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The new Russia is marching in an alarming direction. Emboldened by escalating oil wealth and newfound prominence as a world power, Russia, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, has veered back toward the authoritarian roots planted in Imperial/Czarist times and firmly established during the Soviet era. Though Russia has a new president, Dmitri Medvedev, Putin remains in control, rendering the democratic reforms of the post-Soviet order irrelevant. Now, 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 penetrating account of modern Russia under the repressive rule of an all-powerful autocrat. 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.
Drawing on new interviews with eyewitnesses and the families of victims, LeVine documents the bloodshed that has stained Putin’s two terms as president. Among the incidents chronicled in these pages: The 2002 terrorist takeover of a crowded Moscow theater—which led to the government gassing the building, and the deaths of more than a hundred terrified hostages–seen here from new angles, through the riveting words of those who survived; and the murder of courageous investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, shot in the elevator of her apartment building on Putin’s birthday, purportedly as a malicious “gift” for the president from supporters. Finally, a shocking story that made international headlines–the 2006 death of defector Alexander Litvinenko in London—is dramatized as never before. LeVine traces the steps of this KGB-spy-turned-dissident on his way to being poisoned with polonium-210, a radioactive isotope. And in doing so, LeVine is granted a rare series of interviews with a KGB defector who was nearly killed in strangely similar circumstances fifty years earlier. Through LeVine’s exhaustive research, we come to know the victims as real people, not just names in brief news accounts of how they died.
Putin’s Labyrinth is more than an immensely readable exposé. It is highly personal, with the flavor of a memoir. It is a thoughtful book that examines the perplexing question of how Russians manage to negotiate their way around the ever-present danger of violence. It calculates the emotional toll that this lethal maze is exacting on ordinary people, even as they enjoy a dramatically heightened standard of living. Most ominously, it assesses the reopening of hostilities with the West, and the forces that are driving this major new confrontation.
Steve LeVine PUTIN’S LABYRINTH Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia
Just before midnight on November 1, 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence agent living in political exile in London, awoke terribly sick. Within days, a ghastly photograph of his wasted body in a hospital bed shocked the world. Three weeks later, he was dead. He had been poisoned by polonium-210, a radioactive isotope that investigators believed had been slipped into a beverage.
The forty-three-year-old Litvinenko had fled his native country with his wife and six-year-old son six years earlier. He was an unrelenting and harsh critic of President Vladimir Putin and the methods of Russia’s intelligence apparatus, which he labeled immoral.
In life, Litvinenko had been only a foot soldier in the opposition to Putin, and his outbursts were often dismissed by journalists, politicians, and researchers. But his death became an international sensation, and many suspected the president’s involvement. The poisoning of Litvinenko riveted attention on Russia’s visible slide toward autocratic rule and its increasingly bellicose attitude toward the West, even as Russia’s economy was booming, thanks to the surging value of its energy exports, and Putin was seeking to restore his nation’s lost stature after the Soviet collapse.
I could find no precedent for an assassination of this type. Who was responsible? I traveled to Moscow to sort through the circumstances of his death. My investigation gradually widened to encompass what seemed to be an epidemic of assassinations and bloodletting, both inside and outside the country.
I came to view Litvinenko’s assassination—and the spectacular use of polonium to kill him—as emblematic of the dark turn that Russia had taken under Putin’s rule.
This is a book about death in Russia.
The world is familiar with Russia’s long history of murderous rulers and ruthless assassins. But even now, a decade into the twenty-first century, brutality and violent death is so ordinary that it is usually ignored by all but the victims themselves, their families, and their friends.
After sixteen years of living in or visiting the former Soviet Union, I have come to believe that Russia’s acquiescence to this bloody state of affairs sets it apart from other nations that call themselves civilized. I realize this is a harsh judgment, and can only say that it was not hastily reached.
When I first arrived in the country after three years of reporting in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I mainly felt awe. Russia’s enormous size, remarkable history, and rich language wholly engaged me. I was assigned to cover territories on the fringe of the old Russian empire—Georgia, Armenia, Central Asia, the northern Caucasus mountain regions of Chechnya and Ingushetia. I maintained a Moscow apartment as a base of operations.
There were discordant notes from the outset. Resident foreigners and a disgruntled minority of Russians said the country was meddling beyond its borders—provoking wars in the Caucasus, blocking oil deals and energy pipelines in Central Asia, and generally working to preserve Moscow’s influence in the neighboring republics that comprised the former Soviet Union. At first, these complaints seemed unfounded; yes, Russia was seeking to reinvent and perhaps enrich itself, but it was not attempting to reestablish an empire. I would soon be disabused of this somewhat benign view.
In December 1994, a number of foreign journalists, including myself, gathered in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. We were Americans, Britons, French, Russians, Azeris, and Georgians, including our translators and drivers. I was accompanied by my Georgian driver, Yura Bekauri, and assistant, Nana Kiknadze.
We headquartered in an inn that became known as the French Hotel and waited for the Russian military to attack the city. Russia’s president, Boris Yeltsin, and his defense minister, Pavel Grachev, had threatened just such an assault—a show of force to quell the region’s pretenses of independence.
Russia and the region of Chechnya had been antagonists for hundreds of years. They fought a long guerrilla war in the nineteenth century before Chechnya was subjugated. In the next century, the Chechens chafed under Soviet rule, and in 1944 Stalin, who thought they were siding with the Nazis, deported them en masse to Kazakhstan. Nikita Khrushchev allowed them to return, and when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the Chechens saw an opportunity at last for independence. They behaved as though they were governing an autonomous land. That led to Yeltsin’s threat three years later to compel the Chechens to return to Russia’s fold.
Yeltsin had set a deadline of December 12 for all foreigners to be out of Grozny. Journalists were separately warned that Russia could no longer assure our safety, but there was nothing about the notification that I construed as threatening. Western correspondents had heard similar cautions in other war zones, and we were unworried. But there was a palpable rumble among the Georgians in our group. Two or three Georgian drivers, Yura among them, began packing their cars. They intended to leave, and quickly. “You don’t know what the Russians can do,” Yura replied when I protested.
Why was Yura, an ordinarily unflappable man, so agitated? His behavior seemed unreasonable, but it forced me to reassess the situation. For one thing, his panic was clearly genuine. For another, he intended to take the car with him, which would leave us without personal transport in a war zone.
We left with him—Nana, my colleague Carlotta Gall, then of The Moscow Times, and I. As we drove away, I wondered how to explain to my editor that I had left the scene of a story. We traveled east, and a half-hour later Yura drove into a gas station and employed his usual magic. He struck up a friendship with another motorist, who invited all of us to eat and stay the night at his home in the city of Gudermes.
So began a several-months-long discovery of what was behind Yura’s terror.
I returned to Grozny in January, in time to witness the main Russian assault for The Washington Post and its sister publication Newsweek. In my absence, the dispatches of my colleagues Anatol Lieven and Bill Gasperini, who had stayed behind, had kept me abreast of events there. Now Gasperini told me how he had been pursued by a Russian helicopter, first while on foot and then in a car, being shot at all the way. He was certain that the pilot had known he was a foreigner. It was my first realization that Western correspondents weren’t necessarily regarded as neutral noncombatants by the Russian military.
The Russian term bespredel translates roughly as “anything goes.” That describes how the Russians pursued their campaign in Chechnya. Grozny was a city under siege. More than half of its four hundred thousand inhabitants had fled. The Russian military subjected the remaining population to around-the-clock artillery bombardments, block by block, street by street, and building by building. It regarded no one as an ally, no one as a civilian.
Outdoor markets were a favorite target. After such attacks, people usually emerged from cover to retrieve the dead and wounded, only to be fired upon by Russian choppers returning for a second run. They typically dropped cluster bombs that fired shrapnel in an upward trajectory, seemingly designed to decapitate their victims. That was how a young Boston photographer named Cynthia Elbaum was killed in late December—decapitated when she left the safety of a bombed-out building to photograph the slaughter in a bazaar outside.
The assault reduced the city to rubble, leaving behind only the carcasses of buildings. Grozny resembled scenes in photographs from World War II depicting the carnage of Europe.
At the end of January, Nana and I returned without Yura, and we began to visit outlying villages. The war had shifted there as the Russians widened their assault. Now there was a new wrinkle in the stories we heard. Oleg Orlov, a distinguished investigator with the Russian human rights group Memorial, provided cassette recordings and written depositions from people claiming to be victims of torture and witnesses to murder by Russian officers and soldiers. The statements were said to come from both Chechens and ethnic Russian citizens of Chechnya.
We set out to find some of these victims and, in the cattle-breeding town of Goity, met Isan Matayev, a forty-year-old truck driver. His family went back three generations there, but he was born in Kazakhstan, his family among those exiled to that land by Stalin in 1944.
Matayev described eighteen days of imprisonment by the Russian army. He and about thirty other Chechens and ethnic Russian civilians had taken cover inside a Grozny bomb shelter, then heard troops outside. “The Russians gave us a two-minute ultimatum either to open the shelter door or they would smoke us out,” Matayev said. “We opened the door, they checked us for weapons—none of us had any—and then they locked us back inside.” The next day, the entire group was loaded into an enclosed truck, hands cuffed behind their backs. Guards whom he described as towering men wearing masks ordered everyone to lie facedown on the truck floor in rows. Then more prisoners were ordered to lie on top of others until there were five layers in all, “like lumber,” Matayev said.
The truck hauled its human cargo seven hours north to Russian military headquarters in the city of Mozdok. En route, guards beat some prisoners with rifle butts and fired occasional gunshots. Matayev said one Russian man shouted that the troops “had no right” to shoot. The man was not heard from again. “I think he was shot, because he wasn’t among us at the end” of the journey, Matayev said.
At Mozdok, the captives were ordered out of the truck two at a time and made to step over the bodies of seven or eight men who had perished along the way, having suffocated or been shot. They were marched to a makeshift prison that, in the Chechen wars, became known as a “filtration camp.” It was ostensibly a way station for the Russians to separate Chechen fighters from mere civilians. The camp was that, but it also became a place where the Russians decided who would live and who would die. And that decision often was reduced to which captives’ relatives could pay the soldiers enough to win their freedom. Some who had no one to pay the requisite bribe disappeared without a trace.
Matayev was imprisoned in a compound consisting of two sets of railway cars fitted with blackened windows and grates, and surrounded by barbed wire. About a dozen soldiers guarded the yard, along with incessantly barking German shepherds. The guards regularly clubbed the men; when Matayev went to the bathroom, two soldiers beat him along the way.
During interrogation, a masked man randomly struck his feet, his back, and handcuffs that had been positioned over his knuckles—“wherever was convenient.” He was threatened with death: “Today is your death; we’re definitely going to do away with you tonight; enjoy your last few hours.” Matayev was released after relatives came up with enough money to free him and five others.
We left Matayev before dusk to make the long drive west to Nazran, in neighboring Ingushetia, where most correspondents were staying because Grozny had become too dangerous. Nobody wanted to be on the roads after nightfall, when nervous Russian solders seemed to shoot anything that moved.
The next couple of days, we visited villages where residents had signed pledges of neutrality in hopes that the Russians would not fire on them. At Achkhoi-Martan, a city dotted with large red-brick houses, local men armed with rockets, grenades, and assault rifles were lounging outside an office building. A local woman named Mariam Madiyeva, worried that they could attract hostile fire, shouted at them: “Go outside the village; don’t do this here. I am asking you on behalf of the mothers and children to leave.”
The neutrality pledges seemed to have dubious value. Mayor Abu Oshayev told us he was blindfolded and put in a flooded basement with other Chechen prisoners even after he had safely transported a wounded Russian officer to a Russian detachment. It was the very unit with which the mayor had negotiated the pledges.
“They were pushing us with the guns. They pushed us to our knees. Someone said, ‘Shoot the bandits. All of them are bandits,’” Oshayev recalled. “Then they hit a person kneeling next to me. He fell down and shouted, ‘Help me. Don’t kill me!’”
Oshayev’s ordeal finally ended when a Russian officer heard his account of assisting the wounded officer and ordered him released. “I told him, ‘If you treat us like this, those helping you, how are you treating the civilians who you don’t know?’” Oshayev said.
For the next few months, such stories were commonplace. It was tempting to dismiss them as the wages of war—there are excesses in all conflicts, everywhere. Yet this was something else—the Russians were not just trying to put down a rebellion. They were killing, attacking, and brutalizing anyone found on Chechen soil, including not only fighters for the resistance but also civilians and the elderly.
What crystallized events for me, however, was the arrival of the mothers. From across Russia, the mothers of young men conscripted by the Russian military to fight in Chechnya came to fetch their sons. I had seen similar scenes in Afghanistan during the late 1980s—Russian mothers, fathers, and wives arriving in search of husbands and sons captured by the mujahedin in the Soviet–Afghan war. But this was on Russian soil, not in a foreign land. This was their land. And the officers commanding their sons and husbands were on their side. Only, it didn’t always seem that they were. The angry mothers were responding to the scandal of green, ill-trained Russian soldiers being used as cannon fodder or otherwise abused and neglected by their own commanders. It wasn’t just the citizens of Chechnya who had been dehumanized by Russian indifference.
As with Chechen men who had gone missing, there was no telling where many of the Russian soldiers were. Many had been captured by the enemy. Some were prisoners at the Mozdok filtration camp—Matayev had observed a row of Russian deserters standing in a railcar, faces against a wall, being taunted by their Russian countrymen. “Do you want to be imprisoned with this group of Chechens, or that group of Chechens?” the guards shouted at the unhappy Russian conscripts.
There was one place to look for sure: The bodies of dozens of dead troops were kept in a freezer compartment in a morgue outside the war zone. But there was no systematic effort to identify the remains, and when we returned a year later, there were unclaimed corpses still stored there.
Carlotta Gall would go on to document the fighting, the brutality, and the blood thirst in her classic Chechnya: A Small Victorious War, which she wrote with our mutual friend Thomas de Waal. In the Second Chechen War, launched by Vladimir Putin as prime minister in 1999, the tough-minded Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya wrote similar accounts in articles and books. She herself would be seized in Chechnya by Russian troops and threatened with rape and execution before finally being released.
At first, Muscovites seemed to react with genuine anguish to the ugliness in Chechnya. This was attributable to the Russian media, which provided saturation coverage, including much dispassionate reportage. But even the shocking stories of Russian soldiers mistreated by their own military didn’t seem to move many people; the main thing was to pay the necessary bribes so that your son was not conscripted or sent to fight there. Only the poorest, dullest, or most rural Russian youths seemed to end up in Chechnya.
Time softens memories. The images that had caused me to view Russians as callous toward the lives of most others gradually slipped from my mind. But then came a series of reminders of the anguishing events I had seen in Chechnya.
In 2000, a Russian nuclear submarine called the Kursk sank in the icy waters of the Barents Sea. All 118 aboard perished while rescue efforts proceeded at a snail’s pace and Moscow spent most of its energy trying to blame the West for the slow response.
In 2002, Chechen militants stormed a Moscow theater, taking several hundred spectators hostage. Russian special forces pumped an opiate gas into the building, rushed it, and shot the terrorists dead. Only, they forgot to make preparations for rescuing the hostages, and 129 of them succumbed—untreated—in their seats, on the sidewalk outside, in buses on the way to hospitals, and elsewhere.
In 2004, Chechen terrorists took some 1,200 children, parents, and teachers hostage in an elementary school in Beslan, a town in the southern Russian region of North Ossetia. Bedlam erupted on the third day of the standoff; shooting and explosions killed some 330 children and adults as hostages and terrorists fled the building.
In the fall of 2006, two outspoken critics of Vladimir Putin, by then Russia’s president, were murdered. Anna Politkovskaya was shot execution style and Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer, died of poisoning by a nuclear toxin.
I had been under no illusions about Putin. His bare-knuckle approach to governing Russia had been apparent for some time. But now it was hard to avoid the conclusion that something more ominous was happening. What I was seeing in Russia went beyond the question of leadership style. Putin had set about restoring the legacy of brute Russia.
It was not that his fingerprints were on every untoward event. They didn’t have to be. Rather, it was the complicity of his inaction. A high-profile murder can go unsolved anywhere. A hostage situation can go awry even when police are highly skilled. But after the third, fourth, or fifth such outrage, it becomes clear that something fundamental is amiss. At the very least, in Putin’s Russia the state cannot be counted on to protect the lives of its citizens. At worst, hired killers and those who employ them have reason to believe that they can carry out executions without fear of the law.
There has always been a certain amount of disorder in Russia. That is why many Russians are willing—even eager—to support a ruler with Putin’s instincts. But I find it troubling that he has been unusually selective in exercising his power on behalf of the law. He seems disinterested in stopping or bringing to justice those who settle accounts with violence or worse. For example, the world has yet to hear him declare, “I will not tolerate, and indeed I will prosecute ruthlessly, anyone who orders or carries out a murder. Neither will I tolerate the death of hostages.” If he had exerted such authority and issued such dictums, Russia might not have experienced the botched aftermath of the theater seizure or the retaliatory killings of Anna Politkovskaya and others.
Without question, he is willing and able to crush those who offend him. Consider this hallmark of the Putin era: his unyielding pursuit and prosecution of a select group of Russian oligarchs. The most notable target was oil kingpin Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s richest man, who was arrested in 2003 by masked federal agents aboard his private plane on the tarmac of Siberia’s Novosibirsk Airport. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, and his oil company, Yukos, was systematically dismantled and taken over by two state-controlled companies, Gazprom and Rosneft. (In 2008, when under ordinary circumstances Khodorkovsky might have been released on parole, Putin’s prosecutors pursued a slew of fresh charges and his imprisonment for two dozen more years.) Khodorkovsky’s crime? He had ventured into politics, financing Putin’s opponents and presuming to form an influential—perhaps dominant—bloc within parliament. That stepped over the line; politics is the state’s purview, specifically the Kremlin’s. The importance Putin placed on the case was evident. Dozens of prosecutors, auditors, and tax inspectors collectively spent thousands of hours making Russia safe from Khodorkovsky. There is no leniency for perceived political transgressors; Putin is hypersensitive in this regard.
