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.       

Circling a Fox, BBC Scotland, BBC iPlayer, Writer and Presenter Matthew Zajac, Director Brian Ross.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000s083/circling-a-fox

Matthew Zajac is an actor. Acting is a precarious profession. The same old faces crop up with regularity. Trying to make a living from acting is akin to trying to make a living from writing. I’ve did a few shifts as an extra. I’ve no interest in being the next what-ever-you-call him/her. Writing, well, that’s a different story.

Writing is my game. I don’t expect to make a living from it. And with over one million self-published books appearing on Amazon every year if you’ve been paying attention, as I have, then you’ll know why.

Matthew Zajac in his downturn between acting and being invisible wrote his own play, The Taylor of Inverness. He took it to the Edinburgh Festival, and with the help of a fiddler, and some projections acted out the part of his dad. It received plaudits. Plaudits don’t pay the rent.

Next his—let’s call it an award winning play, because if it didn’t win something Edinburgh’s culture elite have fell asleep at the wheel—is taken up by BBC Scotland. The peasants up North, us, receive a fraction of the BBC budget to produce content for the fraction of the British population that are interested in that type of thing.

Matthew Zajac gets to play his dad again, for the cameras, in his award-winning play. He  gets to travel to his father’s birthplace which was part of Poland until 1939, then in Stalin’s pact with Hitler, became part of the Soviet Union and designated as part of the Ukraine. His dad, Matthew’s grandfather, was Polish, and his grandmother, Ukrainian. The programme also becomes one of those finding about your past kind of road trips where the viewer see nice scenery and meets quaint folk that don’t speak our lingo.  Money for old rope.

Zajac’s  father told him (and us) how was fox is hunted in his birthplace. Cornered in a field, a fox runs in ever decreasing circles until its captors can bludgeon it to death.

Ukraine used to be thought of the bread-basket of Russia. Soil so rich that to plant a stick was to grow a tree. I’m going off at a tangent here as Zajac did with his da’s story. His dad was buried in Inverness. Whisper it, as a head mason. He was flexible about religion and risen through the ranks. (My understanding is you can be both a Roman Catholic and a Mason, as my da’s pal, Jimmy Mac, was). Zajac’s dad, despite coming from the Ukraine, fought with the Polish army for Britain in the second world war against their common enemy, Nazi Germany.

It all kind of adds up. Before the first world war Glasgow was booming and growing at a rate faster than London. In the interwar years this growth declined, but it was still enough of a metropolis to take a refugee from the Ukraine and for him to find a job as a tailor in Glasgow. And then head to the back of beyond to Inverness to find a shop of his own, a life of his own, a new life and kids. It’s the refugee made good narrative.

The Ukraine of the interwar and postwar years was one of bloodshed. Let me fling some figures at you. 20 million dead. Stalin brought the Ukrainians to heel by mass starvation. Most children under ten would die first. Millions more sent to gulags such as those in Siberia. Ukrainian nationalists fighting the Soviets who had ‘liberated’ them shot and their families deported. Acts of savagery, mass murder and rape. Teenagers, in particular, in the vanguard.

Let’s remember the death camps in the East and the Jews. Jewish tailors that had trained Zajac’s dad. We know around six million Jews were exterminated. But around half, as they were here, were taken into forests and fields and shot.

Zajac finds in the old reels of his father’s tape something unnerving. His story of being swept up by the Soviet machine and being deported to Uzbekistan has a facsimilia of truth. His escape along the Soviet railway, with its own gauge system for train that took three months, seems possible. He joins the British Army.

An alternative story and shadow self emerges that is completely compelling as narrative, as history, or as drama, and a combination of all these.   This is much-watch TV. It shouldn’t be given a graveyard slot on BBC Scotland, but a Sunday night slot at 9pm. The kind of slot Small Axe: Mangrove demands and gets because Steve McQueen is a somebody. Zajac is a Scottish yokel, he’s give what he’s got and likes or lumps it territory. Listen up, I watched both and Zajac is better.  Watch and learn what a thing man is.

Storyville, Welcome to Chechnya: The Gay Purge, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, director David France.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000kjnt/storyville-welcome-to-chechnya-the-gay-purge

Here we have Claud Cockburn’s maxim as a rule of thumb, ‘Never believe anything until it has been officially denied’.

Director David France’s documentary shows clearly that gay lives don’t matter in Chechnya, or in Russia, generally. Imagine George Michael had went missing at the height of his pomp and Margaret Thatcher (Section 28 legislation) came on the telly and told you, he wasn’t missing. And there was no such thing as gay people in Britain, and if there was ‘They are devils, subhuman.’ They should be taken to their families to be killed.

This is the rhetoric not of Thatcher, but of Ramzan Kadyrov, a Vladamir Putin appointed strongman, leader of the Chechnya Republic telling the public how it is in relation to Chechan’s George Michael and gay community. Imagine, instead of George Floyd being choked to death by policeman while other cops watched him die, you had police trophy footage of men and women beaten to death at the side of the road and raped to show they are dealing with the gay plague, the lesbian problem. Transsexual doesn’t register. Kadyrov labelled men that love men and women that love women, subhuman, not human and that’s the way they are treated, a problem that needs to be solved or eradicated.

Anna Politkovskya,  Chechnya: A Dirty War  1999-2002  gives us context. Vladimir Putin’s ‘anti-terrorist campaign’ destroyed the Chechnya capital, Grozny in a way we’ve become familiar with television pictures and reports of the indiscriminate Russian bombing of Syria and Ukraine and the targeting of, for example, hospitals. Terrorists are those on the ground. Chechnyans were labelled by Putin a ‘nation of criminals’.   In February 2001, Politkovskya was detained and threatened with rape by senior Russian officers when investigating a Russian torture centre. Perhaps she was naïve to think there was just one. Refugees talked of the indiscriminate murder of children, pregnant women, old men.  Putin won the war in Chechnya as he’s winning the war in Syria and the Ukraine. Anna Politkovskya had made enemies in high places. On 7th October 2006 she was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment block in central Moscow. Three Chechens were arrested, but acquitted and re-arrested.

