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.       

Fergal Keane: Living with PTSD, BBC 2, BBC iPlayer, presenter Fergal Keane, Director Mike Connolly.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0017795/fergal-keane-living-with-ptsd

There’s a contradiction Fergal Keane suffers from Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder (PTSD) but he’s in Ukraine. He’s on the frontline. He’s been there before. Cutting his teeth in the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. He’s been in South Africa and Rwanda.

The British journalist, Linda Melvern (2000) A People Betrayed, outlines the role of the West, NATO, and the international community, which stepped aside in 1994 and Rwanda’s genocide with over a million dead. She outlines here reports of victims from a peace-keeping mission:

‘They left the Bangladeshi crew with the Armoured Personnel Carrier, and walked into the church gardens. It was there they found the bodies. Whole families had been killed with their children, hacked by machetes. There were terrible wounds to the genitalia. Some people were not dead. There was a three-month-old baby, the mother raped and the baby killed with a terrible wound. There were children, some with their legs and feet cut off, and their throats cut. Most of the victims bled to death.’

Keane witnessed this genocide. We saw footage of children in the back of a truck fleeing and being stopped at checkpoints by murderers with machetes. They were waved on. The cameras and Keane’s presence probably saved them. He sought a reunion with a child refugee from that convey in London.  He should have perhaps asked her what she thinks of Boris Johnson’s latest publicity stunt—away from Ukrainian war washing of his reputation—of sending refugees to Rwanda.    

Keane admits booze helped him over the next hill and the hill after that. He had nightmares of being trapped under bodies. His body too was shot with anxiety; yet, the next high of war work was addictive as any drug. That was his job. That was who he was. Working for the BBC was a blessing and a curse. He was suicidal, but he was treated with dignity and courtesy. All of the middle-class job virtues we wish poor people were allowed. He met with his therapist in The Priory. Her treatment was unconventional and involved mimicking deep-sleep patterns by rubbing and tapping his hand. But then too so was Rivers in Pat Barker’s first-world-war trilogy (The Ghost Road). His therapist’s treatment worked for Keane, but he could never be cured, and only hope was to stay sober and grounded.

There was an interesting aside about stress patterns being inherited, from generation to generation. His grandmother taking to the bed as the Black and Tans committed murder in the name of preserving law and order.  Fergal Keane as a special correspondent was there when duty called. He’s put himself back in the line. For many others with PTSD the choices are narrower. And there are no easy answers that don’t involve investing more money in health care.

England with the sound down.

England can beat Italy and win the Euros. They’re playing at home and favourites. Even I’ll admit that. I’m not anti-English, and I don’t mind them winning the odd game. Although I was never there, I’ve telly memories of Scotland going to Wembley on the fitba specials, beating England, tartan clad hordes of Bay City Roller fans stealing the goalposts and ripping up the turf and eating it to show how hard we were. Payback for all those invasions memorised in Braveheart with Mel Gibson, an Aussie, kidding on he was Scottish, showing the English soldiers who was boss by painting his face two-tone blue and wherever colour he had left on his shitey hand. Wiggling his bare bum at them. Now, he’d just have jumped in a fountain at Trafalgar Square and hung a traffic cone from a statue of Winston Churchill’s baldy napper. But it’s not about us.

England had some fantastic players and have underachieved since their World Cup Win in 1966. Their nemesis Germany in the Euros were a shadow of the teams that used to beat England regularly in World Cup and European competition and send them home to think again. England got a bye into the semi-final. Ukraine had the kind of defensive failures that even a diddy Celtic team last season would have found unfathomable. Every corner or free kick was a goal, or near miss. Denmark should have taken England to penalties after extra-time. But Raheem Sterling fell over in the penalty box. Golden boy, Harry Kane’s penalty was saved, but he finished the rebound. Everything that can go right for England has, and now they’re one game away.

The only time I turned the sound back up was when Denmark scored. They didn’t roll over and capitulate as they were supposed to. Italy had a marathon game against Spain. It was one of the games of the tournament. I’d have preferred Spain to have won that one, because they were the best footballing team in the Euros and would have taken England apart. Rio Ferdinand’s contention that England would have beaten both of those teams is the kind of patronising shite we’re used to hearing. But he did tell a story that puts this into context. Playing against Sergio Busquets (and Xavi and Iniesta), the Barcelona player feigned recognition of the England international.  ‘Ferdinand, boom, boom,’ said Busquets, emphasising his willingness to launch it, and not play the ball out from the back.

England are not so much a boom boom team in the Euros, but Pickford does launch it, and not always to his own players. But neither are Italy an open, attacking team. Playing at home, England will be expected by their adoring fans to take the game to the Italians. That will suit them. They’ll sit in and hit on the break. They’re not Ukraine, likely to fold and give England the run of the park. The Italians have better players than Denmark, but they’re not Spain. Ironically, the Italians will miss a left back that plays with his right foot. And most of their attacking flair comes from there. I’m sure Sterling will make another few dashes into the box and fall over. One of the ironies of the tournament is Sterling isn’t technically very good, certainly no match for Forlan, but he’s been one of the players of the tournament. The Italians will be ready for him. I certainly hope so. The sound will be off as I watch the final.  

