Boris Berezovsky is living in exile in London to avoid the wrath of Vladimir Putin. One morning, the unlucky oligarch is found dead in his bathroom, an apparent suicide.
Their suspicions aroused, MI5 opens an investigation—but Prime Minister David Cameron orders the case closed. Alarmed at the renewal of Russian Cold War tricks and Moscow’s increasingly close ties to London, the CIA dispatches Malko Linge to investigate Berezovsky’s death and the British cover-up. With help from an alluring former CIA handler, Malko dives into the search for hard evidence of the Kremlin’s involvement in the affair—putting himself directly in the crosshairs of the world’s most efficient assassins.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Malko Linge, who first appeared in 1965, has often been compared to Ian Fleming’s hero James Bond. The two secret agents share a taste for gunplay and kinky sex, but de Villiers was a journalist at heart, and his books are based on constant travel and reporting in dozens of countries.
On several occasions de Villiers was even ahead of the news. His 1980 novel had Islamists killing President Anwar el-Sādāt of Egypt a year before the event took place. The Madmen of Benghazi described CIA involvement in Libya long before the 2012 attack on the Benghazi compound. Chaos in Kabul vividly reflected the upheaval in Afghanistan. Revenge of the Kremlin lays the assassination of an exiled Russian oligarch in 2013 directly at the feet of President Vladimir Putin
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from the prologue
Rem Tolkachev was so moved, his eyes were moist with tears.
He reread Vladimir Putin’s decree—which an orderly had hand-delivered to his little Korpus No. 14 office in the south wing of the Kremlin—for the third time.
The president’s order created a special unit within the GRU—the military intelligence service—charged with resolving “sensitive situations.” Its members were authorized to travel to any country in the world to secretly kill anyone the Kremlin saw as a political or economic adversary, even if they weren’t under official sanction from the Russian government.
It was the return of SMERSH, the organization that assassinated regime opponents in the days of the Soviet Union.
This was a task to which Tolkachev had devoted years of effort, drawing on unlimited resources and the support of Russia’s various security agencies. President Putin was now giving official status to his discreet yet extremely useful role. The old spymaster took no personal pride in this, and he would continue to operate in the shadows, but now he felt imbued with a nearly divine sense of mission.
He mentally blessed Vladimir Vladimirovich, and promised to go to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior to pray for him.
This decree was the final nail in the coffin of the despised Boris Yeltsin, who had dismantled whole swaths of the Soviet Union. Life would now go back to the way it was, thought Tolkachev, with “vertical power” again ruling the country. It would be the USSR without communism, for which no one had any more use. Power would be wielded with an iron fist and any remaining opponents would soon be brought to heel.
For a few moments, Tolkachev almost felt that his little office shared the solemn mood of the Kremlin’s National Security Council hall with its walls hung with Gobelins tapestries exalting patriotic themes.
Though Tolkachev was one of the most important cogs in the presidential machinery, his office door bore no name. Only its thickness and the sophistication of its digital access lock hinted at its strategic importance. The few people who knew it existed called it Osobié Svyazi, the Office of Special Affairs.
No one could quite say how long Tolkachev had been working there. It was as if he’d been in that wing of the Kremlin forever, and it was almost true. For more than twenty years, the spymaster had obediently followed the orders of all the nation’s modern-day tsars, from Mikhail Gorbachev to Vladimir Putin.
Born to an NKVD general in Sverdlovsk in 1934, Tolkachev was a classic silovik, a person who spent his entire career in the country’s intelligence agencies. Gorbachev had brought him into the Kremlin during the reorganization of the Second Directorate of the old KGB, now the FSB—the Federal Security Service. Tolkachev’s exemplary personnel file held not the slightest hint of corruption, and he’d shunned the machinations of KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, who was arrested for plotting against Gorbachev.
Not that this meant that Tolkachev approved of Gorbachev’s destroying the Soviet Union. In fact, he hated the man. But Tolkachev was too much of a legalist to oppose the country’s duly constituted authorities. His mission in the Kremlin was simple: to resolve thorny problems clandestinely and illegally, with the president’s support.
The head of state need only mention a problem, without suggesting any particular solution, and Tolkachev would immediately get to work on it.
His heavy, steel-clad file cabinet held the most explosive secrets of two critical periods: the time immediately after communism faded and before the USSR’s collapse, and the post-Soviet period, a time of upheaval that saw the collapse of many values established over the previous seventy-five years.
In fact, the cabinet held only a tiny part of the secret operations that Tolkachev had carried out, because most of the instructions he gave were oral. When a written order was required, he hand-typed a single copy on an old Remington manual. He distrusted electronic systems, which he considered too easily penetrated.
Though a man of incredible power, Tolkachev didn’t even have a personal secretary. But the head of every civilian and military security service knew they were to obey his orders without question. His name was one of the first ones they were given when they assumed their positions.
His was the voice of the czar.
Tolkachev would be eighty years old soon, but retirement was an alien concept to him, and no one mentioned it. He was practically part of the Kremlin furniture. Besides, who would replace him?