Kukly, a weekly Russian TV show that employed puppets to represent the country’s leaders, is another example. The Putin doll was a wickedly funny dwarf. Putin objected to the skits performed by his likeness, and the producers were warned that the president was off limits, I was told by Grigory Lubomirov, one of the show’s creators. That didn’t disturb the Kukly team, which was accustomed to such reactions. In Yeltsin’s time, for instance, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin at first strenuously objected to his portrayal. But he relented under the pressure of friends and critics who advised him to acquire a sense of humor, and ended up appearing in a photograph grinning next to his puppet character. Putin was not so gracious. Two years after he became president, the show was canceled.
Khodorkovsky and Kukly were hounded out of the public sphere.
I don’t mean to suggest that other countries occupy a higher moral plane than Russia. The post-9/11 world has upset many people’s presumptions—including my own—that the West in general and the United States in particular can lay claim to generally noble status. We’ve discovered that an American president can treat foreign allies with swaggering bluster while conducting a war of opportunity and employing torture as a policy—with the support of a majority of Americans. In fact, a comparison of contemporary events in Russia, the West, and elsewhere in the world suggests that distinctions between countries and cultures have become barely discernible.
Except that they haven’t. Notwithstanding America’s slippage during the Bush years, the United States, Europe, and large swaths of Asia are not places where journalists are freely assassinated, defecting spies poisoned, or theatergoers gassed to death by their own police.
I deliberately use Japan, Canada, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, and the United States as a comparison group. These are the industrialized countries that were known as the G-7 until Yeltsin successfully argued that Russia was entitled to be a member of the club, and the G-7 became the G-8. In 2007, Putin threw an extravaganza in St. Petersburg as host of the organization’s annual gathering.
But if you are a citizen of Russia, you are more likely than a person in any other G-8 nation to die a premature death, and to do so in a bizarre or cruel way. When I say premature death, I’m not thinking disease, stillbirth, or an automobile accident—although Russians die at a far higher rate in all these categories than citizens of the other seven countries. I mean the kind of death experienced by Anna Politkovskaya or Alexander Litvinenko or the theater hostages—all deaths that were countenanced or at least tolerated by the Russian state.
This book is a chronicle of violence in modern-day Russia, a place that seems unwilling or unable to escape its horrific past. My goal was to tell the story of some of the most prominent victims, people who are remembered largely for what they endured, and how they died. I sought—through the eyes of their friends, family, and colleagues, in addition to the victims’ own writings and private and public utterances—to write a more complete portrait of their lives. Many survivors recounted their own ordeals. The shared testimony paints a disturbing picture of assassination and other brutality, and leaves the unmistakable impression that the Russian state under Putin is at least partly responsible.
ELENA BARANOVSKAYA, IRINA FADEEVA, AND ILYA LYSAK
Hostages in the 2002 terrorist takeover of a Moscow theater staging the musical Nord-Ost. From events before and after, the three were indelibly linked to Anna Politkovskaya.
Former Kremlin kingmaker largely responsible for Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 reelection, and for Vladimir Putin’s surprise elevation to power. He thought he would continue to manipulate events, but Putin rebelled and the two became blood enemies. Berezovsky is the financier of the London-based Putin opposition. His team included Alexander Litvinenko, the defector and former KGB officer.
The first-known victim of deliberate poisoning by a nuclear isotope. A KGB officer, Nikolai defected in 1954 while on an assassination mission; three years later, he survived the KGB’s attempt to assassinate him. He regarded the Litvinenko assassination as a replay of his own experience.
Editor of Forbes Russia and American-born scion of Russian aristocracy. Klebnikov’s best-known work was his highly critical biography of Berezovsky, whom he called “Godfather of the Kremlin.”
Former KGB officer, defector, critic of Putin, and member of Berezovsky’s London-based opposition political team.
Law professor, chairman of Gazprom, and Putin’s hand-picked successor as Russian president.
Having grown up as a member of the Soviet Union’s privileged nomenklatura, Anna eventually became perhaps Putin’s fiercest critic, and a literary celebrity abroad.
Anointed as president by an ailing Boris Yeltsin, who sought a successor who would protect his family from charges of corruption. Soaring oil prices under his rule transformed Russia from a broken country into an increasingly prosperous land with renewed global ambitions. But Putin also created an atmosphere of impunity for killers.
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.”
Al Breach, an executive at United Bank of Switzerland, put it this way: “Life isn’t straightforward here. It’s not significant enough.”
It seemed to me that five or six hundred years of Russian history provided ample reason for its people to become inured to suffering. But two Russian historians told me that my thinking was too simplistic. “I would advise you not to make too much of a continuum of history,” warned Alexei Miller, on a visit home from Budapest, where he was teaching at Central European University. Miller was especially contemptuous of anyone who would mention Putin and Russia’s iconic sixteenth-century czar, Ivan IV—known as Ivan the Terrible—in the same sentence. Alexander Kamenskii, an oft-quoted professor at Russian State University for the Humanities, felt much the same way. “People say that Russians are used to being slaves, are used to dictatorship, and that’s just the way it is. That’s a myth,” Kamenskii said. “Why should we think that people who lived under dictatorship liked it?”
Miller’s and Kamenskii’s admonitions made sense in the abstract—history is not science, and the past doesn’t necessarily dictate the present. But it was hard to understand why in this instance they didn’t see what seemed obvious: that Russians in a sense have chosen to live in the tradition of their medieval ancestors.
It isn’t that Russians favor dictatorship. But they have gone along with autocratic rule even when offered an alternative, as in the parliamentary and presidential elections over eight years that cemented Putin’s grip on power. And there does seem to be a straight line to the present from Ivan the Terrible and the Russian tradition of fear-based rule.
Russia’s first crowned czar and grandson of the creator of the Russian state, Ivan, who took power in 1547, had thinning hair, deep wrinkles on his forehead, and was physically impressive, with a rippling beard and a barrel chest. His more sympathetic biographers thought that he was initially a conscientious and even empathetic leader. Emulating Spain, England, and Portugal in the pursuit of empire, he captured parts of Siberia, fought against Poland for control of the Baltic Sea, and against the Tatars in the east. Ivan opened Russia to the West, welcoming trade with Europe and forming a particularly warm relationship with Elizabeth of England; Elizabeth had a soft spot for Ivan and on at least two occasions offered him asylum should he require it.
Yet, though Westerners were accustomed to savagery against one’s own kind, they were startled at what they witnessed in Ivan’s Russia. An English merchant named Jerome Horsey wrote of a prince named Boris Telupa who, accused of treason, had a stake “thrust into his fundament through his body, which came out at his neck, upon which he languished in horrible pain for fifteen hours.” Telupa’s mother was gang-raped, Horsey wrote, and Ivan “commanded his huntsmen to bring their hungry hounds to eat and devour her flesh and bones, dragged everywhere.” Anthony Jenkinson, England’s envoy to Russia, described the punishment of an unfortunate aristocrat, as Ivan’s men “cut off his nose, his tongue, his ears and his lips.” Ivan had a particular fascination with potions. Convinced that one Prince Vladimir was out to destroy him, he handed a goblet of poisoned wine to the unfortunate man, who died in great agony. His wife and nine-year-old daughter similarly perished after being given the same concoction. When some of Vladimir’s retinue refused to beg for mercy, they were stripped naked, shot, and left for birds and wild animals to eat.
That was how Russians grew up in the sixteenth century. Ivan was out to destroy Russia’s power structure—shared by the Church, wealthy and politically powerful landowners called boyars, and individual princely rivals to the throne—and become its sole, almighty ruler. His enforcers were an ultra-loyalist six-thousand-man band of thugs whom he called the oprichniki. They roamed the countryside on horseback in black robes, a dog’s head and broom etched into their saddles, massacring thousands, including much of the population of the ancient city of Novgorod. To retain their loyalty, Ivan granted them control of the richest part of the country, along with Russia’s principal trade routes.
The consequence of Ivan’s violence was a terrorized, terrified, and cowed population. In a letter to England’s Queen Elizabeth, King Sigismund Augustus II of Poland asked in wonder why Russians, while no doubt fearful of their czar’s savagery, also seemed to defend him as a mark of patriotism.
The most-admired historical figure in Russia is Peter the Great, who two centuries later presided over the torture and execution of hundreds of actual and alleged traitors, including his own son, Alexei. He doled out such punishment “to make an example, to terrify, to force submission,” wrote biographer Robert Massie, but with the ultimate aim of gaining “the power to work his reforms and—for better or worse—to revolutionize Russian society.” He fretted that the pain and death he inflicted might cause his Western friends to think less of him, and ordered that a lengthy letter be delivered to Europe’s heads of state imploring them to ignore reports of his brutality against his son. At the end of the self-serving missive, composed the day after Alexei’s death, Peter advised his European counterparts, “In case also that anyone wished to publish this event in an odious manner, you will have in hand what is necessary to destroy and solidly refute any unjust and unfounded tales.”
The czars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were also to be feared, as exemplified by the organized attacks on Jews that they carried out. But some were victims of assassination themselves. Among those suffering that fate were Czar Alexander II, who was killed by a bomb in 1881, and of course Nicholas II, who was shot dead along with the entire Romanov family in 1918.
Soviet rule brought a new wave of official violence. Josef Stalin executed nearly all of his senior-most comrades from revolutionary days, almost his entire upper echelon of military officers, and millions of others when one included deaths in labor camps and from forced collectivization. Stalin was Ivan’s natural heir, and said as much himself. During the darkest days of Hitler’s invasion, Stalin could be found scribbling the words “teacher, teacher” on the pages of a biography of Ivan. He “constantly compared his terror to Ivan’s massacre of the boyars”—the landed aristocracy—according to a biographer of the twentieth-century dictator. Stalin thought that Ivan’s only fault was that, in slaying the boyars, “he should have killed them all, to create a strong state.”
One of the most credible and revealing accounts of Stalin’s time is Special Tasks, the memoir of Pavel Sudoplatov, who directed overseas assassinations for the dictator. Contemplating his own and others’ acts during the Soviet era, Sudoplatov wrote that “victorious Russian rulers always combined the qualities of criminals and statesmen.” Indeed, his book is a dispassionate catalogue of official poisonings, stabbings, and other plots, including the killing of his first victim, Yevhen Konovalets, a Ukrainian nationalist whom he cultivated for five years before blowing him up in Germany with a booby-trapped box of chocolates. Sudoplatov played a leading role in one of the most infamous political assassinations of the twentieth century, that of Leon Trotsky. The revolutionary leader had fled to Mexico after earning the enmity of Stalin, who ordered Sudoplatov to make his slaying a priority. So in 1940, Ramon Mercader del Rio, a Spanish national working for a Sudoplatov deputy, dispatched him with a pickax to the head.
Musa Eitingon Malinovskaya is the daughter of Mercader’s supervising agent, the legendary Soviet master spy Leonid Eitingon. Dressed in a silk scarf and a denim blouse for coffee at an upscale Moscow café, the sixty-year-old Malinovskaya told me how, as a teenager in the 1960s, she shared ice cream with Mercader and her father. She had no idea who he was, nor of her father’s role in the Trotsky assassination, but the two men had an evidently warm relationship. “My father introduced him to me as ‘my friend from the Spanish resistance,’” Malinovskaya said. “…I heard about him killing Trotsky only in 1989 when I read about it in Literaturnaya Gazeta.” Malinovskaya was clearly proud of her mother, Musa, for whom she was named. She showed me a 2005 advertisement featuring a 1935 photo of her mother as a gorgeous twenty-two-year-old Army parachutist. But she was singularly devoted to her father and eager to talk about his association with Trotsky’s slayer. One got the impression that it was the most important thing she could say about herself. The murder perhaps helped to break the ice at cocktail parties.
In 1954, a Sudoplatov protégé named Nikolai Khokhlov became the first Soviet defector to publicly divulge firsthand knowledge of the Kremlin’s assassination program. He became a valuable source of intelligence for the CIA and survived an attempt by Russian agents to assassinate him using radioactive poisoning. The West usually prosecutes its traitors but, as Khokhlov was witness, the Soviets regarded them as fair game for murder.
Another defector, Bulgarian novelist and playwright Georgy Markov, died in a most exotic way. He was working as a London-based journalist for the BBC when Moscow and its Bulgarian allies joined forces to kill him. In 1978, an assassin jabbed a tiny ricin-laced pellet into Markov’s thigh as he waited at a bus stop near Waterloo Bridge. Although the murder weapon wasn’t found, an excited British press reported that the pellet was fired from an umbrella, and that idea stuck with historians.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia became a fledgling democracy in 1991. It should have been an opportunity for the nation to demonstrate that murder and mayhem were not embedded in the Russian DNA, that the notion of a centuries-long continuum of violence was fatally flawed. The czars and the dictators were gone; tyranny no longer ruled the land. But its people quickly learned that democracy Russian style could be ruthlessly bloody. A historic tradition seemed to be reasserting itself. The chosen style of rule—tyranny or democracy or something in between—seemed to matter little.
There were, of course, differences between the old and the new. Ivan, Peter, and Stalin alike reserved the right to decide who would live and who would die. Ivan and Peter tortured their unlucky victims to death, and Stalin had them shot in the back of the head or sent to prison camps to be starved and worked to death. This was state murder. But none of these three strongmen permitted murder in the streets. On the contrary, they were very nearly pathological about order and concealing Russia’s dark side from the rest of the world.
Under the rule of Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, the old order was turned upside down. There was little if any state-sponsored murder. But contract killers brazenly murdered prominent bankers, metal traders, oilmen, and hundreds of others for violating unspoken “rules of the game.” Kidnappers chopped off the fingers and heads of their victims, sometimes before even requesting a ransom. Russia’s richest billionaires, known collectively as the oligarchs, left a trail of dead bodies—by coincidence or otherwise—as they accumulated unimagined wealth; these victims were often business rivals. The state solved few cases, and in that way seemed an accomplice to some of them.
But if Yeltsin, the nation’s first popularly elected president, appeared to tolerate the bloodbath, it wasn’t his creation. Rather, it filled the vacuum created when the once-feared KGB and other law enforcement agencies seemed to vanish in the unraveling of the Soviet Union. Grievances that previously would have been forgotten or settled through legal or other peaceable means suddenly poured into the streets. Bitter scores were settled in shootings carried out directly by, or ordered by, swindled business partners, gangs denied a piece of the action, and so on. The murders and murderers were cold-blooded and had unmistakable attitude. Bankers were among the most frequent victims because of their access to money; scores of them were killed in shootings, bombings, and at least one poisoning during the 1990s.
Lesser citizens also could be caught in the cross fire. In summer 1993, three gunmen murdered a café manager and then, at a kiosk where they found service unsatisfactory, shot a saleswoman and a customer dead. In April 1995, two gunmen killed a Russian stockbroker’s six-year-old daughter, who was on the way to kindergarten. And in November 1996, a bomb buried in a Moscow cemetery killed some dozen mourners. Organized crime became Big Business. Experts said that more than four-fifths of Russia’s banks were controlled by gangs, whose tentacles spread west to Israel, Europe, and the United States. These Russian gangs poured into Germany, for example, bringing with them the most grisly crimes the country had experienced in decades. In a 1994 case, German police came upon the bodies of a bordello owner, his wife, and four prostitutes, all of them apparently killed by a Russian gang. Police agencies such as the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation said they had never faced a challenge so difficult, a shadowy underworld that had come to be known as the “Russian mafia.”
As the 1990s drew to a close, Yeltsin retired from the presidency. He was succeeded by a former KGB spy catapulted into office by powerful men confident that they could manipulate him—but who would turn out to be wilier than any of them. Once again, Russia would be ruled by a strongman.
BORIS YELTSIN WAS AN OBSCURE COMMUNIST PARTY FUNCTIONARY in the tough, mafia-ridden industrial region of Sverdlovsk when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 summoned him to Moscow. There, Yeltsin became Gorbachev’s political protégé and demonstrated an energy seldom seen among Soviet leaders. His mentor rewarded him with promotions, enabling Yeltsin to rise rapidly through the ranks of party leadership. But the two began to butt heads when Yeltsin pushed the president to enact political reform faster than Gorbachev was willing. Yeltsin quit the Communist Party and soon became a political force in his own right. He captured the imagination of many Soviets with such populist gestures as rushing into a Moscow shop and demanding that their goods be stocked on open shelves, not pilfered by the proprietors. Everything about him seemed larger than life, including his distinctive shock of white hair.
Yeltsin showed he was willing even to put his life on the line, famously standing atop a tank in August 1991 to rebuff an attempted coup against Gorbachev by Communist hard-liners. Although he was no longer a supporter of the president, he would not allow a return to the worst traditions of Soviet rule, Yeltsin declared. Four months later, Gorbachev resigned from the presidency and the Soviet Union collapsed.
Now Yeltsin was president of independent Russia. He set out to improve the lives of Russian people by appointing a team of economic specialists led by a brilliant mathematician named Yegor Gaidar. The team’s assignment was simple: to provide Russians the economic lift from democracy that had been promised but not delivered during the last five years of Gorbachev’s rule. Gaidar’s strategy, dubbed “shock therapy,” was driven not only by economics but also politics. It was designed to wrest control of the nation’s means of production from Soviet-era bosses in order to create a middle class of stakeholders that would become the foundation of a new, freer Russia. And so the Yeltsin government ended state ownership of Russia’s biggest moneymaking enterprises, including nickel, oil, aluminum, and media companies. These giant industries were sold off, at a relative pittance, to a half-dozen well-connected Russian businessmen—“the oligarchs.” But the Russian economy ended up being the loser. Like the Communist bosses before them, the oligarchs mainly used their freshly won enterprises as a means to generate cash for themselves. Workers often went without pay, and the promised modernization of old and inefficient Soviet-era factories never happened.
In 1998, conditions worsened. The world price of oil, a critical source of revenue for Russia, plummeted below $10 a barrel. Already, an economic contagion had spread from Asia to Russia; for the second time in five years, the Kremlin impoverished ordinary Russians by devaluing the ruble and making their hard-earned savings nearly worthless.
