.
Now Russia is again Russia, its dark side emergent and, for the most part, tolerated by the populace. Petrov, a chemist by training and a historian by profession, tried to explain why.
“Russian history taught its people to be indifferent toward the suffering of others at their death,” he said. “It’s hard to say whether history produced the culture or culture produced the history. Whichever, it’s the consequence. People are used to death. It’s a psychological defense toward death.”
To underline his point, Petrov turned to Europe. “In 2004, there was a terrorist act in Spain,” he said, referring to the Madrid train bombing by al-Qaeda that killed 191. “Lots of people went into the street in protest. That would never happen here. Why? Here it’s ‘Why should we go into the street? It would have no impact.’
“That’s actually quite a logical response. [But] it has resulted in people not being brave. They take no responsibility toward events—they can’t affect anything.”
Some have interpreted this detachment as an inevitable outcome of Putin-era prosperity—many Russians had never lived better and so were not motivated to challenge the system. But my own observation was that Petrov had it right—Russians had reverted to what they had always been, which was generally passive.
It was not hard to find evidence that the state had turned back to its old self, too. In 2004, Qatar convicted two Russian intelligence officers of murdering Chechnya’s former president, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, by blowing up his car in the tiny Gulf country. Moscow asked that the men be permitted to serve their sentence in Russia, and Qatar agreed. But once the officers were home, Russia set them free. That seemed to demonstrate that if one carried out a killing on behalf of the state—even if it was arguably terrorism—one would be protected. It reinforced an atmosphere of impunity for such crimes; there were few examples of anyone convicted for a major Russian murder. The Qatar episode and others like it mainly suggested that people should keep their heads down.
One of those who surprisingly did so was Olga Kryshtanovskaya, who for two decades was Russia’s premier expert on the nation’s elites and their wealth and position in government. Her most recent study, she told me over coffee, was a measure of the wealth accumulated by military officers and the FSB leadership under President Vladimir Putin, including their shares of ownership in Russia’s biggest companies. Almost offhandedly, I asked where the study would be published so that I could pick up a copy. I didn’t want to burden her with a request to send me one. She is an enormously busy woman, frequently published in Russia and the West and widely quoted on the Russian power structure. Even the Kremlin has sought her advice.
Her expression turned dark and awkward. She said she wasn’t sure where—or if—she would publish her findings. After so many years of demystifying the elite, she suddenly felt at risk. “This type of information is dangerous to life,” said the sixtyish woman. “A lot of people had unpleasant things happen to them. There can be accidental car crashes. A lot of people died and that is why I can’t stop thinking about it. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
I learned later that Kryshtanovskaya turned over her study to friends in a think tank abroad, who paid her and used it under their own byline.
One of the things that foreigners least understand about Russia is why ordinary Russians seem largely unperturbed by the violence and death around them.
Yuri Sinelshchikov, a former deputy Moscow city prosecutor who had dealt with murder his entire professional life, thought it was a matter of practicality or personal priorities. People simply lacked the inclination to care, he said. There was nothing in it for them.
“If people go in the street, they won’t gain materially,” he said. “Any murder can be compared to a show where an actor comes to entertain them. It doesn’t really affect someone unless it happens to them directly. People get angry if they lose a meter of land, or their children are hurt, or someone installs a door that is heavy and could hurt someone.”
The keenest observers on almost any matter in nearly any country are often the bankers, who have much to lose if their judgment is wrong. So I asked a few in Moscow to analyze the Russian mind-set. They were Americans and Europeans who admired Putin’s government and were earning eight- and nine-figure payouts as lawyers, investment bankers, and investors thanks to the Russian juggernaut.
“The local attitude is, ‘Shit happens,’ ” said Rory MacFarquar, Moscow research director for venerable Goldman Sachs. Slender, baby-faced, and bookish, MacFarquar was persuasive partly because of his long years and deep study of Russia, and also because of his clear and painstaking choice of words. He tended to see things in a historical context. “There is an enormous perception gap about life. It’s not something trivial like ‘life is cheap,’ ” he said. “Russia has gone through unimaginable tragedies in the twentieth century.”
The United States reacts with great shock to events such as 9/11 and the 1999 Columbine High School massacre because they are so out of the ordinary, he said. But “enormous tragedies” occur with such relative frequency in Russia that its people become almost numb to them.
“One thing the West noticed [after 9/11] is how many people were put in danger. [But] that wasn’t a big thing here,” MacFarquar continued. “The level of routine ecological danger here is enormous. The systematic official lying has led to a universal assumption that the danger is pervasive, which leads to fatalism.”