That morning he had driven his immaculately polished Lada from his Kastanaevskaya Avenue apartment in western Moscow into the Kremlin through the Borovitskiy gate. People who passed him in the hallways had no idea how much power was exercised by the little old gentleman with the white hair and unremarkable face.
A widower for the last thirteen years, Tolkachev hardly had any social life. He usually lunched at the Kremlin’s Buffet Number 1, where you could get a meal for less than a hundred and twenty rubles.
People familiar with his office saw further evidence of modesty there. The walls were bare except for a calendar, a photo of Vladimir Putin, and an old poster of Felix Dzerzhinsky published on his death in 1926. Dzerzhinsky, who created the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB, was the man Tolkachev most admired in the world. In fact, his few daytime outings were always to the KGB museum on Bolshaya Lubyanka Street, to gaze at his idol’s death mask.
Tolkachev’s desk was as Spartan as his office walls. It had only two telephones and a locked black address book that held the numbers he might need.
One of the phones was connected to the Kremlin’s inside system, but Tolkachev’s number wasn’t listed, and only a handful of people had it. These were usually very high officials, who were told about Tolkachev when they took their jobs. Most had no idea what he looked like. All they knew of him was a somewhat high-pitched voice with an accent from central Russia.
The armored gray cabinets behind Tolkachev’s desk held the files of the people he had used during the last twenty years. They were all there: siloviki, crooks, killers, gangsters, priests, and soldiers. Even the dead.
To manipulate these helpers, Tolkachev had unlimited supplies of cash. Packets of bills stood neatly stacked on a cabinet shelf. When he ran low, he wrote a request to the Kremlin administrator. No justification was required, and the money would be delivered the same day. Tolkachev was scrupulously, almost pathologically, honest. He would never take so much as a kopek of the sums at his disposal, and kept a meticulous account of the amounts he spent. No one ever asked to see it.
The old spymaster’s only pleasure was to serve the rodina—the nation—and its incarnation, the president. A special joy, these days, because the current leader symbolized the renewal of the system Tolkachev had dreamed about for years.
Since becoming a widower, he rarely went out, except for a monthly evening at the Bolshoi, where he paid for his own ticket—he loved the opera—and perhaps dinner in an Italian restaurant on Red Square. When he was under pressure, he chain-smoked slim, pastel-colored Sobranie Cocktail cigarettes, taking eager little puffs as he thought.
Tolkachev’s reach was immense. Beneath the shell of a legalist state swarmed parallel services and obscure offices prepared to do anything to help the Kremlin solve its problems. Not to mention all those members of the legal apparatus who were bound to obey the president’s representative.
* * *
Tolkachev glanced at Putin’s order again, this time with a twinge of envy. Russia’s master had just made his clandestine role official. But who would be running this new SMERSH? Would he be shunted aside in favor of some GRU general?
It occurred to Tolkachev that his age might be the reason for such a change. He would be eighty years old next year. Was he considered no longer capable of carrying out his delicate task? If that were the case he would step aside, as befitted a loyal servant of the state.
Just then a red light started blinking on one of his phones. (Tolkachev felt there was no need for a telephone to have a ringer.) It was the inside Kremlin line. Picking up the phone, he heard a woman’s impersonal voice:
“The president wants to see you in his office in half an hour.”
She immediately hung up. One didn’t question an order from the czar.
* * *
Gazing out one of his office windows, Vladimir Putin watched the black birds circling the old fortress and swooping among its golden onion domes. Driven by some mysterious genetic instinct, flocks of crows had been living there for centuries. No one had been able to explain what attracted them to the Kremlin’s towers and domes.
Only Boris Yeltsin had ever tried to get rid of them, using trained falcons. A vain effort. The Kremlin crows were still there, and probably would be until the end of time.
Putin was a pragmatic man, and unmoved by the whirling blackness. He wasn’t superstitious, either. He glanced at his watch. This was his last meeting of the day. After that he would head to his dacha in Zhukova, a dozen miles west of Moscow, where most of Russia’s elite lived. The highway there was supposedly the only one in the country that had no stop lights, so as not to slow official motorcades.
Russia’s master was in a very good mood. The work he had begun eight years earlier was nearly finished. He ruled the country with an iron hand, having eliminated practically all his potential opponents. Even marginal groups like Pussy Riot had been put down. Just because you were strong was no reason to show weakness.
Russia itself was doing well, too. Oil and gas brought the state coffers three billion dollars a week, salaries were being paid, the oligarchs cowed, and the security services fully rebuilt after the 1992 debacle. As in the golden days of the Soviet Union, the people no longer spoke private thoughts aloud.
A hushed voice emerged from his intercom:
“Your visitor is here, Mr. President.”
“Show him in.”
A few moments later, an unseen hand opened the enormous, leather-lined door. The tiny figure of Rem Tolkachev stood revealed in the entrance.
Putin immediately got up and went to greet his visitor, his hand outstretched. This was a signal honor. The Russian president usually only stood for high-ranking foreign visitors.
“Good afternoon, Rem Stalievitch!” he said in his hoarse voice, shaking his hand. “Please sit down.”