Yeltsin took a pummeling. His popularity rating wallowed in the single digits. Despite his well-known personal frailties, such as alcohol-binging and depression, he had always been perceived as a giant of a man. Now he seemed physically and politically weak. John Lloyd of the Financial Times, perhaps the most able foreign correspondent in Russia at the time, wrote that Yeltsin had become a virtual tool of the oligarchs, “a mixture between an invalid and a puppet, his strings jerked by masters behind his throne.”
The story of Vladimir Putin’s ascent in the ruling circles of Russian government begins with the five heart attacks that Yeltsin suffered during his presidency. Yeltsin was routinely incapacitated for months. His staff ran the country, and it became plain to them in 1999 that the succession process—selecting who would follow Yeltsin, whose term was ending the next year—had to be accelerated. They had two aims: to preserve the political gains that their leader had achieved, and to ensure that the Yeltsin family would not be prosecuted once he vacated the ramparts of the Kremlin. In recent months, allegations had surfaced in Switzerland of Yeltsin and his daughters running up tens of thousands of dollars on credit cards provided by a Swiss man who had received millions of dollars in Russian government contracts. There was also the Russian tradition of political leaders persecuting their predecessors for retribution and political gain. The Yeltsins wished at all costs to avoid such an unfortunate retirement.
There is much conjecture about what happened next, chiefly that the FSB, the main successor to the KGB, decided to seize power. I looked to a longtime Kremlin insider for guidance, and he agreed to fill me in, but only anonymously so as to retain his access. I’ll call him Viktor. As he recalled, at that time Yeltsin named yet another new prime minister, his fourth in fourteen months. The rapid turnover resulted from Yeltsin’s opponents forcing on him candidates whom he did not favor, and Yeltsin in turn finding ways to install successors who were more to his liking. This time the lucky man was Sergei Stepashin, a former Interior Ministry officer from St. Petersburg. Although it was not made explicit, Yeltsin’s camp intended only to give Stepashin a tryout for the presidency, Viktor said. Stepashin almost immediately proved not up to the task. He lacked backbone, Viktor said. He wouldn’t take a stand. And that could only earn disrespect in a place where long knives were the norm. Yeltsin’s handlers and family were dismayed and looked about for a replacement.
Meanwhile, Putin had made his unobtrusive way onto the Kremlin’s radar screen as head of the FSB. By comparison with Yeltsin, he was wholly lacking in political charisma or presence, but he did have demonstrated decisiveness. In June 1999, Yeltsin announced to a visiting dignitary that in ten days he would appoint Putin as his new prime minister. Furthermore, he told his startled guest, he would soon name this up-to-now obscure functionary the next president of Russia.
Vladimir Putin was the archetypal man from nowhere—as in, how did this fellow get so far? He undoubtedly benefited from a convergence of probably unrepeatable circumstances. He had quietly gained recognition within the Kremlin, where the leadership was desperate for a competent successor to the erratic Yeltsin. The chief outside candidate seemed to be one of Yeltsin’s former prime ministers, Yevgeny Primakov. But he was an ally of political forces whom Yeltsin and his allies had alienated and hoped to keep at bay.
The most telling factor appeared to be that Putin was slavishly loyal. In the early 1990s, he had attracted attention in Yeltsin’s circles as the dutiful deputy to St. Petersburg’s mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, for whom he served after returning from KGB duty in East Germany. When Sobchak slipped into political decline and suddenly faced corruption charges, Putin worked to exonerate him, while arranging his secret flight out of the country.
This act of devotion was impressive. But then he outdid himself in the eyes of Yeltsin and the president’s advisers by helping to destroy the career of an official who had made a serious nuisance of himself with the Kremlin. Yuri Skuratov, a zealous prosecutor, had seemed bent on bringing criminal charges against the Yeltsin family. But at the height of Skuratov’s high-profile investigation, a video of him carousing in the nude with prostitutes suddenly appeared on Russian television. To head off claims that the video was a fake, Putin took pains to publicly state that it was authentic. The Kremlin was nearly teary-eyed with gratitude.
Putin gained a reputation as a bureaucrat who would shield his bosses and their families from prosecution and possible prison terms. What made his record all the more meaningful to the powerful men who observed him was that he didn’t appear to be self-serving; Putin had nothing to gain, for example, from aiding Sobchak, who was already out of power. Rather, Putin seemed to feel obligated by an almost quaint sense of honor and duty. As a former KGB boss, Oleg Kalugin, put it, he was “a man of Prussian-style obedience.” That quality, so rare in Russia, combined with a willingness to work hard and avoid the spotlight, swept him into the most powerful post in the country.
I don’t mean to discount his strong attachment to the state intelligence agencies. This outwardly emotionless man seemed to be moved almost solely by his feelings for the spy services and Mother Russia, both of which he believed had been scandalously maltreated by Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Yet Putin himself had a mediocre career in intelligence. To be a reasonably successful spy, one should land an assignment in the capital of an important enemy state, such as Washington or London, or in a zone of significant East–West conflict, such as the Middle East. By comparison, the apex of Putin’s career was a six-year posting to East Germany, a Soviet satellite with few secrets to learn and few foreigners worth converting to the Communist cause. Putin was not even assigned to Berlin, the capital, but instead to the singularly unremarkable outpost of Dresden. Upon returning home in 1990, he was not sent to the Soviet capital of Moscow—the center of intelligence work—but instead to St. Petersburg. In a collection of interviews conducted with him in 2000, called First Person, he claimed somewhat unconvincingly that St. Petersburg was his choice because he knew that the Soviet Union was teetering toward collapse. Whatever the case, his active intelligence career was over. He was thirty-eight.
Putin was elevated to the top job in the FSB eight years later—in summer 1998—but not because of his intelligence skills. The Yeltsin camp effectively installed him there. Putin was seen as someone who could be relied upon to defend the first family and those around the president. Any notion that the FSB on its own would choose an arguably failed spy to be the intelligence agency’s champion seemed questionable to me. Indeed, Putin’s first act upon assuming the presidency of Russia, on December 31, 1999, seemed to validate the thinking of Yeltsin’s advisers. He signed a proclamation barring any prosecution of the outgoing president.
The state’s intelligence operatives nevertheless are extremely influential. It is disturbing, for example, to witness Putin’s benevolent attitude toward the remnants of the once all-powerful KGB. When the Soviet Union collapsed, thousands of siloviki, members of Russia’s military and security agencies, had gone from being the cream of Soviet society to the dregs of the Yeltsin era. Their complaints about their fate and their mourning for Russia’s past were largely ignored until Putin came along, tapped into their fury, and began methodically reappointing them to influential posts. By the end of 2006, they were in full control of both Russia’s political and corporate worlds, according to Olga Kryshtanovskaya, the scholar and leading expert on Russian elites. She examined the top one thousand officials in the Kremlin, parliament, the ministries, and business, and found that 78 percent had some link to the siloviki. This is not surprising when one considers the extent to which Putin and the siloviki—and a significant portion of ordinary Russians, for that matter—were troubled by the same questions: What had happened to this nation that in the not-so-distant past had struck fear into the hearts of the West? How had its once-venerated army fallen into such shameful disrepair?
But the evidence shows that Putin summoned the siloviki to help him right the ship, to restore the Russia that he and they remembered. I could find no reason to believe that there was any more to it than that. The theory that Putin’s ascendance was masterminded in FSB headquarters seemed vastly exaggerated.
As Putin assumed power over Russia, a kind of social contract was struck between the mafias and the state. The terms were unwritten but understood. The mafias did not disappear. But they were regularized and made to observe new rules of conduct—for starters, the wanton street shoot-outs that were a fixture of the Yeltsin era would no longer be tolerated. Among the chief beneficiaries of this contract were the hundreds of current and former agents of the FSB who had become part of Russia’s dark underbelly in the Yeltsin years, acting as muscle and brains for the mafias and gangs throughout Europe. Now they became the visible superstructure of Putin’s regime. Overnight, they were part of the new order, working in high-level security firms, assigned to jobs at every level in ministries, the Kremlin, and state-owned companies.
The Yeltsin period had been so rapacious that even some of the oligarchs recognized it as such. The most perceptive among them quickly understood that Putin would attempt to unwind their power. There is a belief that he offered the oligarchs a deal in the last half of 2000: Cease your political activity and most likely keep your fortunes. In fact, it appears that some of the oligarchs themselves sought this deal, to head off a Putin attack on all of them. One oligarch, Mikhail Fridman, told Lloyd, the Financial Times writer, that he and the other billionaires deserved Putin’s wrath. In an interview at the time, Fridman said they asked only that past wrongs be forgotten. “I think the best plan would be if Putin were to declare an amnesty on everything that happened in the past,” Fridman said.
Russia’s increasingly hostile stance toward the West under Putin also has a more nuanced history. The prevailing wisdom is that he was emboldened to challenge the West when soaring oil revenues suddenly made Russia a wealthy nation to be reckoned with. It is true that Russia and the West enjoyed a relatively warm relationship from the Gorbachev years through the middle to late 1990s. But antagonism actually began to surface during Boris Yeltsin’s latter years as president. It seemed to start as a pragmatic political response to a resurgence of Russian nationalism; Yeltsin’s government decided that it could strengthen its domestic support by adopting a harder-edged foreign policy. That turned to seriously belligerent talk in the lead-up to NATO’s 1999 decision to bomb Serbia in order to halt Belgrade’s advance on Kosovo. Yeltsin warned that the NATO strike could lead to military action by Russia and a possible world war. When he first took power, Putin sought to moderate Russia’s rhetoric, but that would soon change.
Domestic Russian politics and a series of terrorist attacks that shook the country in the latter half of 1999 were instrumental in creating the Putin we know today. Explosives shattered high-rise apartment buildings in the region of Dagestan, the city of Volgodonsk, and two districts of Moscow itself—a total of four bombings that killed more than three hundred and wounded scores more.
The Yeltsin presidency was in its waning months; Putin, who had just been appointed prime minister, went on the air to angrily declare that he would not negotiate with those responsible for the apartment blasts, who he said were undoubtedly Chechens. In fact, he would not negotiate with terrorists under any circumstance—a seeming swipe at concessions made by Yeltsin to end the First Chechen War of 1994–96. Whereupon Putin launched the Second Chechen War, in which tens of thousands of Chechens and Russians would be killed during the worst years of the fighting.
These events in latter 1999—the apartment blasts and Putin’s retaliatory assault on breakaway Chechnya—“transformed the Russian political landscape,” wrote Paul Klebnikov, a Forbes magazine reporter. “Prime Minister Putin declared the nation besieged. Paranoia swept Russia’s cities….” The fearful populace craved a strong leader and six months later elected Putin president with 52.6 percent of the vote. The results were a stunning turnaround from his popularity rating of a mere 2 percent when, as a stranger to the population at large, he was first appointed prime minister.
While most of the country was galvanizing around Putin, some were troubled by an explosion that didn’t happen. On September 22, 1999, six days after the fourth blast, in Volgodonsk, nervous residents of an apartment building in the city of Ryazan became suspicious of strangers seen on the premises and called police, who found a bomb identical to the others and deactivated it.
Dogged local police work and reporting by Russian journalists turned up evidence that pointed away from Chechen involvement. One of the most tantalizing discoveries was a telephone call to FSB headquarters in Ryazan—tracked by a switchboard operator—that suggested contact between the security agency and someone involved in planting the bomb. Very quickly, the official story—that a terrorist attack had been thwarted—changed. Moscow now declared that the bomb was a dummy, placed in the apartment house as a civil defense exercise to test public vigilance. Local police, though, said it contained the working parts of a bomb, and tests indicated the presence of explosives.
In what became known as the Ryazan Incident, local and foreign reporters and opposition parliamentarians speculated that if the FSB itself wasn’t responsible for planting the bomb, then rogue agents or officers might have been. It wasn’t much of a leap to then suggest that similar elements in the FSB could have been behind the other apartment bombings.
It was a sensational scenario—that the deadly attacks had been staged by the FSB, acting on behalf of unidentified people with unknown motivations at senior levels of the government. Andrew Jack of the Financial Times bureau in Moscow took a skeptical view. He thought a likelier culprit was an affiliate of al-Qaeda in the neighboring region of Dagestan. But one of Jack’s predecessors, David Satter, was a chief proponent of the FSB theory. In Darkness at Dawn, Satter delivered a riveting analysis of the event in Ryazan, bolstered by witness testimony. Satter was convinced that “Ryazan was planned by the same people who perpetrated the earlier bombings.” He characterized the bombers as “those who needed another war capable of propelling Putin into the presidency in order to save their corruptly acquired wealth. These could only have been the leaders of the Yeltsin regime itself,” meaning the FSB.
Some who continued to question whether the government had played a role in the bombings were killed or imprisoned over the next several years. Opposition lawmaker Vladimir Golovlyov was shot dead while walking his dog. Gunshots killed Sergei Yushenkov, a leading liberal parliamentarian, near his home. Yuri Shchekochikhin, a Duma deputy and reporter for the opposition Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, died after a sixteen-day illness resembling poisoning. Lawyer Mikhail Trepashkin was jailed on a weapons charge just before he was to testify at a court hearing into the explosions. He maintained that the firearm in question had been planted, and upon his release a year later he renewed his accusations of government complicity in the explosions.
The mystery of the four apartment house explosions that preceded the Ryazan Incident attracted the attention of Russian billionaire oligarch Boris Berezovsky. He had played a crucial role in getting Putin elected president by lining up cash, political support, and, more important, unabashedly positive coverage on his television station, ORT. But the two had a falling-out soon after and the tycoon now lived in self-exile in the West.
One of his key advisers, Yuri Felshtinsky, believed that the FSB had been involved in the apartment blasts. He also suspected that Putin, who was chief of the agency up until a month before they happened, had taken part in the planning. Felshtinsky, a bearish Russian émigré, had spent years prowling Russian archives, specializing in cataloguing the diaries of Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky. He became bored with his historical pursuits, longed to move into contemporary political analysis, and signed on with Berezovsky.
In a meeting at his suburban Boston home, Felshtinsky explained to me that one day while riding in a limousine with his employer he took the opportunity to advance his theory about the explosions. He told Berezovsky that the motives were obvious: power and wealth. As the Yeltsin era drew to a close, the future control of Russia was up for grabs. If the men of the FSB had to kill three hundred people to create a climate of fear that would enable them to claim the spoils, well, they would kill three hundred people. It followed that the leader of the intelligence agency would be rewarded with the presidency because he had taken the greatest risk. That’s a mafia tradition—the person risking the most gets the most, Felshtinsky argued.
At first, Berezovsky was skeptical of Felshtinsky’s suspicions. But later, he began to reflect on the run-up to Putin’s election. As the struggle to succeed Yeltsin had begun to take shape, most observers viewed the taciturn prime minister as a relative unknown who stood little chance of political survival. Yet Putin had seemed highly confident, Berezovsky now recalled. In fact, the man had seemed to know something that he was keeping to himself.
“I am so stupid,” Berezovsky finally blurted out, according to Felshtinsky. “I am so stupid.”
Felshtinsky’s scenario was entirely believable, Berezovsky decided. Putin’s confidence that he would assume power could be explained by his knowledge of, or participation in, a plot that was unfolding within the FSB.
The oligarch now directed his attention to the particulars of the apartment house explosions. Who would know how such a terrorist plot might have been carried out and how to identify the likely culprits? Felshtinsky immediately thought of another Berezovsky adviser, a fellow named Alexander Litvinenko, who had served as an intelligence officer with some of the darkest units of the FSB. Litvinenko, already a pointed critic of the spy agency, was still living in Russia but would soon defect to the West.
At Berezovsky’s request, Felshtinsky flew to Moscow to test his theory with Litvinenko. They drove out together to the latter’s dacha outside Moscow, and strolled in the woods after leaving behind their cell phones—a standard precaution against possible electronic surveillance. Felshtinsky outlined his suspicions and posed the question: Was such a sequence of events possible?
Felshtinsky not only sounded reasonable, Litvinenko replied, but had hit upon a pattern.
“Find everything you can about Max Lazovsky,” Litvinenko suggested.
Lazovsky was a former KGB officer and reputed criminal leader. As Litvinenko and Felshtinsky would later describe in Blowing Up Russia, a book they would write together, Lazovsky had helped bomb a Moscow bridge, an act coinciding with Yeltsin’s 1996 reelection campaign, and was later arrested. In August 1999—a month before the apartment bombings—the Russian Supreme Court freed Lazovsky. Now he was dead—murdered eight months after the apartment explosions—and Litvinenko saw his fingerprints all over them. “If you understand Lazovsky, how he operated, how his organization was built, you will understand everything,” Felshtinsky recalls Litvinenko saying.
It was hard to separate the Berezovsky team members from their inherent bias against Putin. These three intelligent people—Felshtinsky, Litvinenko, and Berezovsky—had looked at highly suspicious circumstances through a shared lens of anger, victimization, and vengefulness, and reached the most extreme possible conclusion: that Putin had conspired in the bombing of fellow citizens as part of a diabolical power grab by Russia’s intelligence services. The circumstantial evidence was certainly prejudicial against the FSB. Yet as far as I could see, it would be very difficult to validate the three men’s conclusions.
A contrarian attitude is healthy when it comes to conspiracies; though many are suggested, few turn out to be real. I myself learned that lesson on my first foreign posting, in the intrigue-filled Philippines, a place where there were no simple answers. The locals spun the most fantastic tales, into which it was easy to be drawn. The coup-prone counterintelligence officers of the Philippine Army were even more dangerous, skillfully persuading most of the foreign correspondents that President Corazon Aquino was destined to fall and that they—these handsome officers—would take her place. She didn’t fall, and those who succumbed to the disinformation were embarrassed. David Briscoe, my Manila boss at The Associated Press, possessed one of the wisest approaches to seemingly sinister events. “Sometimes the answer is right there on the surface,” Briscoe used to say of conspiracies, or the lack thereof.
So, what about the apartment blasts? Did the FSB and possibly Putin slaughter hundreds of Russians to achieve their aims? Putin himself called the Ryazan theory madness. “There are no people in the Russian secret services who would be capable of such a crime against their own people,” he said. “The very allegation is immoral.”
