Catherine Belton (2020) Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and took on the West.

Over 100 days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Already the West has grown weary of fuel and wheat shortages and high prices. The eighth year of war. Russia occupying Crimea and Donbass regions, and almost twenty per cent of Ukraine since then, creating a land border, including access to the Black Sea. Catherine Belton’s prescient book is early and late. The modus operandi is in the title.

Ryzard Kapuscinski’s Imperium is instructive how it works. He was writing in 1994. Pre-Putin, the Yeltsin era.

‘The fall of communism in the state occurred relatively bloodlessly, and in ethnic Russia, completely bloodlessly. The great Ukraine announced its independence without a single shot being fired. Likewise Belorussia.

…It is interesting that blood flows only when blind nationalism enters the fray, or zoological racism, or religious fundamentalism—in other words the three black clouds that can darken the sky of the twenty-first century.’

In order to understand Russia and the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Ryzard Kapuscinski uses the analogy of another Russian writer, Yuri Borev who compares it to a train journey.

‘The train is speeding into a luminous future. Lenin is at the controls. Suddenly—stop, the tracks come to an end. Lenin calls on the people, for additional, Saturday work, tracks are laid down, and the train moves on. Now, Stalin is driving it. Again the tracks end. Stalin orders half the conductors and passengers shot, and the rest he forces to lay down the tracks. The train starts again. Khrushchev replaces Stalin, and when the train comes to an end, and he orders that the ones over which the train has already passed by dismantled and laid down before the locomotive. Brezhnev takes Khrushchev’s place. When the tracks ends again, Brezhnev decides to pull down the window blinds and rock the cars in such a way that the passengers will think the train is still moving forward.’ 

Boris Yeltsin brings in advisors from The Chicago School. They tell him to sell the train and the track and give everyone an equal share. Winner takes all. A new train with McDonalds and widescreen TV and a new track.

Putin is at the controls—indefinitely. Episode after episode of him wrestling bare-chested with bears and oligarchs is played on widescreen TV. His henchmen make early-morning visits to those that refuse to pay the market price in roubles for a ticket, or want to change the channel.

Catherine Belton tells the reader how Putin, with the help of the KGB, took over Russia, and threatened the world with nuclear annihilation. She offers a synopsis of who’s who in the Russian orbit that circles their supreme leader. He’s President for life. And the President can dismiss the Prime Minister, and any other public appointed body down to street sweeper. His inner circle get first pick on any deal worth around $40 million. State governors, for example, can haggle and war with each other their share, internecine battles that can lead to imprisonment and death, but one of Putin’s favourite sayings is it’s a private matter. Putin is number one, and unless fealty is paid, it becomes a public matter because that’s a private matter. 

The first names on Putin’s inner circle, the siloviki:   

Igor Sechin—Putin’s trusted gatekeeper. Like Putin, a former KGB operative from St Petersburg. He took payment of bribes and kept accounts, of who owed what. As Deputy Head of the Kremlin he helped organize Putin’s takeover of the Russian oil sector on which Russia’s wealth is largely based. Known as ‘Russia’s Darth Vader’ for his ruthless plotting against others. The power behind the throne. You don’t get to see Putin without seeing Sechin.

Nikolai Patrushev, former head of Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB.

Viktor Ivanov, former KGB, served with Putin in Leningrad KGB.

Viktor Cherkesov, former KGB, who ran the St Petersburg FSB.

Sergei Ivanov, former Leningrad KGB, and one of the youngest generals in Russian’s foreign intelligence.

Dmitry Medvedev—a former lawyer. Deputy to Putin when he ran the administration and kickbacks as Mayor of St Petersburg. Deputy head of Putin’s Kremlin administration. Chief of Staff for Putin’s Presidency, then President, with Putin as Prime Minister.  Obama famously thought Medvedev was a man he could work with, in the same way that George W. Bush (junior) looked into Putin’s eyes and said he’d seen his soul.

Putin’s custodians, KGB-connected businessmen. 

Gennady Timachenko, former KGB, worked his way through the ranks of the Soviet trade to become the first traders of oil products.

Yury Kovalchuk, former physicist, who joined with other KGB-connected businessmen to take over Bank Rossiya, which according to the US Treasury, became Putin’s bank.

Arskady Rotenberg, former Putin judo partner, who became a billionaire under Putin’s presidency.