He waved Tolkachev to a long red sofa behind a coffee table with a basket of fruit that nobody ever touched. When the men were seated, the president gave his guest a friendly look. One reason he liked Tolkachev was that he was shorter than he was.
Perched on the edge of the sofa, the intimidated spymaster waited to be questioned. Making conversation wasn’t up to him.
“Can I assume you are aware of my decree number 27?” Putin began.
Tolkachev nodded cautiously.
“Yes, Mr. President,” he said in his squeaky voice.
“What you think of it?”
The spymaster swallowed.
“I think it’s a very wise step, Mr. President.”
Putin gave him a long look.
“You didn’t feel deprived of any of your prerogatives, I hope?”
Tolkachev stiffened slightly and said:
“I serve the nation and I have always followed orders, sir.”
The president gave him an almost affectionate smile. He really did like Tolkachev.
“You would have been wrong to,” Putin said dryly. “Because I’ve decided that you will head the new organization. I didn’t include that in my decree, of course; I wanted to tell you personally. I have already informed the GRU leadership.”
Tolkachev felt that if he stood up now, his legs might fail him. He had never imagined the president would bestow such an honor on him. It wouldn’t change his day-to-day life in any way, but to be officially recognized . . .
“Thank you, sir,” he said in a voice heavy with emotion. “Thank you.”
Putin brushed the thanks aside, and continued:
“I also want to talk to you about another matter. Something that’s been on my mind lately.”
“What’s that, Mr. President?”
“The Berezovsky business. Where are you on that?”
Tolkachev hadn’t expected the question and was silent for a few seconds before answering.
“It’s been eight years since we’ve taken any action, per your instructions, sir.”
Eight years earlier, the Kremlin had decided to eliminate the oligarch Boris Berezovsky. A member of President Yeltsin’s inner circle and former kingmaker, he’d been one of the men behind Putin’s rise to power.
Berezovsky, who held a doctorate in mathematics, was working in optimization research when the Soviet Union collapsed. During the period of upheaval that followed, he invested several million dollars in LogoVaz, the country’s largest car company. By a series of schemes and scams, he seized control of the company, helped by the Chechen mafia, That turned out to be a dangerous alliance.
In 1993 his Leninsky Prospekt showroom was shot up by gangsters. The following year, he was the target of a Chechen car bomb attack. His driver was decapitated, and Berezovsky barely escaped with his life.
A confused period followed, at the end of which Berezovsky, who had left Moscow for a time, returned and joined the president’s “family.”
A series of shady deals followed, all struck under Yeltsin’s aegis. In those days, Berezovsky could waltz into the president’s office at will and shuffle billions of dollars around. In a period of brutal privatizations, he was able to take control of the airline company Aeroflot, the publishing group Kommersant, and the country’s biggest television network, ORT.
His master stroke came in 1995. In association with a partner named Roman Abramovich, he managed to seize control of a huge oil producer, Sibneft. Berezovsky and his associates paid a hundred million dollars for a company that was worth five billion.
He had never ridden so high. A short, balding man with hooded eyes and intense eyes, Berezovsky was at the peak of his glory. In 2000, thanks to his connection with Yeltsin, he helped launch Vladimir Putin as a presidential candidate.
Unfortunately for him, his protégé didn’t turn out to be the obedient little silovik he expected. From the moment Putin came in power, he single-mindedly starting getting rid of the unscrupulous oligarchs who had ruined the country.
In Russia, nobody stands up to the czar. So most of the oligarchs, including Abramovich, pledged their allegiance to Putin as a way of salvaging part of their fortunes. But Berezovsky resisted. He even counterattacked, suggesting that Putin, to justify war with Chechnya, had orchestrated the 1999 bombings in Moscow that killed hundreds of people, and been blamed on the Chechens.
Putin’s response was instantaneous.
Following a series of phony trials, the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sent to Siberia in 2005. Other oligarchs were ruined and arrested. Berezovsky fled to his French chateau in Cap d’Antibes. Putin dispatched Abramovich to suggest that Berezovsky give up his share of the ORT network. Otherwise, it would be confiscated.
Russia wasn’t a nation of laws, as Berezovsky well knew. He also knew that if he went home he would be immediately arrested on some pretext and sent to Siberia.
In 2003 he decided to ask Britain for political asylum, and moved to London. He was still very rich, and spent fifty million pounds to settle there with his wife, his mistress, and his six children.
Snubbed by high London society, he spent most of his time in the Library Bar at the Lanesborough, in the company of the most beautiful Russian prostitutes in London.
He declared open warfare on Putin, and made a series of provocative statements, even threatening a coup d’état. That sealed his fate. Putin hated oligarchs, but he despised traitors.
The final blow to Berezovsky was delivered by his former friend Abramovich. On Putin’s orders, he pressured Berezovsky to sell him his share of Sibneft. Berezovsky agreed, and was cheated. Of the agreed 1.4 billion dollar price, he received only six hundred and fifty million.
Berezovsky was now in free fall. His Aeroflot deal was but a distant memory, and Putin had gone as far as he could to ruin him financially. Only one task now remained: eliminating him physically.
* * *