Yes, the possibility was intriguing, made so by the writings of Felshtinsky, ultra-smart Russian journalists such as Pavel Voloshin, who led the reporting on it at the time, and foreign correspondents such as David Satter. I was reluctant to dismiss them, even though my nonsense detector rejected their stated or implied judgments that a conspiracy was to blame. After all, the authorities had tried to sweep Ryazan under the carpet.
I reconsidered the competing theories—that it was al-Qaeda, Boris Berezovsky, Chechens, rogue FSB agents, or perhaps someone completely different. What if one group had blown up the first four buildings, but copycats had planted the Ryazan bomb? An FSB link of some sort seemed certain—former or current agents were basically caught in the act. But did that mean it was a plot approved at the top? Were they rogue operators hired to carry out a mission for al-Qaeda or the Chechens? Were other forces at work?
There did seem to have been a plot afoot to bomb the Ryazan building. But it did not seem possible for a journalist to solve the mystery of who organized it. As far as the allegation of a conspiracy at the top levels of government, the most that anyone could say with absolute certainty was that the Kremlin had been guilty of its customary indifference to the welfare of Russian citizens.
In the years to follow, Putin would preside over a revival of Russian prosperity at home and influence abroad, fueled by a great flood of wealth from the country’s tremendous store of oil and natural gas. Russia possessed 26 percent of the world’s natural gas—the largest reserves of any country—and the seventh-largest oil reserves, at 6.6 percent. Putin would trumpet the return of a Great Russia and tell his people to be proud of themselves and their past. He would glorify leaders and events regarded as odious by much of the outside world; Josef Stalin’s murderous 1930s purges, he would say, had been exaggerated by Russia’s enemies. (As prime minister, Putin had toasted Stalin on the dictator’s birthday. And he threw a lavish, nationally televised Kremlin party to honor Felix Dzerzhinsky, the brutal founder of Cheka, the early Bolshevik-era prototype of the KGB. It all smacked of a personal love affair. “This profession employs those who love our Motherland and who are selflessly devoted to their people,” Putin told a room of intelligence agents. “…Those who are ready to execute the most difficult and dangerous tasks at the first order work in the security services.”)
The Russian people would respond to Putin’s steady withdrawal of their individual liberties with obedience combined with defiant nationalism, a standard set four centuries earlier under Ivan IV. In the West, Ivan’s nickname, Grozny, was translated as “Terrible”—but to Russians, Ivan was “Fearsome” or “Awesome,” an image that Putin would successfully cultivate.
Putin maintained no torture or execution chambers. Yet his matter-of-fact responses to the domestic assassinations that occurred with some regularity invited the impression abroad that he was cold-blooded and at minimum a protector of murderers.
Consider the month of October 2006. A killer fired four shots into Anna Politkovskaya, killing the journalist in her apartment house. Three days later, gunmen killed banker Alexander Plokhin, the head of a Moscow branch of Vneshtorgbank. Days after that, the victim was Anatoly Voronin, business director of the ITAR-TASS news agency. Finally, a lone assailant used a Kalashnikov with a silencer to execute Dmitry Fotyanov, a mayoral candidate in the mining town of Dalnegorsk. None of the murders was solved.
Litvinenko was assassinated the following month in London. The United Kingdom concluded that a former Russian intelligence agent had done the killing, and sought his extradition from Russia. Putin could have acquitted himself and Russia as a whole by cooperating with Britain. Instead, he rejected the extradition request and looked on approvingly as the suspected assassin won election to the national parliament, thereby gaining immunity from prosecution within Russia while a wanted man in Europe. Opinion abroad hardened that Putin was, in one way or another, complicit in the murder. I could think of no similar behavior by the president of an industrialized country. Putin seemed to be deliberately putting himself in the same camp as the world’s most disreputable leaders.
It was altogether possible, of course, that Putin and his circle intended to convey precisely the menacing impression that foreigners had of them, sending a message that said, Don’t mess with Russia. But that seemed like overthinking. The greater likelihood was that Putin was simply being Putin.
EVEN THE MOST TOTALITARIAN GOVERNMENTS ARE PUBLIC RELATIONS conscious. Journalists can usually count on at least one reasonably informed—if not entirely believable—person to serve as the face of the country. Afghanistan’s brutal ruler Najibullah himself met routinely with reporters during the late 1980s and early 1990s; Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov delegated the task to an economic lieutenant; and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir had Islamic radical Hassan al-Turabi speak to me, in the days before Bashir threw him in prison.
In Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin there was no such person. Putin’s usual spokesman was Dmitri Peskov, baby-faced and charming. But I did not want to hear from a mere spin doctor. I wanted access to an actual player, a participant in events, so that I could better understand the Kremlin’s view of why certain things happened as they did. I got nowhere.
As one of Peskov’s assistants explained, Putin’s men saw no benefit at the moment in candid conversation with someone writing for an essentially Western audience. Whatever they said would be misperceived, and in any event why should they care what the West thought about them?
I raise my experience not out of pique at being rebuffed, but to note the larger truth it illustrated about Putin’s Russia. Now on top of the world, it owed no one an explanation. It was up to the West to accept that Russia was back. Unlike in the 1990s, when the nation was, economically speaking, on its knees, it was now self-sustaining, on the move, and didn’t need Western help nor the West’s understanding.
A sharp rise in oil prices was behind the Kremlin’s huge confidence. Crude oil sold for about $20 a barrel when Putin succeeded Yeltsin. It was pushing $100 a barrel when he announced in late 2007 that, since term limits barred him from reelection as president, he would assume the mantle of prime minister, thereby assuring his continued hold on power. Next to the country itself, Putin was the greatest beneficiary of Russia’s new oil riches; its people credited him personally for the resulting improvement in their standard of living. Never in history did such a large percentage of the Russian population have so much money to spend.
The impact of this wealth was especially evident on my trips to the capital in 2007. Moscow had become one of Europe’s most grand and fashionable cities. Each time I visited, the number of exclusive boutiques had multiplied along Tverskaya Street, all the way to Red Square and the Kremlin. This slice of Moscow now boasted one of the world’s largest concentrations of billionaires. The swelling middle class spent its salaries with seeming abandon at new shops and malls that encircled the city. Wealthy Russians bought up lavish villas, mansions, and chateaux along Montenegro’s Adriatic coast, in southern France, and in central London.
Russia’s new muscular profile earned it global deference. It ran neck and neck with Saudi Arabia in the contest to be the world’s largest oil producer, paid off its foreign debt, banked some $200 billion in a rainy-day fund, and began to invest in international stocks and bonds. For the first time, the country burst out of its borders not at the point of a gun, but through the strength of its purse.
Europe was an important energy customer; in 2008, Russia provided a third of the continent’s oil and natural gas, and indications were that the percentage was not going to drop. Foreign oil companies assiduously courted Russia, one of the few petro-states willing to entertain their proposals. But the price of admission became steep, and giants such as Britain’s BP could no longer negotiate the advantageous terms they had when Russia was far weaker. Oilmen from the West not only had to pay cash up front but also give Russian energy companies a share of their prized energy possessions elsewhere. Gazprom accumulated an impressive list of shareholdings in gas storage, marketing, and pipeline companies across Europe—in Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, and so on—and pressed hard for more. Investment banks, too, courted Moscow and earned tens of millions of dollars in fees by enabling a wave of Russian public offerings, mergers and acquisitions, and other financing deals.
Meanwhile, Putin’s exercise of power was applauded by much of the country. After moving aggressively against Chechnya, he took on some of the best-known titans who had amassed their wealth during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. In 2000, Putin forced two of Russia’s seemingly invincible oligarchs—Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky—into exile and turned their broadcast empires into pro-Kremlin propaganda vehicles. Putin’s campaign against Mikhail Khodorkovsky began in 2003; by the time it was over, Russia’s richest man had been sentenced to eight years in prison and his Yukos oil company had become the property of the state.
After eight years of paralysis under Yeltsin’s rule, Putin’s display of testosterone—dutifully reported on state-controlled television—sent his popularity rating over 70 percent. From the outside, Russia might have appeared to be under the thumb of a rogue regime. But at home, Putin was seen as demonstrating that Russia was governable. He had taken a perilous gamble, to be sure. His modus vivendi with criminal elements required that he tolerate their routine crimes and even murders in exchange for their fealty. To bind Russians together, he encouraged a campaign of sometimes frightening nationalism and xenophobia against non-Russians in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and elsewhere. Hate crimes soared. According to the SOVA Center, a Russian activist group, that kind of violence killed thirty-three people across Russia in the first three months of 2008, compared with seventy-two in all of the previous year. Racist attacks tripled in four years, SOVA reported. But that was the nation’s Faustian bargain—acquiescence to a much-compromised, all-powerful state in exchange for the freedom to emerge from their homes, sweep away the rubble from their streets, and send their children to school.
The fresh pride that Putin instilled in his people bore resemblance to the feel-good mood that Ronald Reagan inspired in many Americans with a famously successful political slogan. Vladimir Putin created what a clever Moscow ad man might have marketed as “It’s Morning Again in Russia.”
The more confident Putin became about Russia’s ascendancy, the more willing he seemed to rattle Europe occasionally and poke America in the eye with some frequency. He bluntly criticized the invasion of Iraq and complained about U.S. unilateralism. His assertiveness drew occasional scolding in America, which seemed to say, well, what can one expect of those impossible Russians?
But Putin’s increasingly disagreeable manner was not simply a Russian being difficult. It was at least in part a result of the West’s condescending attitude toward Russia when it was still deep in the throes of economic crisis. Russia’s sense that it had been humiliated when it could least defend itself helped set the stage for worsening relations as the years wore on.
Putin had begun his presidency ready to find a way to reconcile Russia’s profound differences with the West and develop friendly relations. As they did with Yeltsin, the policies of NATO would become an irritant for Putin. When the West, in the 1990s, began proceedings to absorb Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Baltic states into its military alliance, Russia objected. In nationalist circles, the NATO expansion was seen as a potential move to blackmail Moscow militarily should it mount any serious challenge to Western aims in the region. But Putin regarded the NATO dispute differently. He thought Washington simply didn’t understand the basis for Moscow’s opposition, according to Viktor, the Kremlin insider I consulted. If he was patient and made every effort to explain, Putin told his aides, “they’ll see we’re normal people, and we’ll have a different relationship,” Viktor recalled. So Putin sat for hours with major and minor Western visitors—a government minister, a vice minister, whoever was willing to hear his thoughts on Chechnya, NATO, and energy.
By the beginning of 2000, the NATO expansion was well under way. Putin met with President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, and floated a question: What would be the West’s attitude toward Russia applying to join NATO? Putin was serious, according to Viktor. He saw dual benefits to NATO membership: Russia could integrate more tightly with the West, and, more important from Moscow’s point of view, have an opportunity to “reform” the Cold War–era organization from within. Like the other nineteen NATO members, Moscow would wield a veto. Among other things, it could stop the alliance from repeating acts Russia opposed, such as the bombing of Serbia.
As Viktor recalled the strained moment, Berger suddenly found a fly on the window to be extremely intriguing. Albright looked straight ahead. Clinton glanced at his advisers and finally responded with a diplomatically phrased brush-off. It was something on the order of, If it were up to me, I would welcome that.
Not dissuaded, Putin’s entourage raised the idea again with visiting congressmen. But they reacted similarly, getting “this tricky expression on their faces and saying, ‘Ah, you want to destroy NATO from within,’” Viktor recalled.
The congressmen had a point, of course. If Russia had been a NATO member in 1999, for example, Serbia would have simply overrun Kosovo as it and its surrogates had previously done with Bosnia and Herzegovina. It made sense to exclude Russia from NATO, notwithstanding the organization’s absorption of other members of the former Soviet bloc, I thought. But Viktor had been offended at the American suggestion that Russia’s motives were disingenuous. So too, apparently, had Putin. My mind wandered to Shakespeare’s admonition about protesting too much. Only minutes earlier, Viktor had openly stated that Putin wanted to join NATO in part to “reform” it. But I presume there was something irritating about Russia not being given the benefit of the doubt and instead being accused of deception.
A truly serious outrage came after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Viktor said. Putin was among the first to reach President George W. Bush with condolences and an offer to provide any needed assistance. It wasn’t long before Bush requested that Russia acquiesce to the establishment of a U.S. military presence in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, from which an offensive would be mounted against the Taliban-ruled government in Afghanistan. The American president promised that the bases were temporary and only for the Afghan attack, said Viktor. He recalled Putin giving a positive response, saying, “We’ve got to help our friends.”
A year and a half later, the active phase of the Afghanistan campaign was concluded. The Kremlin asked when the United States intended to withdraw. Viktor paraphrased the American reply: “This is a zone of our strategic interests and we’re not leaving.”
Vyacheslav Nikonov, a dapper fifty-one-year-old historian and Kremlin insider, said America’s assertion that it intended to stay in Afghanistan pushed Putin beyond his threshold of patience. “I heard it from the Kremlin, ‘We’re fed up,’” Nikonov told me. Putin increasingly felt that Russia had made too many unrequited concessions since the Gorbachev years. “It’s, ‘You guys do what we Americans want or the relationship is terrible.’ This is what the relationship has been for the last fifteen years,” Nikonov said. “We did what the U.S. wanted, and it got us zero.”
And that was the end of Putin as sometimes-friendly interlocutor. If Washington and the rest of the West were going to treat Russia as a second-class country, well, Putin had his own message to deliver. He told off Washington, saying it had “overstepped its national borders in every way.” When the United States said, in 2007, that it would install anti-missile devices in Poland and the Czech Republic, Putin’s commander of missile forces threatened to re-aim Moscow’s nuclear rockets at the installations. Then Putin struck the West’s true soft underbelly: energy. He forced both Royal Dutch Shell and France’s Total to sell controlling shares in their Russian oil properties to state-run companies at low prices, and warned that a similar fate might await Britain’s BP and the biggest company of all, ExxonMobil.
The West called Putin belligerent. But his disparaging remark about the extent to which America had extended its presence seemed altogether reasonable to me—the United States clearly had overreached around the world. America’s reaction to Putin’s complaint showed once again that it could be just as thin-skinned as the Russians, tending to vilify any outspoken critic abroad.
Viktor found it telling that Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin—two wholly different people—started out and ended up at the same point in their attitudes toward the United States: hopeful at first, quite disenchanted and antagonistic in the end. What Viktor might have added was that their separate journeys reflected Russia’s historic problem since Ivan the Terrible: Much of the world felt uncomfortable with Russian ways and kept the country at arm’s length. Russia’s modern ruling elite recognized the dissonance, yet thought that over time other nations might become more accepting. Putin in particular thought that Moscow’s willingness to shelve its misgivings and bow to the West in certain situations would motivate the West to reciprocate in other instances. When the West largely failed to do so, he was hotly resentful.
The story line put forth by Viktor and Nikonov presupposed that Russia and Putin wouldn’t have adopted their chin-out attitude if the West had behaved differently. While it must be recognized that the West does not have entirely clean hands in all of this, I am not as confident as my two Russian informants. There is no way to dial back, but my own experience in the former Soviet Union is that Russia is predisposed to some amount of bullying self-importance. Russia and the West quite likely would have ended up in the same spot no matter how much more accommodating the West had been. The West likely would never accept certain Russian demands, and vice versa. For instance, it is difficult to imagine Russia willingly acceding to the West’s Balkan policy, specifically the independence of the region of Kosovo. Likewise, it’s improbable that Washington will abandon its determination to see NATO expand all the way to Russia’s borders. No matter how many diplomatic courtesies might have been exchanged during the post-Soviet years, these two issues would have remained incendiary in Russia and resulted in continuing antagonism.
Part of Putin’s in-your-face defiance may be the lawyer in him. In a 2007 interview with Time magazine, for example, its correspondents questioned him about corruption within the Kremlin. Putin figuratively coiled into a fighter’s stance—if Time was making such allegations, he assumed the magazine was certain that it had the facts right; if that was the case, his team was prepared to examine whatever Time published and take unspecified action should it find error. In other words, prove it.
The Time interview coincided with its selection of Putin as Person of the Year for 2007, an exceptional honor, although Putin seemed only grudgingly to recognize that. In a video excerpt of the interview, what I saw was the president of Russia in so many words putting up his middle finger. The writer, Adi Ignatius, in his account of how Putin behaved during their three and a half hours together, confirmed my impression. Putin was king of the world. Ignatius and his colleagues were supplicants. Here was one of the West’s most prestigious publications declaring him a man of global importance. So what? He would act as he wished. Though the interview and a dinner were obviously strained, Putin was more or less indulgent through much of it. But each time he sensed that his interrogators were using events or Russian history to patronize or bludgeon his country, he would have none of it. When his tolerance had reached its limit—before the main dinner course arrived—Putin called it a night and summarily dismissed the journalists.
In a famous remark, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Putin’s senior envoy to Europe, said, “Gentlemen, Russia has returned. It should be reckoned with.” That’s certainly how Put in felt, and his toughness was probably necessary to move Russia along the path toward renewed greatness. In the same way that Gorbachev opened Soviet society and made peace with the West, and Yeltsin stood down the Communist Party and forced it to yield, Putin brought a sense of order to the country and prepared it for prosperity. With chaos all around, the country’s economy in tatters, and the oligarchs dictating what they were going to make off with next, he said “Enough.” He pushed back, creating space for the state and reclaiming much of the property that arguably should never have been relinquished—certainly not at such bargain-basement prices—to profiteers who enriched themselves at the country’s expense. When oil prices went up, the system was poised to benefit and take off, and that’s what happened.
For some, the lesson was clear: Anyone who aimed to rule effectively in a rowdy neighborhood like Russia had to demonstrate muscle. It was a limited vision, to be sure. Where Gorbachev and Yeltsin suggested that the Russian people could be more than they had perhaps imagined, controlling their own lives in a democracy, Putin told the people through his actions that the state had first claim to greatness, ahead of individuals for the most part.