Vladimir Yakunin, former KGB, worked undercover in the UN in New York, then joined Bank Rossiya.

The Family—Yeltsin

Valentin Yumashev, former journalist. He gained Yeltsin’s trust while writing his memoirs. Appointed Kremlin chief of staff in 1997. Married Yeltsin’s daughter, Tatyana in 2002.

Tatyana Dyachenko, Yeltsin’s daughter, but also his gatekeeper.

Boris Berezovsky, former mathematician, who made his fortune running trading schemes for carmaker AvtoVAZ. Wangled his way into Yeltsin’s family. Acquired Sibneft oil.

Alexander Voloshin, former economist. He started working with Berezovsky on privatisation of Russian assets. Transferred to the Kremlin, 1997 to work as Yumashev’s deputy.

Roman Abramovich, oil trader. He became Berezovsky’s protégé, but outmanoeuvred him and took over his business. Banker to the Yeltsin family, bowed to Putin after a period of Siberian exile. Sent to London, poisoned (Polonium?) when tried to intervene at the start of Ukrainian war, possibly out of favour, and therefore in danger.

The Yeltsin-era oligarch who crossed Putin’s men.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former member of the Communist Youth League. He became one of the most successful businessmen of the perestroika era in the 1990s.

Mobsters and footsoldiers for the KGB—St Petersburgh.

Ilya Traber, former Soviet submariner, who became a black-market antique dealer in the perestroika years. A go-between for Putin’s security services and the Tambov organised- crime group controlling St Petersburg’s most strategic and lucrative assets, the sea port and oil terminal.

Vladimir Kumarin, Tambov organised-crime boss (‘night governor’).

Moscow footsoldiers and mobsters.

Semyon Mogilevich, former wrestler, known as ‘the Brainy Don’, who at the end of the eighties became banker to the leaders of Russia’s most powerful and organised crime groups, including the Solntsevskaya, funnelling cash to the West. Set up a criminal empire for drugs and arms trafficking. Recruited in the seventies by the KGB.

Sergei Mikhailov, (alleged) head of Solntsevskaya organised-crime group—Moscow’s most powerful—with close ties to the KGB. Criminal arm of the Russian state.  Cultivated links with Donald Trump in the eighties.

Vyacheslav Ivankov (‘Yaponchik’), dispatched by Mogilvvich to Brighton Rock, New York, to broaden the Solntsevskaya criminal empire.

Yergeny Dvoskin, Brighton Beach mobster. He became a Russian ‘shadow banker’ after moving back to Moscow with his uncle Ivankov. The Russian security services helped them funnel tens of billions of dollars for clearing in the West.

Felix Sater, (Dvoskin’s best friend). A key business partner of The Trump Organisation, developing a string of properties for Trump to cash in and keep the Organisation from bankruptcy, while retaining high-level clearance from Russian intelligence.  

The irony of the moron’s moron getting elected in 2016 is not that there was a cause for celebration in the White House, but jubilation and celebration in the Russian White House. Never had there been such a useful idiot in high office. Nigel Farage and little trumpet, Boris Johnson were also a useful gift. Brexit knocking five to fifteen percent off Britain’s gross domestic product and dividing the country. Scotland, for example, didn’t vote to be poorer.  

Putin, after Chechnya and Syria, invasion of Ukraine was an act of hubris. Oil and gas goes up in price and pay for his imperialistic adventure. As the West withdraws from Russia, there is a return to the old ways of KGB, and a Soviet world protected by wealth and power that Putin knows well. What emerges from Belton’s book is a cowardly man, much like Boris Johnson, promoted for the wrong reasons, but now he’s in power he intends to stay there. He’s already killed many Russians in the false-flag operations that got him elected President with an overwhelming majority after the Yeltsin perestroika experiment. There’s no reason he will suddenly stop killing citizens of his own country and others.

Will Putin’s People use nuclear weapons? Perhaps you may remember at the start of the ‘action’ his official media were talking about such things; speculation. He took on the West and went on a disinformation spending spree that elected a US President and helped through Aaron Banks fund Brexit for Boris. There is a familiar pattern of saying before doing. And blaming someone else like in the Salisbury poisoning debacle of nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Perhaps, a long-range missile, said to have come from Ukraine—and a ‘tactical, nuclear strike’ in reply. I wouldn’t bet against it. Putin’s a gambler with a grudge who thinks he’s owed big time.       