  Truth does not need to be subversive, but it does need to be true.  France shows how it works in Chechnya. After a police raid around 2017, a gay man’s phone was taken from him and examined. We usually use words like forensic her—forensically examined—for links to other crimes to do with drugs or other offences so the authorities can label them criminal. Terrorist is a popular word choice. What the officers found was gay messages and images. Gay men, or women, were taken to Argun Prison in Grozny and tortured, with many beaten to death, reminiscent of Lubyanka and Stalin’s reign of fear. Victims were forced to give names of other gay men or women that the police could roll up, torture and kill, to get other names. This reign of fear France labels a Gay Purge, which is denied by authorities in Grozny and Moscow, using the logic that such people don’t exist and even if they did, there’s no official notification of it or them.    While at the same time, Ramzan Kadyrov promises to ‘cleanse the blood’ of Muslims and eliminate those people that don’t exist.

France’s film follows Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transsexual (LGBT) activists in Moscow, such as Olga Baravov, who have helped Chechnyan LGBT victims escape. We follow, for example, Akmad aged 30, (not his real name). Identities are protected by digital remastering because of a risk of reprisals at home in Chechnya. The rescue of ‘Anya’, aged 21, takes the viewer from Moscow to Grozny and had elements of a thriller. ‘Anya’s’ uncle told her he’d out her as a lesbian unless she slept with him and she had to be smuggled out. LGBT activists helped provide an underground ‘railway’ and safe houses. They try and relocate victims of torture and state violence. Asylum seekers of whatever sexuality are not popular (America, as you’d expect, is not on their list). Canada figures strongly. 151 victims processed by LGBT activists in Moscow, 44 men in women seeking asylum when filming took place.

‘Anya’ disappeared from her safe house. Olga Baranov and her child had herself to seek asylum in Canada after been outed by the Russian authorities. Moscow was not safe with its anti-gay rhetoric and threat of reprisals.    

Maxim Lapunov, his real name, returned from asylum and challenged the authorities in Chechnya and accused them of state torture, placing a deposition in the Russian Municipal Courthouse. His digital mask protecting his identity was dissolved. The case was, of course, flung out. For Putin acolytes, gays don’t exist in Russia or Chechnya, and even if they did, they law does not exist to protect the likes of them. Lapunov claimed he’d take his case to the European Courts of Human Rights in Strasbourg.  Watch this space, if he’s not disappeared or dies mysteriously, he might just do that, but I doubt it.

George Orwell recognised ‘to be corrupted by totalitarianism’— for example, the moron’s moron in the Whitehouse—you ‘do not have to live in a totalitarian country’, the un-United States of America. We’re all corrupted now.  Putin the strong man goes from strength to strength. Ramzan Kadyrov does not have the final word. He does what he’s told. The gay purge hurts no one—that counts—and nobody is counting.

First they came for the gays

and I did not speak out-

because I was not gay

[adapted from Pastor Martin Nemoller (1892-1984).

Svetlana Alexievich (1985, 2017) The Unwomanly Face of War, translated by Richard Pewar and Larissa Volokhonsky.

svetalna.jpg

Books are holy relics and none more so than this love letter to the lost. The Great Patriotic War as it is sold to the Russian people by the capitalist oligarchs is something to which they can hold on to. Something to which they can be proud. Forget the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and Stalin’s deal with Hitler and the division of Eastern European countries such as Poland. Forget the millions killed in countries such as the Ukraine by Stalin’s policy of mass- starvation ‘Death-by-hunger’ when parents ate their children. The Second World War started in earnest for the USSR with Operation Barbarossa on Sunday, 22 June 1941 with the Nazis attacked their former allies looking for a swift victory. Stalin and the USSR held on at Leningrad.  Twenty million Russians died. Think of that for a second. Millions more mutilated.

These are the fragmented memories of a forgotten race. Women who fought in the war. Women who survived and had to remain silent, because it was a man’s war. And women who fought were not real women, but front-line whores. There is a heart for love and a heart for hate. Many remember a sign by the side of the road when entering German territory for the first time, crosses. ‘Here she is accursed Germany.’

Fragments.

SUDDENLY WE WANTED DESPARATELY TO LIVE

Tamara Stepanovna Umnyagina

Junior Sergeant in The Guards, Medical Assistant.

I already went barefoot. What did I see? The train station near Mogilev was being bombarded. And there was a train carrying children. They started throwing them through the window, little children – three or four years old. There was a forest nearby, so they ran towards the forest. The German tanks drove out and the tanks drove over the children. There was nothing left of those children.

Bella Isakovna Epstein,

Sergeant, Sniper

I came back different…For a long time I had an abnormal relation with death. Strange I would say…

They were inaugurating the first streetcar in Minsk, and I rode on the streetcar. Suddenly the streetcar stopped, everybody shouted, women cried. ‘A man’s been killed!’ And I sat alone in the car. I couldn’t understand why everybody was crying.

Albina Alexandrovna Gantimurova

Sergeant Major, Scout

Berlin…a boy came running towards me with a submachine gun—a Volksssturm. The war was already over. The last days. My hand was on my submachine gun. Ready. He looked at me, blinked and burst into tears. I couldn’t believe it—I was in tears, too. I felt sorry for him; there was this kid standing with his stupid submachine gun. And I shoved him towards a wrecked building, under the gateway: ‘Hide,’ I said…He took my hand. He cried! I patted his head.

Fragments of the past make our present. Read on.