But many Russians were tired of high-minded ideas anyway. They wanted to be paid their long-overdue salaries and pensions, and to have some stability in their lives. Putin by and large delivered both, and began 2008 with enviable popularity, leaving the presidency after two consecutive terms with his 70 percent approval rating intact. His chosen successor, a former law professor named Dmitri Medvedev, campaigned in a rigged election and received 70 percent of the vote. As part of the bargain, he named Putin his prime minister, with the stated intention of maintaining the policies of the previous eight years. It was no surprise: Putin had chosen Medvedev with the presumption that he, Putin, would continue to exercise his power over matters of state, then manipulated the election to make it happen.
Vyacheslav Nikonov, the Kremlin adviser who helped me understand some of Putin’s disillusionment with the West, now explained the plan for the long-term future. Nikonov was a grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov—Stalin’s foreign minister and the namesake of the Molotov cocktail—and a former assistant chief of staff to Gorbachev. He also was a chief adviser to Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s domestic policy chief, and that interested me the most. The forty-three-year-old Surkov was the mastermind behind the making of what I call The Putin—the transformation of the president’s visage into a savior-of-Russia icon, gargantuan and granite-faced, gazing from billboards, television screens, and newspapers throughout Moscow.
Although neither of us used the term during our conversation, Nikonov was a firm believer in The Putin, both the idea and the man, and seemed to expect him to rule for some time to come. He thought he would run again for president. “Putin may be back in 2012 and 2016, then 2024 and 2028,” he said, naming the years of presidential elections, with a single break to satisfy Russia’s term limits.
In other words, Putin’s circle had settled in for a good two-or three-decade run. We journalists often joked about the creative ways that this or that dictator would devise to be president for life. I remember speculating that my five-year-old daughter, who has Kazakh grandparents, would be old enough to succeed the sixty-six-year-old president of Kazakhstan by the time he agreed to step down. Yet, faced with Nikonov’s on-the-record declaration of pretty much the same ambition, I was momentarily speechless. “This is not extremely visionary,” he assured me, “but pragmatic.”
What did this exceedingly articulate Russian, dressed in a blue blazer with gold buttons and Scottish knit tie, mean by “pragmatic”? In Nikonov’s own words, Putin had created a “rich, cynical, professional” group in their late thirties and early forties who “like their jobs. They are hand-managing the government. They’ll be there another thirty years.” Maybe that was pragmatism, Russian style. In any event, Nikonov was serious. And there was no reason to doubt that Putin felt the same way.
Putin has been unfairly criticized for playing a “double game,” the multilevel chess cherished by spies everywhere. In fact, his governing strategy was transparent from the outset. He surrounded himself with people whose discipline and loyalty he trusted—other intelligence agents, military officers, and lawyers and colleagues from his old St. Petersburg days. Writers called it “Russia Inc.” or “Kremlin Inc.” A more apt label might be the “Gazprom State,” since he rode Russia’s oil and natural gas riches to global influence for himself and Russia. As the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the age of the Soviet empire, Putin’s style signaled the emergence of a coolly pragmatic state (as Nikonov would put it) overseen largely by ultra-patriotic spies and former spies.
But critics warned of a downside to Putin’s approach. Boris Volodarsky, a former Russian military intelligence officer, told me of a messianic “KGB mentality” in which “everything is the state…. They will make a decision and carry it out, without limits.” By its very nature, Putin’s corps of intelligence agents will use whatever it deems necessary to achieve its goals, he said. Volodarsky was describing bespredel, anything goes.
In Soviet times, this single-mindedness among spies was suppressed by the Communist Party, according to Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB defector I met in the United Kingdom, where he lived in self-exile. He thought the dangerous thing about Putin was not that he was reverting to Soviet ways, but that he was failing to sufficiently reconstitute control over the spy services. As he put it, “The KGB without the Communist Party is a gang of gangsters.” It was a rich assertion—as if the Communist Party didn’t have its own gangster-like figures. Yet the central point remained valid—that the KGB’s successor, the FSB, now answered to no one.
Coincidentally, my contacts included another man who possessed intimate knowledge of the spy services in Soviet times. And so I headed to California for a visit with Nikolai Khokhlov, a former captain of the KGB, a defector to the West, and an intended victim of murder by radioactive poison. He knew something about bespredel.
DEATH IS ALWAYS A SAD EVENT, BUT ON THE DAY OF NIKOLAI Khokhlov’s funeral the mourning was tempered by a sense of triumph. In his lifetime, the old Russian spy had not only outlived the KGB agents who relentlessly pursued him, but had reinvented himself in America as a man of accomplishment.
A half century earlier, on a garden terrace in West Germany, a Soviet operative had slipped a nuclear isotope into his coffee. The deadly substance—a derivative of the heavy metal thallium—was intended to kill Nikolai, a KGB officer who had unforgivably gone over to the West. It turned his face into a mask of dark spots and brown stripes that oozed blood and a sticky secretion, and caused his hair to fall out in tufts. Below his neck, his “copper-colored skin was tattooed with blood swellings.” The attending physician said death was certain.
Instead, Nikolai survived. No one knew precisely why, except that perhaps his intended killers failed to dispense a sufficiently strong dose of the poison. Whatever the case, the KGB’s failed attempt on his life only burnished his already considerable celebrity as a Cold War refugee in America. He settled in the small California community of San Bernardino, where he taught college psychology classes for two decades. In retirement, he tended his fruit trees and maintained his scholarly interests.
“He had the last laugh,” observed his widow, Tatjana, as their four grandchildren scampered about and funeral guests mingled in a tree-filled backyard on the day of the September 2007 funeral.
Inside the house, photographs from a lifetime festooned walls, a piano, and a table—images of Nikolai’s daughters, his son, who died from kidney failure, the German-born Tatjana. But there were no images from the long-ago years when he was trained as an assassin for Stalin’s Kremlin, then defected to the West, and finally survived the first-known attempted murder by radioactive poison.
It would have been easy to dismiss Nikolai as a relic. But he seemed less a man past his time than a powerfully authoritative witness who could testify to the chilling practices of his native country’s spymasters. He was certain, for example, that successor agencies to the KGB had carried out the notorious 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, in London. Litvinenko, the former Russian intelligence officer who had defected six years earlier, was poisoned by another radioactive toxin, polonium-210. Nikolai and Litvinenko thus shared an unusual distinction: They were the only known victims of radioactive poisoning in the entire history of assassinations worldwide.
After months of telephone and e-mail exchanges, in June 2007 I went to San Bernardino to meet Nikolai, a man who was once a decorated agent of state-sponsored assassinations, in the service of the Soviet Union. In his old age, Nikolai had a cane always at his right hand, the blond hair of his youth now a silky mane of white, his accented voice soft with no hint of menace. We kept in regular contact until failing health took his life nine months later, at age eighty-five.
Nikolai was still a teenager when he enrolled in a Moscow school for vaudeville, hoping it would lead to an acting career. After six months of learning to be an “artistic whistler,” he was ready to join a traveling company. Then World War II intervened. Germany invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, and Nikolai was drafted for a role in a military film. Soon Hitler’s troops were massed at Moscow’s door, and an evacuation of the city was imminent. Soviet intelligence officers hit on a scheme to leave behind a vaudeville troupe that would become part of the resistance; Nikolai and three other young actors were recruited to make up the troupe.
In the end, the Germans were beaten back and the services of the would-be partisans were not needed. But Nikolai had impressed his superiors, especially Major General Pavel Sudoplatov of the NKVD, as the KGB was then known. The general, overseer of Leon Trotsky’s slaying in Mexico, was one of the Soviet Union’s most accomplished assassins. In short order, Nikolai signed on with Sudoplatov and joined a squad assigned to kill Franz von Papen, a Nazi appeaser who was Germany’s ambassador to Turkey. But Nikolai contracted typhoid fever en route and was not there when the attempted assassination went awry.
His next mission sent him behind enemy lines. He was only twenty-one years old, but was about to become a Soviet hero.
Nikolai’s target was Wilhelm Kube, the Nazi leader of German-held Belorussia. Secreted into the Belorussian capital, Minsk, by the Soviet underground in August 1943, Nikolai tracked down a housekeeper who serviced Kube’s quarters. He showed the woman how she could place a bomb with a delayed fuse beneath the Nazi’s bed, and argued that the killing would be an act of patriotism. The housekeeper finally agreed to do her part. Less than a week later, a courier awakened Nikolai with urgent news: “Kube is killed…. The bed and Kube blown to bits!” The housekeeper escaped with a partisan unit.
The Nazi’s assassination was one of Nikolai’s proudest moments, perhaps the proudest. In his memoirs, he wrote that it had been a chance to “kill a man whose name to millions symbolized fear and terror!” Stalin ordered medals for all who had participated in Kube’s demise, and Sudoplatov himself pinned Nikolai’s on the young spy’s lapel.
As I researched the episode, a small detail seemed to reveal a side of Nikolai that surprised me. In his memoirs, published in 1959, he wrote that he had brought the bomb to the housekeeper, showed her how to attach it to a bed frame, and left it with her. But a retired CIA agent referred me to a book by the late British writer Gordon Brook-Shepherd that cast doubt on that account. When I put the question directly to Nikolai, he indeed backed away from the version in his memoirs. He said he had instructed the housekeeper how to use the bomb, but that the actual explosive was provided to her by Nadya Trayan, a partisan who later became one of the Soviet Union’s most famous war heroes. Five decades had passed between the time he published his memoirs and I interviewed him. But I had trouble believing the discrepancy was the product of an old man’s fading memory; Nikolai seemed to have excellent recall of past events. The more likely explanation was that his memoirs omitted Nadya Trayan’s participation simply because it was a better story, at least from his perspective. The fact that he immediately owned up to the inaccuracy persuaded me that there was nothing malign about it.
The more time we spent together, the more Nikolai displayed those self-serving and self-absorbed aspects of his personality—but with an infectious charm. Probably his closest friend in San Bernardino was Nick Andonov, an émigré from Macedonia who practiced psychology. He said Nikolai could be quite demanding, calling at any hour to insist that Andonov come over for a long talk on some arcane subject the professor had been ruminating on. Nick would comply; he felt he had to—he wanted to—out of friendship.
To Andonov, Nikolai was an extremely sensitive, complex, and difficult figure who felt misunderstood by almost everyone. To that, I would add deeply emotional and sometimes self-pitying. When an effort to republish his memoirs failed, Nikolai retreated into an “it doesn’t matter” mode, sullen and withdrawn—why would I want them published anyway; no one wants to read about such archaic matters.
Nikolai also didn’t always own up to his embellishments. During our conversations, he would feign puzzlement if I asked a question that he found insulting, especially one that challenged the veracity of one of his stories. He would say, “I don’t understand the question.”
But in all these cases—when he withdrew at perceived slights by publishers or by me—he would get over the offense in a couple of days and return for more. He loved the attention.
His relationship with Tatjana was a bit of a mystery. The two of them had separated two decades before. (Nikolai blamed it on their age difference—she was nineteen years his junior. Also, she was too practical, while he was “metaphysical.”)
They did not attempt to hide their disagreements. He was rude and condescending toward her, extremely chauvinistic. When she attempted to speak, he simply talked over her or said, “May I have the floor?” and then took it. He especially reacted that way when the talk turned to politics (his were decidedly right wing). She could be equally dismissive, responding to one of his tirades with, “Right, Nikolai, umm-hmmm,” while rolling her eyes.
And yet they still had obvious affection for each other. After his physical condition worsened, they spoke almost every day. She screened calls for him, cooked for him, and let him entertain guests at her home. (His apartment was a disaster, he explained.) How many estranged wives would do all that for their husbands?
Most often, Nikolai was extremely polite and possessed of a self-effacing sense of humor. He had a coughing fit at one point and Tatjana asked if he needed anything. “Yes, a new throat,” he replied.
He also was an articulate, intelligent, and erudite man who was utterly riveting when he discussed psychology and why he found parapsychology to be the discipline’s ultimate form.
Did I find him heroic? I would say I respected and admired him. He was a man of conscience, and I didn’t mind his affection for the spotlight.
In 1945, the war concluded, Sudoplatov dispatched Soviet operatives to Eastern European countries, as what were called “sleeper agents” in an earlier age. Nikolai ended up in Romania, where for four years he posed as a Polish immigrant and readied himself for undercover assignments. Then he was recalled to Moscow to engage in intelligence missions against Moscow’s new enemies, the United States and its allies.
Acquaintances thought Nikolai a ladies’ man, dapper and slim. Sudoplatov praised Nikolai’s “blond, blue-eyed good looks” and “suave ways” as valuable assets, especially if “turning” a woman was part of the assignment. The general treated his protégé with sometimes astonishing indulgence and seemed to see Nikolai as “a young Sudoplatov.” “I have big plans for you,” the general had promised when Nikolai left for Romania.
But now Nikolai was losing his zest for the spy game. The romance and patriotism that had motivated him as a wartime intelligence officer had not carried over to peacetime. He wanted to try his hand at film-making or the theater, and lobbied Sudoplatov to release him from duty. The general refused, and Nikolai thought he knew why. Sudoplatov could not go to Stalin and admit that he had so wrongly judged an agent and vouched for him in the past; such a lapse was inexcusable, and “if he admitted it, he could be liquidated, and if I did, I could be,” Nikolai said.
In 1952, Sudoplatov told Nikolai he had been chosen to assassinate Alexander Kerensky, who ruled the provisional government between the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Stalin wanted Kerensky killed because he seemed about to unite anti-Soviet émigrés in Europe. Nikolai tried to talk his way out of the assignment, but managed to avoid it only when Stalin decided that Kerensky was not a serious threat and called off the mission.
The following year, Stalin died, and a purge followed. Led by Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s heirs executed Lavrenty Beria, chief of the NKVD, the secret police agency that was a forerunner of the KGB. He possessed incriminating dossiers on virtually all of them; the fear was that he would use the documents to intimidate any opposition and become ruler of the Soviet Union. Then they went after those with real or imagined links to Beria, and Sudoplatov and scores of others were swept into prison. Nikolai was suddenly without a protector. In his memoir, he wrote that Sudoplatov was “the finest and most intelligent man I had known in the service. And now his turn had come to be sacrificed to the machine.” But when I questioned Nikolai in person about Sudoplatov, he said he “didn’t care” when he heard of the general’s arrest: “To him, I was his protégé. But to me he was my superior, not my mentor.” At the time, I thought that was Nikolai’s bravado speaking. And, indeed, a few months later, he revealed himself to be genuinely torn about the general. “I looked at him almost as my stepfather,” he said, “until the moment he told me to go to Paris to kill [Kerensky]. That was a surprise that he would do that. That’s when everything fell apart.”
The new boss was a “short-witted” colonel named Lev Studnikov, who soon had an assignment for Nikolai: the assassination, in West Germany, of an anti-Soviet Russian nationalist named Giorgy Okolovich. But an inspection of Okolovich’s file led Nikolai to conclude that the émigré leader, while clearly opposed to the Soviet leadership, was not “an enemy of the state” bent on destroying the Russian nation or people. Thus, he hardly seemed deserving of assassination.
According to Nikolai’s account, his doubts about the mission multiplied. He told his then-wife, Yana, that he was being asked to murder “apparently a very good man.” Yana, who had always been uncomfortable with her husband’s chosen occupation, issued an ultimatum. If he carried out this killing, she warned, their lives together would be over and he would never see their son, Alik, again. Nikolai, already troubled by the grim task that awaited him, was finally persuaded: He would not carry out the assassination.
He concocted an elaborate ruse to make it appear that he would proceed with the mission, in which he was to supervise the poisoning of the émigré leader by two German secret agents. The three of them trained together for months. They rehearsed how to approach Okolovich at his five-story Frankfurt apartment building, and how to use their weapons—two tiny pistols secreted inside metal cigarette cases that Nikolai bought at a West Berlin gift shop. A special weapons shop in Moscow adapted the gear so that the cases, if opened, would reveal nothing but the tips of unfiltered Chesterfields, and the pistols, from their hiding space, would almost soundlessly fire pellets filled with poison.
In January 1954, preparations were complete. Nikolai said his good-byes to Yana and Alik in Moscow, and promised that an intermediary would warn them if anything went wrong. As they parted, he could not help but feel uneasy. He was thirty-two years old, about to throw aside his life as he had known it for the past decade.
“Is it possible that this is really the last?” he thought.
In his memoir, Nikolai describes how he confronted Giorgy Okolovich at his Frankfurt apartment weeks later and told his would-be quarry, “I’ve come to you from Moscow. The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union ordered your liquidation. I can’t let this murder happen.”
So began what must be one of the most curious friendships of the Cold War. Eventually, the episode would gain him worldwide fame as a traitor to his homeland (the Russian view) or a principled man who could no longer stomach the brutality expected of him (the opinion held in much of the anticommunist West). But it required a bit of convincing to get there. Okolovich quickly led Nikolai to the émigré’s American “friends,” agents from the CIA whose immediate reaction was to suspect that this supposed Russian assassin was a fraud, perhaps a double agent.
They subjected Nikolai to “rigorous questioning,” before finally concluding that not only was he telling the truth, but he was a high-value catch: the first serving officer ever to defect from the Soviet terror unit known loosely as Special Tasks. He could provide detailed descriptions of its personnel, its missions, and so on.
His interrogation then took an unexpected turn. The CIA agents began pressuring Nikolai to go public with his story, intending it as “blow for blow” retaliation for the NKVD abduction of another Soviet émigré. Nikolai reacted with disbelief, fearful that exposing himself to the world press would put his wife and son in grave danger.
Here is Nikolai’s recollection of what happened next: Struggling to preserve their relationship with their prized defector, CIA agents came up with a compromise. He would tell his story to the press and make an impassioned appeal for the safety of Yana and Alik in Russia. At the moment he did so, either U.S. diplomats accompanied by Western reporters—or the reporters on their own—would go to Yana and the boy and offer them sanctuary in the American embassy. The CIA even produced a State Department man calling himself “Mr. X,” who offered assurances from President Eisenhower that the United States would “keep Yana in the embassy until victory.”
It was naïve to think that, in a police state, either diplomats from a Western embassy or foreign reporters could simply drive to the apartment of a turncoat Soviet intelligence agent, pick up his wife and child, and make it safely back to the embassy. It was a goofball plan, worse than a Hail Mary pass. It was a Hail Mary with the almost certain knowledge that there was no receiver in the end zone to catch the ball. Nikolai—who was no innocent, after all—should have known better. But events seemed to be spinning out of control. “I was desperate,” he told me.