Anna Politkovskaya (1958-2006) Chechyna: A Dirty War (1999—2002)

Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist, author and critic of Vladimir Putin was murdered in her apartment in central Moscow 7th October 2006.

Ryszard Kapuscinski. Imperium: ‘All dictators, regardless of epoch or country have one common trail: they know everything, are experts on everything.’  

Chechnya: A Dirty War 4th November 1999.

‘You probably think I’m writing this to stir your pity. My fellow citizens have indeed proved a heard-hearted lot. You are enjoying your breakfast, listening to stirring reports in the North Caucasus in which the most terrible and disturbing facts are sanitised so that voters don’t choke on their food.

But my notes have a quite different purpose, they are written for the future.’

Vladimir Putin, the new Russian prime-minister had been head of the FSB, formerly the KGB. The breakup of the former Soviet Union had been relatively peaceful, unlike the genocidal wars in the former Yugoslavia. But when two Chechen warlords staged an armed rebellion against the former Soviet Union, Russian troops attacked two villages in Daghestan. Apartments in Moscow and other cities suffered bomb explosions. Around 300 Russian citizens were killed. Russian propaganda linked the attacks to Chechnya separatists and the international terrorism of Osama Bin Laden.

Alexander Litvinenko, a British naturalised Russian defector and former agent of the FSB, was poisoned with polonium in London and died 23rd November 2006. He helped coin the term Mafia State. He accused Putin and FSB agents of planting the bombs in Russian cities. Chechnya separatists denied any involvement. Putin’s goal was to become President of Russia. His war against Chechnya and uncompromising stance was widely supported by the Russian public.  

Claud Cockburn the maverick Irish journalist put it quite simply, ‘Never believe anything until it is officially denied’.

‘The [Chechnya] refugees are unanimous. They talk today of a slaughter of the civilian population and the death of children, of pregnant women and old men.’          

March 2000

‘In December 1999 I went with Galina Matafonova to Pavletsky Station in Moscow to meet her son Lyonya. All that remained of this young man over six-feet tall was some ashes in a little box no bigger than the palm of my hand.

My name is Galina Nikolayevna Matafonova, I’m the mother of three children. My eldest son Alexi was taken into the army on 15 May 1998. He went out of a sense of duty and served for a year and a half. Every night he wrote home. Suddenly there was silence for two months and I began to fret. I was afraid he was in Daghestan. But I was reassured by the words of [Prime Minster] Putin: our boys would not be sent to fight without their voluntary agreement.   

The letter arrived in September…The boys in Alexi’s regiment told us how they were forced to sign a formal declaration of their agreement to fight. They were brought to the banks of the Terek River and told: ‘If you don’t agree, hand back your weapons. You’re free to go. You can make your own way back. Your Russian soldiers wearing uniform and you won’t make your own way back alive…It’s that or sign up.’  

‘My Homeland’ 27th December 1999.

We are in Ingushetia on the outskirts of the village of Yandara, not far from the Chechen border at a refugee camp called Goskhooz. Tents, sheds and dugouts. Nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep, no clothes to wear and nowhere to wash, not even once a month…Yet the [tent] school is working. Many children cannot attend regularly, they have nothing to wear. As a rule one child attends the school today, and tomorrow a different child.

Abdlezim Makhauri: Composition for eight and nine-years-old.

I have only one homeland, Grozny. It was the most beautiful city in all the world. But my beautiful city was destroyed by Russia, and together with it all of Chechnya and the people living there. The people that Russia had not yet managed to destroy went to Ingushetia, as I did. But I miss my home. I so terribly want to go home although I know my house has already been bombed to pieces. All the same I want to go…LEAVE US ALONE, RUSSIA. WE’RE ALREADY FED UP WITH YOU…GO HOME.

Richard Powers, The Overstory.

‘There’s a Chinese saying. When is the best time to plant a tree?

Twenty years ago.’

Putin’s ‘anti-terrorist’ campaign destroyed Grozny. The Russian Prime Minister refused Western mediation. He pointed to NATOs bombing of Serbia. The Council of Europe had temporarily suspended the voting rights of the Russian deletion. But Tony Blair invited Putin to London. The British Prime Minister offered his support and that of Washington for the ‘terrorist insurrection’ in Chechnya.