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.

Timothy Snyder (2015) Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

black earth.jpg

We think we know the bare bones of the history of the holocaust. Hitler as bogey man and the German nation following him to the abyss, where around six million Jews perished and many more minorities. That was my take on it. Not bad, around a D grade. But Snyder does more than root in the history of the past. He drags us into the present and the lessons are illuminating.

For the German nation the war was portrayed as necessary, a colonial war to maintain food supplies, a war against the inferior Slavic nations, or ‘shitty countries’ are our friend President Trump termed them.  But when Lebensraum came unstuck at Leningrad and the Red Army began to roll back German colonial gains the genocidal war against Jews continued and grew even more intense.

‘The Auschwitz Paradox’ the complex of Treblinka, Belzac, Sobibor and Chelmno was a factory in which people were murdered for being the wrong type of people. The gas chambers also stood as a metonym for the evil of a racial policy of mass murder and genocide, but most of the killing had already taken place further East,

‘where tens of thousands of Germans shot millions of Jews over hundreds of death pits over the course of three years, most people knew what was happening. Hundreds of thousands of Germans witnessed the killings, and millions of Germans on the eastern front knew about them…German homes were enriched, millions of times over, by plunder from the murdered Jews, sent by post or brought back by soldiers and policemen on leave’.

Auschwitz processed a lie of left and right, separating the living and dead effectively, and more importantly it allowed a generation of Germans to say they didn’t know. It also allowed the Russians to act as liberators when earlier they had played a large part in the murder of Jews and other Slavic nationals.

The key to survival, then as now was citizenship. Jews in Denmark, for example, retained their citizenship and almost all survived.  In contrast, all 963 Jew in Estonia were murdered, not by the Germans, but Estonian citizens. And from the Baltic to the Black Sea people who killed Jews killed others such as psychiatric patients and gypsies. Lithuanian policemen who took part in the killing of 150 000 Jews in 1941, also starved to death the same number of Soviet prisoners.

Similar elements are at work in the Syrian conflict. Putin’s genocidal onslaught in the second Chechnya war helped set the template for what was to follow.  Russian troops that committed atrocities were fighting terrorism.

When Russian invaded Ukraine its citizens were deemed to be terrorists. Snyder draws explicit parallels with Hitler’s ideology:

In 2013 Russian leaders and propagandists imagined neighbouring Ukraine out of existence, or presented them as sub-Russians…an artificial entity with no history, culture, and language, backed by some global agglomeration of Jews, gays, Europeans, and Americans…In the Russian war against Ukraine, the first gains were the natural gas fields in the Black Sea…annexed in 2014…The fertile soil of mainland Ukraine, its black earth, makes it a very important exporter of food, which Russia is not.

Bashar al-Assad, Syrian’s dictator, whom Putin brought back from the brink of military defeat, using high-tech Russian jets, chemical weapons that put them outside the Geneva Convention, old-fashioned barrel bombs, artillery strikes on hospitals and schools while classifying these murders as fighting against terrorists. There is no such thing as non-combatants.  Women and children are also terrorists.

Three million people in Idib. Three million non-citizens and terrorists. On the Turkish border civilian forces offer a sense of humanity and prepare for a million refugees. Perhaps an overestimate when the Russian fleet offshore are engaged in ‘exercises’. Non-citizens can expect no mercy in a kill-box that would have been all too familiar to Eastern European Jews. Ironically, those fleeing towards Israel in the hope that proximity to another nation state will provide a safe haven of sorts are simply classified as terrorist by another nation state.

Snyder’s template of taking away citizenship as the first step in genocidal murder applies equally to Myanmar’s Rakhine state. In scenes reminiscent of Nazi occupied Poland, on 27th August 2017 Myanmar’s army attacked unarmed civilians and forced more than 700 000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Ian Figel and Benedict Rogers in The Observer report thousands were killed, thousands of women raped. Children were snatched from their parents’ arms and thrown into their burning homes or drowned. Villagers lined up and shot.

Britain’s response to refugees mirrors that of the Americans during the Holocaust – no entry. The United States and richest nation in the world patted itself on the back for allowing around 5000 Jewish refugees, around the same number that were gassed in Treblinka in a morning’s work. Remember David Cameron talking about ‘swarms’ of them waiting to cross the English Channel. Swarms of children, who we agreed to take, then reneged on the deal. Without the sovereign protection of citizenship those without passports have no rights and can be disposed of.

With global warming the numbers of refugees Snyder argues is bound to increase exponentially and the poorest nations in the world will be hit first and hit hardest. Already we are preparing our defences. The first defence being rhetoric, them-or-us fundamentalism. The warning from history is a lesson we have learned too well. Enough talk produces hate and murder, but no real people die. Only terrorists.  Believe that and you’ll believe anything. We often do and justify it to ourselves by saying we didn’t know. Read this book.