On April 22, 1954, he unmasked himself before more than two hundred reporters in Bonn. A reporter described him as “a slight, scholarly-appearing blond young man…neatly dressed in a dark blue suit” and wearing glasses. Nearby was a table displaying weapons to be used in the assassination, conveniently placed there by the CIA. Nikolai posed for photographs with the émigré Okolovich and holding a portrait of Yana. His plea on behalf of her and Alik went out over Voice of America broadcasts, along with their Moscow address and telephone number.
A week passed without word from the Soviet capital. Then Mr. X called. “Nobody went to your family in Moscow,” he said. “…I don’t know why. It looks like at the last moment they got cold feet.” All Nikolai could think was that he had lost Yana and Alik.
Five decades later, in all of our conversations Nikolai never deviated from the above narrative. But I wondered, was it entirely credible?
Two retired CIA agents who were posted in Germany when Nikolai defected did their best to convince me that his story was fiction or at least greatly exaggerated.
Thomas Polgar, then intelligence adviser to the CIA station chief there, said that a CIA agent would have been willing to “say anything” to exploit the opportunity that Nikolai presented. But he said that he had never met Nikolai and knew of no ironclad promise that his wife and child would be rescued.
David E. Murphy, a principal agent on Soviet affairs at the time, was present during the interrogation of Nikolai. While the Russian might have thought he had a deal, “he was never told this would happen,” Murphy said. “The State Department had no interest at all in such a risky activity in Moscow. How would you have done it? I don’t think it would have worked.”
Nikolai, Murphy suggested, was clinging to what he had wanted to believe would happen. Moreover, the Russian’s version of events was convenient, considering that he had left his family behind in Moscow. “He has to justify having decided to defect. That’s why he insists on this portrayal,” Murphy said.
When I told Nikolai that I was in touch with Murphy and Polgar, he urged me to be skeptical since CIA people “are trained to lie.” (Well, I thought, so are KGB people.) He said Polgar, despite asserting that he had never met Nikolai, had attended at least one interrogation session. Murphy, he said, conceived the idea of the press conference and spiriting Yana and Alik to the American embassy—and assured Nikolai that Washington had approved the scheme.
In the end, there was little overlap between the competing firsthand versions of events. But I heard enough from these two CIA agents and others posted to Germany at the time to understand that honoring promises was less important than outwitting the Soviets in the Cold War. American interrogators did and said what was necessary to turn possible KGB defectors and convince them to cooperate. And it seems clear that’s what they did with Nikolai. He was deliberately misled into thinking he had a deal. The propaganda payoff for the United States was obvious: the saga of an idealistic young Russian agent seeking refuge in America after suffering a crisis of conscience.
But why did the CIA allow his version of events to stand unchallenged all these years? Was this mere humanism, empathy for a guy in the same business who had lost his family? Not likely. The greater probability was that the agency didn’t want to push Nikolai too far and risk losing his cooperation.
In an unpublished chapter of his memoir, Nikolai wrote that he was “often close to suicide” after his defection, enduring “endless hours of loneliness mixed with feelings of guilt and failure.” Two months after his Bonn press conference, word arrived from Moscow that his wife and son were missing. Nikolai feared the worst. (Much later he would learn that Yana had been arrested the day after the press conference and sentenced to five years of internal exile, in the Russian republic of Komi. She was able to take Alik with her, work, and receive visitors. Her punishment seemed relatively benign; Yana once observed that her interrogators had become “nauseatingly friendly.”)
But by late 1954, his spirits were lifting. Private committees were formed in the United States to support Yana’s immigration. While none succeeded, the effort comforted Nikolai. He became a sensation in America, telling eager audiences across the country what it was like to be a Russian secret agent: bombs concealed in soap, salt, and tea; offices hidden behind bookcases; shadowing a subject.
The remarkable detail of Nikolai’s revelations set him apart from other spies who were defecting from the Soviet bloc to the West (in such large numbers that the CIA had to establish a reception center in Frankfurt to process them). He was one of the first to publicly divulge the most intimate secrets of the Kremlin’s assassination program. The Russians reacted to his and a series of other security breaches by curtailing political killings.
With the CIA looking on approvingly, Nikolai became a favorite of Cold War propagandists, testifying on Soviet wrongs before the House Un-American Activities Committee and otherwise lending his voice to the anticommunist crusade in America. He made the rounds of network television talk shows such as Meet the Press and wrote a series of articles entitled “I Would Not Murder for the Soviets” in The Saturday Evening Post, then a dominant U.S. magazine. Nikolai told me the CIA arranged the articles.
In fall 1957, he attended a Frankfurt conference of the anti-Soviet organization of Russian émigrés led by Giorgy Okolovich, the man he was once ordered to assassinate. He remembered drinking a rancid cup of coffee and then dropping by an adjacent concert hall to hear a performance featuring opera singers. Suddenly his ears were ringing and his stomach was queasy. Around him “things began to whirl…[and] the electric bulbs were swaying,” he wrote.
Nikolai retreated to his room and began vomiting violently. Okolovich was summoned, and took him to a hospital, where he was treated for acute gastritis. The reddish-copper hue that appeared on his ordinarily pale skin would soon fade, doctors assured him.
But the morning of his sixth day of hospitalization, brown stripes and spots emerged on his face. His pillow was drenched in blood and his hair came out in clumps. After a battery of tests, the German doctors suspected poisoning by thallium. They administered a compound called Prussian blue, the recognized—and generally effective—treatment for exposure to the heavy metal. Nikolai’s body failed to respond, leaving his doctors baffled. The chief physician told Nikolai’s friends, “To be honest, it’s hopeless…. Wait with your questions until the autopsy.”
Twelve days into the crisis, Nikolai was moved to an American military hospital in Frankfurt. Under tight security, doctors administered continuous blood transfusions and injections of vitamins, steroids such as cortisone, and so on—anything that might fortify his immune system. On the eighteenth day, the symptoms finally receded. Gaunt and bald under a beret, appearing two decades older than his thirty-five years, Nikolai walked out of the hospital. He later told crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya that it took a full year to recover; his legs in particular hurt.
What had nearly killed Nikolai? The commander of the U.S. hospital concluded that his suffering was “due to poisoning, probably by thallium and/or other chemical agents.” In his memoir, Nikolai says that a New York specialist later analyzed the evidence and confirmed the presence of radioactive thallium. The near-fatal dose had in all likelihood been dropped into his coffee at the conference. When I asked Nikolai the doctor’s name, he said he could no longer recall it, his typical reaction to a perceived challenge. I decided that, given the symptoms and the advice of chemists that thallium does have relatively stable nuclear isotopes, there was no reason to seriously question his assertion.
Nikolai had no doubts about what had happened. The poisoning was the handiwork of his former colleagues in Soviet intelligence, who had finally had enough of his public denunciations and wanted to “square accounts” with him. But why had this method been chosen? Was its aim not only to kill, but to kill cruelly? Nikolai thought Moscow’s intention was more prosaic—to avoid detection. His assassins never expected that anyone would discover the presence of radioactive thallium.
In the years that followed, Nikolai became “disgusted” with what he regarded as an ineffectual anticommunist movement and decided to move on. Now a U.S. citizen, it took him just three years to earn both master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology at Duke University. Then he began his teaching career, at California State University, San Bernardino. Two decades later, in Russia, Boris Yeltsin pardoned Nikolai for turning against the Soviet intelligence service. Nikolai attributed Yeltsin’s act to blind luck—he had asked for permission to visit Moscow at a moment when, for one reason or another, the Russian president saw political advantage in welcoming such a visitor.
Nikolai and Yana spoke frequently by telephone in the time leading up to the Moscow visit, his first since defecting. In the Russian capital, they spent an emotional evening together. He would not share the details of their visit, other than to say that she told him he had “done everything right.” They were divorced by now; he had since married Tatjana, who was a sister-in-law of Giorgy Okolovich’s chief lieutenant. He remained in contact with son Alik, now a biologist at Moscow State University.
Nikolai’s years as a spy never left his soul, and in a very real way he was still living them when I knew him. He thrived on the past. His voice turned childlike whenever our discussions turned to his World War II exploits, and the descriptions of those adventures are the best parts of his memoir. He remained bitter at the CIA’s failure to rescue Yana and Alik; it was a betrayal, proof that the agency cared nothing about human beings. His friend Nick Andonov told me Nikolai was desperate to find someone who would portray him in film or print as a man who was not a traitor. When he failed, he was certain that the CIA simply didn’t want his story to be told and had pressured media executives into shunning him. I chalked that up to paranoia.
Until the very end, Nikolai insisted he was never an assassin and spoke contemptuously of those who portrayed him as having been one. Everyone got him wrong. I thought it was an absurd position to take. Did he ever kill anyone with his bare hands? Not that I could find out. But he was obviously capable of directing murder plots when he so chose. He was making a distinction between assassinations that he thought were justified—during wartime as a Russian partisan—and those he found distasteful after the war. One type was patriotic, the other mechanical and ideological.
I came to believe that stagecraft was a large part of Nikolai’s psyche. The Okolovich affair seemed to be a prime example. If Nikolai had simply wanted to stop the murder of the émigré leader, he only had to warn Okolovich to get out of town and no one would have been the wiser. He extended what should have been a temporary intersection with Okolovich’s life into an elongated drama, quite possibly because of the very theater of it—he couldn’t help himself.
Now I wanted to understand something about the nature of the current regime in Moscow. I decided to take a look at the events of October 2002 in a popular theater in the Russian capital.
ILYA LYSAK, A BOYISHLY CHARMING TWENTY-FOUR-YEAR-OLD bass player with a confident manner, seated himself in the orchestra pit and began tuning up. It was October 23, 2002, and he and thirty-one other musicians were about to perform in the hit musical Nord-Ost, or “Northeast,” a World War II love story. He knew the score by heart, having already played it some three hundred times for theater audiences. But he was ever mindful of the need to stay sharp—it was a coup that he had landed this job in Moscow, one of the world’s most musically talented cities, and he knew it.
Irina Fadeeva, a thirty-seven-year-old blond woman with striking blue eyes, took her seat in row 11 of the theater. She was accompanied by her equally lovely older sister, Victoria; her fifteen-year-old son, Yaroslav; and her eighteen-year-old niece, Anastasia. The foursome ended up here entirely by chance. Irina had bought tickets for another show at a different theater, only to discover at the last minute that the tickets were for the previous night’s performance. But she was determined that the evening would not be wasted. She hurried everyone to another theater just down the street. Nord-Ost was playing, and she managed to buy four of the few remaining tickets.
Elena Baranovskaya, a well-spoken, elegantly turned-out woman, sat seven rows away with her husband, Sergei, a retired military officer, and her nineteen-year-old son, Andrei. They were marking a new life together—she and Sergei had been married just over a year, and only the day before had moved into a large new apartment. Elena had bought the Nord-Ost tickets to celebrate their good fortune; a bottle of wine and late dinner awaited them at home after the play was over.
Five years later, in separate conversations, the young bass player and the two women would guide me through the nightmare that soon unfolded inside the theater. Here are the stories of Ilya, Irina, and Elena, three who somehow survived while more than one hundred were dying.
It was during the second act that events on stage began to seem out of the ordinary. Ilya looked up from the orchestra pit to see armed strangers, dressed in masks and fatigues, suddenly appear. His initial reaction was bemusement: Two years into the musical’s run, its eccentric director must be still fiddling with the cast, introducing new characters without warning. Ilya watched as one of the masked men ordered a principal actor to leave the stage, then a second and a third.
Some in the audience, including Irina and Elena, laughed at the seemingly impromptu staging. But not Elena’s husband, a war-hardened former colonel in military intelligence. His intuition told him that these new “actors” were about to take hostages. “Everyone relax. We will be here awhile,” Sergei cautioned those around him. Images flashed through his mind of the 118-man crew that had perished in the submarine Kursk two years earlier, absent any Russian rescue attempt. Putin “will not save us,” he said.
Now something was going wrong in the orchestra pit. The conductor continued to wave his baton, but the music began to trail off. One by one, the confused members of the orchestra were putting down their instruments, in such perfect order that it appeared the surreal scene had been choreographed. Finally, there was only silence in the pit.
Videos captured some of the drama. A sequence from the theater’s in-house recording system opens with four men walking on stage in camouflage jackets. One barks orders to a comrade. Another is identifying himself and the other invaders as Chechens from the republic in southern Russia where President Vladimir Putin is conducting a savage war of conquest. Their leader, twenty-two-year-old Movsar Barayev, appears in a separate video shot during the siege with British newsman Mark Franchetti. The only one not wearing a mask, he is a nephew of a famously fierce Chechen commander. “We want an end to the war,” he tells the intrepid reporter.
From his vantage point in the pit, Ilya estimated that there were four dozen Chechens scattered about the theater. He wasn’t far off. There were forty-one. Many of them were women; they were known as “black widows” because they were the wives or sisters of slain Chechen men and had volunteered to be suicide bombers in this assault. Each one kept a hand at all times on a belt around her waist; each belt was said to be loaded with explosives and shrapnel. Ilya could see what appeared to be detonators—small buttons atop some belts; two wires extending from others, as if waiting to be touched together.
As the hours ticked by, tensions heightened. Some of the intruders wired bombs to pillars that supported the theater’s structure. Others fired weapons over the heads of audience members. “Just look straight ahead,” said one masked man. “Anyone who ducks will be dealt with.” It was ultimate terror, Ilya thought—was he more likely to die from a bullet as he sat in his seat, or if he ducked down next to his bass? He looked directly ahead, as did everyone else.
Later, when the attention of the Chechens seemed to be directed away from the orchestra, Ilya sensed that the time might be right for escape. His seat was close to a door leading to the musicians’ dressing rooms. He reached over and opened the door, and the players quietly filed out of the pit, locking the door behind them. But the Chechens quickly noticed their absence. A few militants climbed into the pit and demanded that the musicians come out. If they did not comply, the door would be forced open and a grenade tossed in. What could Ilya do? He opened the door, and the musicians returned to the pit, with their hands behind their heads. Now they were made to sit with the audience, directly in front of Movsar Barayev so that the Chechen leader could keep an eye on them.
Only a few rows away, Irina expressed confidence that the standoff would soon end. Even if these were genuine Chechen terrorists, they would be satisfied to have made their point; the show would then go on and she and her son would be home by eleven o’clock. “No, this will be two or three days,” came the voice of one of the black widows, known to audience members only as Asya. She had been standing nearby and overheard the conversation. Her prediction would prove to be eerily accurate.
Russians were not unused to mass hostage-taking by Chechen insurgents. In 1995, after an assault on the town of Budyonnovsk, invaders from Chechnya retreated to a hospital and held some 1,500 patients hostage. About 30 died in fighting with Russian forces before a truce was finally negotiated. The following year, two villages were raided in Dagestan, a territory adjoining Chechnya; more than 2,000 were taken hostage and about 340 died before the standoffs ended. In all three of these episodes, many Chechen fighters were able to escape.
I was more accustomed to the criminality that erupted after the First Chechen War ended in 1996. It sorely tested the sympathy that many Western reporters felt for the quarrelsome republic that had been nearly obliterated by the Russian military. The main crime was kidnapping-for-ransom. It wasn’t only the abductions themselves that disillusioned me, but the way victims were treated. They were typically held for months without word, sometimes in pits dug under homes, even if family members were ready to pay up. Most victims were Chechens, many never to be seen again. Some were foreigners, including a Russian journalist named Yelena Masyuk, who was held for 101 days before being ransomed for $2 million.
In August 1997, I visited the northern Caucasus city of Nalchik, a two-hour drive west of Chechnya, where sixteen residents had already been kidnapped that year. Thirteen had been released for an average ransom of $300,000. Among the lucky ones was Alim Tlupov, a muscular twenty-three-year-old with a butch haircut. He and two friends had driven into Chechnya to barter belongings for diesel fuel. But two Chechen acquaintances led them into a trap. Alim and his friends ended up with pillowcases over their heads and their hands tied, while the captors telephoned Alim’s father, Zauddin, with a demand for the equivalent of $300,000. The sum was absurd, since Zauddin was only a factory driver.
So began an ordeal in which the three young men were moved from one basement to another, beaten, and prevented from bathing. Alim described it as a family enterprise. The kidnappers’ wives and sisters wandered about, sometimes delivering bread and unsweetened tea to the captors—their main diet. Neighbors strolled by, clearly aware that kidnapping victims were being held a few steps away, Alim said.
After two months, the captives managed to escape. Before they could reach home, the infuriated Chechens telephoned Alim’s father. “Your son has been killed in a skirmish,” one of the captors said. “Come right away.” Now the father would become the victim. When Zauddin arrived at the rendezvous point, the Chechens abducted him. Another two months passed. Finally, the kidnappers accepted a reduced ransom of about $22,000, which the Tlupovs managed to raise from relatives. What seemed to most anger the family was the tepid response they received from authorities in Russia and Chechnya when they asked for help. Everyone pleaded impotence against the kidnappers.
Some victims who managed to escape—especially Europeans—tried to explain away the kidnappings as a natural outgrowth of the abuse the people of Chechnya had experienced. But that was absurd. The truth was that kidnapping became a way of life for many Chechens. Obviously nowhere near the whole population was involved, but sometimes it seemed so.
At the same time, Chechen militants fighting for a cause became interwoven with unholy characters such as Arbi Barayev, a sadistic Chechen insurgent who, among other outrages, had decapitated four Western telecom workers—three Britons and a New Zealander—in 1998 and left their heads in a sack by a road.
Now Barayev’s nephew was standing on a theater stage in Moscow, glaring down at hundreds of terrified hostages whose lives were in his hands.
Anna Politkovskaya was in Santa Monica, California, to receive an award for courage from UCLA. Swooping into the sun-drenched lobby of her hotel, the celebrated Russian journalist was handed a message: Call Moscow.
“The terrorists want to see you,” a colleague told her.