The price of oil up over $100 a barrel.     

‘When’s the next best time to plant a tree?’

Now.’

Andrew Miller (1992) Ingenious Pain. 

When you are asked to review books, a number of prompts are translated into numbers. For example, you are asked to award a mark out of ten for literary merit. I often cheat here. If I like a book, it gets nearer ten than one. After all, even the ingredients on the label of a brown sauce bottle have enough literary merit to get five.  

Ingenious Pain gets a ten, because his sentences sing and you can get your teeth into them. His characters have a bit of swagger.

Listen to the pedlar Gummer selling coloured-water placebos to a cynical audience of eighteenth-century market women and men who’ve heard it all before, and are willing to throw rotten fruit or whatever shit comes to hand.

‘Pain, friends, is from the devil. It is his touch, his caress. His venomous embrace! Who has not heard a man in agony cry out and curse his God…Or a woman in childbed, blast the unborn infants ears with groans or shrieks…The loving parent is transformed into an ogre. The child by pain is parted from his prayers, the good man from his goodness. It is a hell on earth! It casts us upon the flame while yet we live…And doctors! We know how much they may do! We know how their ministrations can double our suffering…And then they rob us when we are too weak, too much out of our wits to boot them down the steps of our house. Death is a sweet release. Think now, I ask you, think of your greatest suffering, a day, a night when some raging pain in your teeth or bowels, in your skull, in your leg…a burn from the fire, a fall from your horse, or one of the thousand noxious diseases that rend us from within. Remember, how each and every one of you, in your torment would have exchanged your skin with the most wretched in the kingdom, just but you might have a minute, nay, a half-minute’s relief.’

Score out of ten: content/subject matter/themes.

Ten again. The book begins in 1772 in a little village in Cow, Devon. Reverend Lestrade allows gentlemen surgeons to perform an autopsy on his friend James Dyer. Dyer was born unable to feel pain. The surgeons hoped to extract blood, viscous fluid or locate in his body this soul-like substance.

Contemporary accounts of those born unable to feel pain show it not as a blessing but a curse. Children burn themselves, but since they feel no pain, injuries are worse than children that cry and weep. Bones are broken, but still they use those limbs. Children with that gift die younger than their contemporaries. It’s in the book’s title: ‘Ingenious’ pain.

The book asks other questions of readers. Can we, for example, be fully human when we feel no pain? The obverse of this, can we experience the bloom of pleasure?    

I read, with pleasure, Robert Craven’s The Nine Books That Inspired Me To Write on my online gang hut— ABCtales.  https://www.abctales.com/blog/robert-craven/nine-books-inspired-me-write-5-9-5-ingenious-pain-andrew-miller

At number 5, #5, Andrew Miller, and Ingenious Pain. (I also purchased, but still have to read Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski. https://www.abctales.com/blog/robert-craven/nine-books-inspired-me-write-9-9-9-imperium-ryszard-kapuscinski.)

Structure/plot/pacing (where applicable). Ten. Ingenious Pain is straightforward in its plotting, it moves in seven sections back through time from the autopsy in the barn to the epilogue, with the burial of James Dyer.

But there are also journeys of the soul. At its heart is the journey successful, but disgraced, surgeon James Dyer makes from his home in Bath to London. A race against time and other English doctors, to inoculate the Empress Catherine with the small pox virus in her St Petersburg palace with the promise of fame and riches (this is based on true events).

A mirroring of other journeys. Dyer being saved from the pedlar of lies, Gummer by a rich gentleman, who collects curiosities and freaks, he himself having a woman’s breasts.  The gilded cage on the cover of the book offers a clue. Then there is Dyer’s time in Riga, entombed in a monastery by the weather. Where he meets his nemesis, ‘Mary’, who frees him from his curse, but offers no cure. Dyer in becoming more human, is no longer himself. His final journey finds him in Bedlam. Here he finds love, but he’s a curiosity of a different kind.

General Comments:  Being picky, Reverend Lestrade’s sojourn in Paris before he met Dyer could have been cut—I found it a bit boring.   

Enjoyment: ten.  For a debut novel, for any novel, in general, it’s a marvel. Fully formed and wonderful to read. A real page-turner.