Anna turned on the television and saw news of the siege for the first time. She rang her hosts to express regrets and booked the next available flight from Los Angeles to Moscow, via New York, a grueling trip. On the way, she telephoned her twenty-two-year-old daughter, Vera, in Russia.
Here is where coincidence proved difficult to believe.
Ilya, the young bassist now sitting quietly under the watchful eyes of his Chechen captors, had been a favorite of Anna’s family since childhood. She had been like a mother, someone he could turn to for advice. More than once he had slept over on their couch after a study session with Anna’s son, who was Ilya’s best friend. For a time, Anna’s daughter had been Ilya’s girlfriend.
Mother, Ilya just telephoned me from Nord-Ost, the daughter told Anna.
Ilya is in Nord-Ost? Quite apart from concern over his fate, Anna had an idea. If he calls back, she instructed her daughter, please make two requests. Could he ask the Chechens if it was all right for her—Anna—to enter the theater when she reached Moscow? And would he also relay her request that they not do anything rash before she arrived?
Ilya did call back. That was one of the oddities of the hostage-taking—the Chechens’ leader, Movsar Barayev, allowed his captives to make as many cell phone calls as they wished. He saw it as a way to increase public pressure on the Kremlin to negotiate. The only limit was how much power remained in one’s cell battery.
But Barayev was not one to trifle with. He was the proud heir of his uncle Arbi, whose reputation for brutality was well known. The nephew apparently had not carried out any major operations before Nord-Ost—and, unlike his uncle, had not decapitated anyone. He commanded respect nonetheless, specifically because of his family link.
From where he was sitting, Ilya had almost line-of-sight eye contact with Barayev. “Can I talk to you?” he called out. The Chechen looked over and then motioned for Ilya to approach.
“I have a message from Anna Politkovskaya,” Ilya said when he reached the stage.
“How do you know her?” the suspicious Barayev inquired.
Ilya recounted his long-standing friendship with the journalist’s family.
Barayev asked for the phone number of Anna’s daughter, then sent Ilya back to his seat.
At three a.m. in Moscow, the daughter was awakened by the ringing phone.
“This is Barayev. From Nord-Ost.”
Anna had his permission to enter the theater.
For Ilya, conditions improved at once. He was allowed to roam the theater aisles, no longer forced like the rest to stay seated. He took it to mean that Anna enjoyed “undisputed authority” among the Chechens.
Ilya noticed a curious thing during his wanderings. At night, when the hostages were mostly asleep, the black widows were much less menacing. They appeared rather relaxed, unlike during daytime, when they were ultra-serious and seemingly ready to set off their belt bombs at any moment.
And there was something puzzling about the belts themselves. Ilya saw one woman reflexively pushing her thumb detonator without causing her belt to explode. Screws dropped regularly to the floor from other belts. Such observations made Ilya and some fellow musicians wonder if the belts were fake.
Anna Politkovskaya arrived in Moscow the second day of the hostage-taking. She went directly to the theater, on Melnikov Street, in the Dubrovka district. She was used to danger, having reported stories in the most remote and treacherous parts of Chechnya. But walking into a hostage situation with terrorists ready to explode bombs was quite another matter. She was admittedly frightened.
The theater was not what one might call cavernous; it was more like a large cinema house, with two decks of red-covered seats set on a slight incline down to a moderate-size stage. Anna entered the lobby area, accompanied by an elderly doctor who had volunteered to check on the condition of the hostages. There was no one in sight. “Hello, is anyone here?” she called out. “This is Politkovskaya.” There was no reply. Again she called out.
At last they heard a voice. “Are you the one who was at Khotuny?” A masked man made himself visible. He was referring to a Chechen mountain village that Anna had visited some twenty months earlier to investigate the reported presence of a brutal Russian prison camp. Yes, I was there, Anna told him.
That made her welcome, but not the elderly doctor, who was ushered out after being accused of various misdeeds. Anna went on alone until she came face-to-face with a man calling himself Abu Bakar. He was nominally Barayev’s deputy. But it was clear from his authoritative manner that the relatively inexperienced Barayev relied on him heavily for most of the crucial decisions.
Here was an opportunity to try for a negotiated settlement. Anna spoke first. She assured him she wanted to hear everything the Chechens had to say, but first the children in the audience must be released. She was instantly rebuffed. Russian soldiers made a practice of arresting Chechen males as young as twelve, Abu Bakar replied, so why should we show mercy?
At least allow the hostages to have something to drink and eat. Abu Bakar gave a little ground. He would permit juice and water to be brought into the theater, but no food. The hostages could eat the same as the beleaguered Chechen people, meaning little or nothing.
Anna could understand Abu Bakar’s bitterness. She felt that Putin had victimized not only the Chechens, but also Russian civilians, by inuring them to a vicious war, and his own military, too, by turning professional soldiers into callous killers.
What were the Chechen demands? Anna wanted to know.
There were two, Abu Bakar replied. Putin had to declare the war over. And, as a confidence-building measure, he had to actually withdraw troops from one part of Chechnya. Once those demands were fulfilled, the hostages could go home.
And what about Abu Bakar’s masked comrades and the black widows?
“We will stay here, take the fight, and die,” he said.
Anna knew there was no chance that Putin would agree. Perhaps there was some other way out. But for now, the hostages needed attention.
She returned to the street and went looking for drinks. But the Russian commandos surrounding the theater had come ill prepared to satisfy such a request—there were no food supplies of any kind for the hostages. So Anna solicited cash donations from fellow journalists and some firemen—enough to buy water, juice, and candy at a nearby kiosk. The candy was not explicitly permitted, but Anna figured that it was worth the risk. In several relays, the drinks and the sweets were carried inside.
Anna felt better after having brought some relief to the hostages. But she was newly distressed by a message whispered to her furtively by one of Ilya’s orchestra mates. Word was circulating that the Chechens intended to begin shooting captives soon.
Anna telephoned a trusted friend, Dima Muratov, her editor at Novaya Gazeta. He told her to stand by while he called someone. Novaya Gazeta—“The New Newspaper”—was the only national opposition paper that had survived Putin’s purge of rival voices in the media. It did not have a lot of friends in the Kremlin, but Muratov did possess the phone number of one important person—a suave survivor from the Yeltsin era named Alexander Voloshin, who was Putin’s chief of staff. Perhaps Voloshin could make a difference. The editor put in the call.
“Can Anna leave the theater area? Is she free to leave?” the Putin aide asked. Muratov didn’t know. He had to call his reporter back.
“Yes, I can go,” Anna told him.
“Tell her to leave,” Putin’s man said when the editor called back. The meaning of his words was ominously clear. The Russian security forces had their own timetable—they were about to storm the theater. If Anna were there, she risked being swept up in the violence. The trouble was, if her editor told her the truth, she was sure to refuse to leave. She was just that way.
Muratov called Anna. “I need you to come back to the newsroom—now,” he said. “I need you to write your story.”
Apparently not suspecting her editor’s subterfuge, Anna returned to the office and wrote up the events of the previous hours.
The clock ticked past midnight, and Irina’s fifteen-year-old son began saying his good-byes to those sitting around him. “I will not survive,” he said.
A few rows away, Elena’s son, a third-year chemistry student at Moscow State University, wondered aloud why authorities didn’t pump in a gas that would simply put everyone to sleep. “Such gases exist,” he said. But his stepfather, the retired colonel in military intelligence, said it wouldn’t work.
“If they spray gas, it is not physically possible for everyone to be put to sleep,” the older man said. So “they will just start shooting.”
Elena thought that if anyone was about to die, it would be her. She turned to her new husband. He had to promise that if anything happened to her, he would not abandon her son. “You’ll help him,” she said. She was thinking of her former husband, who had walked out two years earlier to live with another woman. The colonel looked at her with tense eyes but spoke in a calm voice. “Don’t doubt about this,” he said. “I would never abandon him.” A reassured Elena relaxed. She was certain he would not.
Suddenly, there was hope. “You can rest. Someone is coming from the government,” the Chechens’ leader, Barayev, called out. General Viktor Kazantsev, Putin’s special envoy for Chechnya, had called to say he was flying in to Moscow and would come to the theater for face-to-face talks. The standoff, now in its third day, might actually be near an end.
Everyone—the hostages, the Chechens—was buoyed. The masked men tossed candies and juice into the audience.
About five a.m., Elena’s son told his mother that he smelled something sweet. Irina saw one of the Chechens on stage pull his mask up over his face and look about the theater in seeming puzzlement. Was there a fire? she wondered. Ilya glanced up and saw a faint, cloud-like mist floating down from ventilators in the ceiling.
Barayev shouted a sudden warning. “Now they are storming us!” he cried out. “Lay down!”
Ilya didn’t know what to think—did the Chechens intend to be their killers, or their rescuers?
“I’m afraid,” said Irina’s son. “Don’t be afraid,” she replied. “Whatever happens, we’ll be together. I’ll hold your hand.” She was startled to see the black widows begin to slump against walls where they had been standing at attention, then slide to the floor unconscious.
Something perilous was in the air. Irina wrapped her scarf around her son’s face and told her sister to cover her daughter’s face, too. Elena dampened three handkerchiefs with water she had saved. She handed one to her son, one to her husband, and placed the third over her face.
Ilya heard shouting, glass breaking, and shooting. The Chechen gunmen scattered in panic. But the gas had made him woozy and indifferent—who cared about the Chechens? He and a fellow musician lay side by side on the floor and covered their faces with a jacket they shared. Then Ilya blacked out.
Russian commandos waited at a command post about two hundred yards away as the gas was released into the theater’s air-conditioning system. It was a derivative of fentanyl, an opiate anesthetic many times more powerful than morphine. The Kremlin’s expectations were that everyone inside would fall safely asleep. Then security forces could storm the building and kill the Chechen invaders before any bombs were detonated.
The assault had been organized with the care of a watchmaker, according to Mark Franchetti, the British journalist. Commandos placed ultrasensitive sound devices beneath the floor of the auditorium, enabling them to track the movement of the Chechens inside. They also drilled a peephole and ran a tiny camera through it, allowing some limited viewing of the theater’s interior. After hours of such monitoring, the security forces were able to establish the approximate position of each terrorist. Commandos were then assigned specific Chechens to shoot when the assault began. They conducted practice raids in another theater a few miles away.
Still, after the fentanyl was released, signs of movement continued inside the auditorium. The gas apparently had not circulated as well as expected. Fentanyl was usually dispensed via an injection or pill; the aerosol had been tested and judged safe by scientists, but never in a space this large. Some parts of the theater seemed to be getting quite a bit of gas, other parts very little.
More fentanyl was pumped in, and then yet more. At last, all seemed quiet inside the theater and troops from the elite Alpha Unit poured into the building. Fifty-seven hours after the hostage crisis had begun, it was all over. The Russian commandos shot the black widows point blank where the women had collapsed. They pursued the Chechen men through the theater and executed them on the spot, including Barayev. (There were rumors later that one or more of the terrorists had escaped, but they were unsubstantiated.)
Ilya felt someone shaking him. A masked commando was shouting in his face, “Get up! Get up!” Although he could barely move his arms and legs, he managed to stumble out of the building to an ambulance, which whisked him to a hospital. When he was released four days later, four thousand rubles, the equivalent of $160, was missing from his trousers. Other hostages admitted to the hospital had the same story—all their cash, jewelry, and furs were stolen. Later, Ilya learned that ten of his fellow musicians were dead.
Elena awoke in a hospital bed about four hours after the gassing. “Where is my husband?” she pleaded. A few hours later, her mother and sister arrived with the answer. Her husband, Sergei, and her son, Andrei, had both perished.
Irina awoke in the crowded emergency room of another hospital. Her clothes, blood soaked, had been removed, and she was naked except for a blanket that someone had wrapped around her. She realized that her son was not with her and began to scream.
“Why are you shouting?” a doctor demanded. “Everyone is fine. No hostages died.” That, at least, was the official word—all the hostages were safe.
A friend retrieved clothes from Irina’s apartment while she used a borrowed cell phone to call other hospitals in search of her son. There was no trace of him, and she decided to go look for him herself. The first obstacle was getting out of the emergency room and off the hospital grounds, which were surrounded by soldiers with orders not to allow anyone to leave. Irina was stopped on her first attempt. But when in desperation she began to climb over a fence, she felt a hand under her—a kindly soldier provided the final boost.
Irina’s first stop was her apartment, to retrieve a photograph of her son in case it would be needed for identification purposes. The building’s lobby was already crowded with friends ready to join in the search. A television was turned to the news.
Suddenly, a friend brandishing a cell phone burst into tears. They killed him, she cried. On television, the bad news was confirmed. Some hostages in fact had died, and their names began scrolling across the screen. The first on the list was Yaroslav Fadeev—Irina’s son.
A stillness came over Irina. She felt nothing and showed no emotion.
“Where is he?” she asked simply. She found his body at a morgue, where she sat alone, gazing at his face and caressing his head. She felt a wound and realized he must have been hit in the fusillade directed at the Chechens. That explained why her clothes had been so bloodied—it was her son’s blood.
All she could think of were her final words to him—whatever happens, we’ll be together. She felt she had deceived her son. And she couldn’t live with that.
Irina ran out a back door, flagged a taxi, and directed the driver to a bridge over the Moscow River. She had no money so she paid the fare with her gold wedding band, and stepped out. She stood on the bridge where she and Yaroslav had often strolled, and gazed down at the icy water. The words kept going through her mind—whatever happens, we’ll be together.
Then she jumped.
Irina opened her eyes. She had briefly gone underwater, but then floated right back to the surface. There was too much ice in the river. It was impossible to drown.
“Are you crazy? Why are you swimming there?” a man shouted from the riverbank. He and a friend pulled Irina out. “Where are you from?” the man’s friend asked.
“I’m from the morgue,” she replied. The men looked at her as if she was crazy.
“Listen,” she said. “I’m from Nord-Ost.”
The two men instantly understood. Anyone in Moscow would have. “Where do you want to go?”
Home, she said.
Irina did not even catch a cold.
The official death toll was 129. In a statement, Vladimir Putin congratulated the commandos for rescuing more than seven hundred hostages. “We could not save everyone,” he said. “Forgive us.”
A chorus of criticism arose among survivors and their relatives. Why had the Kremlin not given negotiations more of a chance? What happened to Viktor Kazantsev, the Russian general who supposedly was on his way to attempt a negotiated settlement? Had that been a ploy to gain time for the commandos to prepare their assault? And what about the reckless use of the aerosol?
Those killed by the gas had gone into hypoventilation, slow and shallow breathing that leads to a dangerous buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood. It is the way that heroin addicts often die. The appropriate treatment is an injection of naloxone, a medication that counters the effects of opiate overdose, especially from heroin or morphine. But it must be administered immediately.
In fact, some rescuers carried syringes of naloxone. Judging by the welt on his upper arm, Ilya reckoned that he received a shot from the commando who shook him awake. But there were not enough doses, or not enough people delivering them, to make much of a difference. Ilya said that no other musician appeared to have gotten a shot; he had simply been lucky.
Outside the theater, medical personnel were either absent or disorganized. The commandos themselves, rather than a waiting crew of paramedics, carried the liberated hostages from the building. Witnesses said there were no waiting stretchers and virtually no medical supervision; the commandos simply laid the hostages on the sidewalk, sometimes in the snow. Proper medical procedure called for the victims to be laid on the side, arms down at their sides, and heads back and aligned with their bodies, so as to keep their air passages open and tongues safely away from their throats. But that care was not taken.
Even those who made it to hospitals alive could not expect to receive appropriate treatment. Government secretiveness left doctors and nurses uncertain for hours as to how to proceed. In the emergency room where Irina was treated, it was apparent that few medical workers had been told anything about the nature of the gas that had been used, not even what it was.
And so the doctors tried improvising. Irina recalled that one prescribed milk for all the survivors. Another doctor ordered the milk exchanged for mineral water. Then a third ordered the mineral water withdrawn. “It’s no good in this case,” he said.
Some doctors did receive word to inject naloxone, which they reasonably interpreted to mean that the gas was an opiate. But no one could be sure what sort of opiate, a crucial bit of information. Under pressure, the Kremlin finally began to characterize the gas as a fentanyl derivative, but even that was too inexact. Was it an analogue of fentanyl called carfentanil, ten thousand times more powerful than morphine and used to sedate large animals? Was it sufentanil, an anesthetic for heart surgery that is a mere ten times more powerful than fentanyl? Or simple fentanyl? Doctors were left wondering how much naloxone to administer.
Five years later, authorities whom I interviewed responded to their critics in pretty much the same way. The government had certainly not intended that the hostages should die. Therefore it was blameless.
A former Kremlin official who had been involved in the planning, and who asked for anonymity, said no one was sure how much gas to pump in. Nor, he added, did anyone anticipate that a large supply of antidote would be needed. It was assumed that everyone would simply wake up. “In my opinion, the operation was successful,” he said.
As for the bitter complaints of survivors, he turned philosophical. “When there are victims, they will always seek answers,” he said. “They say we could have continued negotiations. They will do so until the end of their lives. People live in a certain myth in which some things were done well, and some things bad. But I’m absolutely certain that there was no evil plot to kill people.”
The Kremlin political adviser Vyacheslav Nikonov replied similarly. “The gas was rather harmless. The only thing they needed was a breath of fresh air—oxygen. A mask on their mouths,” he said. “Most of them died because of their tongues going down their throats. When they started bringing people out, there was a long line of medical cars. They concentrated on bringing people to the cars rather than on giving them oxygen.”
The government’s review of what precisely happened was lack-adaisical at best. Yuri Sinelshchikov, a former deputy prosecutor of the city of Moscow who supervised part of the investigation, believed it was not a serious effort. Written findings by his own investigator were altered to be in agreement with the conclusions of the FSB and the federal prosecutor, he said.
Sinelshchikov did not elaborate, but in other remarks he indicated there could be no conclusive investigation because the crime scene was politicized and corrupted. “I would leave the scene sick because of the mistakes, criminal mistakes,” he said. “Important witnesses were not immediately interviewed, not until two or three weeks later. There was missing evidence. In the beginning someone didn’t think something was important, and when he went back it was gone. People were not detained for interrogation. If someone was under suspicion and needed to be followed secretly, they were not doing it well at all, and it was obvious. For the first ten days there was chaos, and there were too many people from the top involved.”
Anna Politkovskaya had her suspicions about the events—she believed there had to be complicity of some kind within Russia’s intelligence agencies. How else did so many fully armed terrorists reach the center of Moscow? she asked. Six months afterward, she backed up her case by publishing an interview with a man who identified himself as a surviving member of the Nord-Ost terrorist band. The man, named Khanpasha Terkibayev, was working for Russian intelligence, Politkovskaya alleged. After the interview, Terkibayev denied telling Politkovskaya that he was at Nord-Ost. He was killed in a car crash a few months later.
Like the allegations regarding the 1999 apartment blasts, the suggestion of FSB involvement at Nord-Ost seemed fantastic. Even though I trusted Anna’s work, I had trouble taking such notions seriously. What I could say was that something worse than simple incompetence had led to the outcome at Nord-Ost. From the moment the hostage crisis began, the Kremlin and its security forces were focused only on killing the Chechens, on demonstrating the resolve of the state not to be pushed around. It never occurred to any of them to make the survival of the captives a priority.
An outsider could only wonder: If terrorists seized a theater in a major Western city, would the New York police or the FBI or the London, Paris, or Tokyo police use gas to subdue the hostage takers? Possibly. But would they neglect the need to have massive and well-organized medical care waiting outside the theater? The Hurricane Katrina debacle in 2005 notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine that fully equipped rescue trucks and ambulances would not have been lined up on Broadway by the dozens. I think it would be the same in the United Kingdom, in France, in Germany, and so on.
The most dangerous place in the industrialized world to be a rescued hostage is Russia.
The Nord-Ost survivors tried to get on with their lives, some more successfully than others. Two months after the hostage episode, Anna Politkovskaya’s phone rang. It was the police.
“We’ve got Ilya Lysak down here. He is asking for you,” a voice said. Ilya had been disorderly again; since his brush with terrorism, the young musician had gotten into a bar fight, inexplicably erupted at passersby on the street, and thrown a chair at someone.
“What’s wrong with me?” he asked Anna, after she signed him out of jail. That night, he dozed off on the Politkovskaya couch next to the family’s pet Doberman.
A few months later, a car jumped a curb near Ilya’s apartment and ran him down. He suffered multiple broken bones and spent eleven months in the hospital. Anna arranged for his treatment, cashing in a favor owed her by a wealthy acquaintance, who paid the bills.
When I met him five years later, he spoke as though the hours he spent as a hostage weren’t entirely frightening for him. Indeed, I had the sense that he was feeling fairly full of himself some of the time. At one point, he said, he decided that the Chechen leader, Barayev, was not that imposing, and that he, Ilya, could “take him one-on-one” if the two had ever been alone together. But there also was something affecting about Ilya. He described himself as a big, muscular man prior to the auto accident; now, at age twenty-nine, he was skinny, almost wiry, and, while a captivating speaker, he was more boy than man. When I saw him, Ilya was working two jobs—sound director at the country’s main television station and, on the side, composing music for a film.
Elena noticed that people acted strangely once they learned of her connection to Nord-Ost, and so she stopped mentioning it. For the previous eighteen years, she had taught chemistry. But she could not see herself returning to the classroom. Instead, she began attending classes on the tourism industry, and there she met an elderly woman named Diana who was already a success in the business. As their relationship warmed, Elena revealed that she had been a hostage.
Diana responded instantly. “I’m going to give you my firm,” she said. Elena was floored by her classmate’s extreme kindness. “She was seventy-five and decided to do something else. She could see my circumstances,” said Elena. “She asked an absolutely symbolic amount” of money in exchange.
When Elena spoke to me over tea in spring 2007, she was about to fly to Paris to personally select a hotel for clients. This courageous woman was on her way.
Irina, anxious that her son not be forgotten, presented herself at Anna Politkovskaya’s newspaper office with a sheaf of photographs. Until then, the two had never met. But the sympathetic journalist made Irina and her dead son part of a feature article entitled “Nord-Ost. 11th Row,” and churned out other pieces on the survivors and the government’s plodding investigation. Irina read them all; Anna, she said, had “taken me by a finger and pulled me out from drowning….”
But the Novaya Gazeta story offended the city prosecutor’s office. An investigator summoned Irina for an interview and demanded that she retract the claim that her son had been shot by commandos. The official version was that firearms had been used only against the Chechens. Irina refused to back down; the prosecutor’s office kept phoning, then began calling her parents.
Finally, Anna called the prosecutor’s office: “Leave this family alone,” she said, according to Irina. The calls stopped.
In America, the HBO network commissioned a documentary entitled Terror in Moscow, based on the work of Mark Franchetti, the British reporter who had interviewed the terrorist leader Barayev. Ilya, Elena, and Irina were brought together for the HBO program, and it in turn gave rise to the formation of Nord-Ostsi, or the “People of Nord-Ost”—survivors and families of the dead, bound together by the shared tragedy. They met at Elena’s new apartment, and their common vow was to keep the memory of the theater massacre alive. Some joined in a suit against the Russian government, filed in international court in Strasbourg, France.
On the first anniversary of the gassing, a bronze plaque bearing the names of all 129 victims was installed outside the theater during a memorial service. Irina placed a photograph of her son amid the bouquets of flowers. Elena slipped in a photo of her husband and son at the seashore. No one from the Kremlin attended. President Putin sent a statement from abroad, calling the deaths “a severe wound in our heart that will take a long time to heal. But you and I know well that once you let terrorists raise their heads in one place they will immediately appear in another place using territories they are comfortable in as bases of rear support.”
I last saw Irina at a Nord-Ostsi dinner in September 2007, where she sat before the camera of Russian documentary filmmaker Marina Goldovskaya. She was in despair that her life had become, like the setting for the theater massacre, a sort of play. “Just turn on the camera, and we can perform,” she said of herself and the other survivors.
Her story fascinated the media—how she had found her son’s body in a morgue, how she had jumped from the bridge. She was entirely genuine each time her tears welled up, which is why journalists and filmmakers kept returning. She had dedicated herself to crusading on behalf of the victims of Nord-Ost, which guaranteed that she would be a constant object of attention.
And yet she was troubled by the freeze-frame in which she found herself. It seemed frightening at times. In the years after the massacre, she had married and given birth to two children. She was a mother again, and she did not want her children to pay a price for the life she had chosen to lead. But how could they not be affected?
Would it have helped if Irina had sensed that there was some understanding of her pain amid the highest levels of government? An understanding among the Kremlin leadership that defense of the state had to be tempered with compassion for the Russian people?
THANKS TO ITS LIBERAL ATTITUDE TOWARD POLITICAL ASYLUM, the United Kingdom is a haven for the outcasts of autocratic countries around the world. Expatriates from former Soviet nations once ruled by Moscow make up a significant portion of this community of political refugees. My introduction to their universe was provided by a genteel Kazakh man named Akezhan Kazhegeldin, a KGB-trained former prime minister who presumed to lead his homeland’s political opposition from London. Ten years earlier, he had stepped over the bounds of permitted ambition by aspiring to be president of his onetime Soviet country. Now he passed the time by dreaming of political plots against Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Some dismissed him as a self-promoter, but this ungenerous characterization never gained traction with me.
I had known the fifty-seven-year-old Kazhegeldin for a decade. He was an enduring survivor, an admirable but sad figure. Admirable for standing up as an often lone voice against the autocratic politics practiced back home. Sad because, even if he were able to return to his country some day, there was little chance he could ever make a political comeback. And he likely wouldn’t return, not with the discouraging example of Boris Shikhmuradov to consider. This somewhat vain political exile from former Soviet Turkmenistan sneaked back into his native country in 2002, thinking he would force the country’s dictator into retirement. Instead, he was rapidly captured, drugged, forced to give a televised “confession,” and imprisoned for life. Something similar certainly awaited Kazhegeldin were he to return to Kazakhstan. So that meant stewing abroad, forever planning unlikely conspiracies and hoping for a miracle.
Kazhegeldin supplied the number of a friend who could introduce me to the Mayfair district, a London haunt for the kind of people I was seeking: the political exiles, the denizens of the city’s underworld of spies and former spies, and the often shady businessmen who moved comfortably among all factions.
Mayfair enjoyed a certain James Bond mystique, a hangover from the time that MI6, the British spy agency, was based there. But it was also august London writ large, housing Savile Row, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and the Ritz. When I visited in 2007, its office space was the most expensive in the world at $212 a square foot, far higher than mid-town Manhattan, Hong Kong, or Tokyo. You couldn’t know by merely walking Mayfair’s streets, but hedge funds had moved into the district alongside the luxury boutiques and exotic restaurants. The most intriguing businesses of all were the myriad detective agencies. These were run by clubby characters whose success seemed to hinge in part on how well they could create the impression that they knew the darkest secrets and kept company with the most dangerous characters.
Kazhegeldin had availed himself of such services, and sometimes reciprocated with information that enabled the agencies to plumb the vicious Russian business and political rivalries that their clients were keen to understand. With his help, I was able to contact agency detectives who were happy to talk, but not for attribution. While their openness might seem surprising, such professionals often trade information with journalists, particularly foreign correspondents with experience in opaque parts of the world.
One of these operatives, call him Andrew, said his usual clients were lawyers for British companies anxious to vet potential partners before signing a contract. But he also was profiting from a stream of new clients with business interests that involved the former Soviet Union. Some were tycoons in Russia and other newly independent republics who had built thriving enterprises from the wreckage of the Soviet states. They were willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for compromising material on their enemies, a defense against rivals doing the same. Others were businessmen in the West, mainly Americans and Europeans, who were wondering if they should deal with such people. They routinely ordered $20,000 to $40,000 background checks on Russian, Kazakh, Uzbek, Georgian, or Chechen entrepreneurs who were offering what seemed like attractive deals.
The Mayfair detectives reckoned that most of the Western businessmen were just going through the motions; they fully intended to get in bed with these possibly nefarious fellows, if only to demonstrate their executive boldness. But, while they wanted to play near the edge, they hired the detective agencies to show shareholders that they were not doing so recklessly.
The agencies cared little about what motivated their clients. Their main concern was how to check out businessmen with murky pasts in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and elsewhere. Their staffs were thin on Russian expertise, and so their first reports were based on simple data searches on LexisNexis. Clients figured out that racket soon, however, and demanded more. So it was that the Mayfair agencies began to employ active-duty FSB men, reminiscent of the way that 1930s gangsters and Chicago policemen entered into mutually beneficial relationships. The agencies also hired former Russian intelligence agents, based on the assumption that, as with the mafia, no Russian spy ever truly left the service. It seemed that any Russian with an intelligence background who passed through London could pick up work.
The stock-in-trade for these gentlemen became known as the “KGB report.” Once given an assignment, an agent would visit the FSB’s file cabinets, pull records on whoever was of interest to the client, and pass them on. The level of detail delivered—property ownership, salary, marriage status, arrests—was astonishing compared with what was available publicly in the West.
There was no telling how much was accurate, but that didn’t seem to matter. The KGB reports, at $2,000 or so each, would be gussied up and delivered to clients who mainly accepted them at face value and didn’t question their provenance.
Andrew and the other detectives depicted their Western clients as strange combinations of voyeurs and cowboys, wanting to peek inside the strip show and boast to their friends about what they saw, but terrified to enter. Company lawyers ordered up the KGB reports, one detective said, but forbade his agency to conduct live interviews or hunt down revealing documents outside the KGB files. Such investigative methods could “violate little-understood laws,” the lawyers said. I could not fathom what laws they were talking about. Most likely, they themselves didn’t know and were simply trying to insulate themselves from whatever legal troubles might arise later.
William was the operations director of an agency that specialized in particularly gritty investigations. When he examined a Russian company, his aim was to provide a reality-based judgment on whether or not a client should do a deal, and if the answer was the former, how to do so prudently. He offered this theoretical example: If a client came to him with a Moscow property deal, it was not necessary to collect the voluminous detail that would appear in a KGB report. The sole relevant question was whether the deal included Yelena Baturina. She was Russia’s only woman billionaire, the wife of Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, and the queen of Moscow property development. If she was a participant, well, that would be fantastic, full steam ahead. But if not, it might be best to pass; a reasonably successful deal was probably unlikely. While such a calculation might seem rather crude, in fact it reflected some sophisticated sleuthing—it reflected how deals really got done in Russia.
The detective industry had its turbocharged side as well. I learned this from Dmitri, once an officer of GRU, an intelligence arm of the Russian military that deploys more spies abroad than any of the nation’s other espionage agencies. Dmitri worked now on contract for the Mayfair detective agencies, and a British friend recently retired from MI6 provided me the necessary introduction. Dmitri described his specialty as public relations—pee-yar’ in its Russian adaptation of the English acronym, except that in Russia it was more often than not essentially a black art. Its objective was the destruction of a client’s opponent through defamation. “We gather information for businesses that have problems,” Dmitri explained. “We can find out what are your rivals’ strong points, and can suggest how to damage the rival’s strategy. Everyone has skeletons.”
Unsolicited, Dmitri offered up Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative reporter, as an example. He argued that her fundamental honesty could be challenged because she was in violation of Russian law by holding dual citizenships (she was born in New York when her father was a diplomat at the United Nations). Thus, he said, she should be regarded not as a crusading truth teller, but a questionable reporter who framed innocent Chechens and Russian soldiers.
It is best in such company to hold one’s breath and focus on blinking normally so as not to betray any particular opinion. Dmitri occupied a ruthless world.
Yet I was sure that Dmitri himself had skeletons, so I ventured a question: Given his inclinations, why was he living in London and not in Russia? His reply: That’s where he had found employment once he decided in the mid-1990s to leave the GRU, whose central tenet—discreet penetration of foreign militaries and businesses—had been watered down to a naïve belief that “Russians have nothing to be afraid of. Everybody is our friend.”
“It was like a kindergarten” during the 1990s, Dmitri said, echoing Putin’s realpolitik disdain for that period in Russia. In fact, in dealings with other states, “interests are eternal and friendships transitory.”
Dmitri was a bag of hot air—a spinmaster with a huge mouth, an annoying attitude, and a bucket of money from his employment by the U.K. detective agencies.
I liked him. He was wholly transparent.
One reason such individuals sound like mafiosi is that the two camps regularly associate, said Mark Galeotti, a bearded professor at Keele University. He is an expert on the intersection of Russian organized crime and intelligence services, and was introduced to Russian gangs while working on a doctoral degree in the 1980s. Russian-based detective agencies are often partners with criminal gangs, said Galeotti. The gangs, in turn, are tolerated by Putin as long as they respect the Kremlin’s domination of politics and business. Putin “doesn’t go out to cleanse the stables,” Galeotti said. “He just wants [the regions] to run efficiently.”
Alexander Litvinenko’s road to political exile in London began with a similar observation—that Putin was inexplicably tolerating criminality within the Russian state. His accusations would become more incendiary over the years, sometimes crossing into the fantastic. Galeotti, who once attended a speech by Litvinenko, found him to be earnest and committed, a decent person who was simply out of his depth. That was a perceptive observation. For all of Litvinenko’s precautions as a KGB-trained officer accustomed to attack and betrayal, he was ultimately unprepared for the precarious course his life took.
Litvinenko was raised by his paternal grandfather in the northern Caucasus city of Nalchik, left there by parents who divorced when he was a young boy. His first wife thought his upbringing in this relatively wild region of southern Russia contributed to his being a bit of an odd character. Natalia Litvinenko, who had met the blond, blue-eyed Alexander in the suburbs of Moscow when he was fourteen and she a year younger, told me that he glorified his boyhood. As they fell in love, wed, and had two children, Litvinenko would abruptly turn cold and intimidating, and defend himself by saying that Caucasus people “have hotter blood so are capable of more cruelty,” Natalia said. But ultimately Litvinenko was a self-pitying sort, “like an abandoned puppy,” she said, troubled by an indifferent mother who refused to cook for him, an abusive stepfather who once forced him to jump on and off a couch one hundred times as punishment, and the general feeling that no one at all loved him.
In later years, Litvinenko would regard the period spanning his boyhood and first marriage as something of a lost time before he found his bearings. But he seemed to appreciate Natalia’s main point, according to Death of a Dissident, a memoir cowritten by his second wife, Marina, and his colleague and spokesman Alex Goldfarb. Rather than loved, he “felt sidelined” while growing up, the authors write. Absent an autobiography, I treated Death of a Dissident as a primary source for Litvinenko’s mind-set. Unsurprisingly, it differs from Natalia’s description of some events, especially Litvinenko’s abandonment of his family after eleven years of marriage. Natalia said that his departure was sudden, coming on a tempestuous 1993 night when he returned home smelling of perfume. She accused Marina of stealing him from her. Death of a Dissident, however, describes the first marriage as an unhappy one that collapsed of its own accord.
I found both wives attractive. Marina, a ballroom dance teacher, has more city sophistication and flair, and is less prone to paranoid and eyebrow-raising remarks. (For example, Natalia told my assistant that Litvinenko is still alive, and that his funeral was faked.) Yet I also felt sympathy for Natalia and the two children she had with Litvinenko; twenty-two-year-old Alexander and sixteen-year-old Sonya were both bitter and clearly hurt over growing up without their father for long periods.
Meeting Marina clearly was an important personal turn for Litvinenko. Death of a Dissident says that their relationship enabled him to finally shed his feelings of alienation. But far more dramatic in terms of Litvinenko’s ultimate fate was his crossing paths the next year with Boris Berezovsky, the wealthy Russian oligarch.
Moscow was bursting with swaggering billionaires in the 1990s, but few matched the outsized figure of Berezovsky. Made rich by his media empire, he presumed to influence all matters within the Kremlin, where he was part of President Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle. Litvinenko at the time was a major in an anti-terrorism and organized crime unit of the former KGB.
The two met when Litvinenko was investigating a reported assassination threat against Berezovsky, and they spoke again a few times after that. Then, eight months later, Litvinenko received an urgent message on his pager. Berezovsky said he was in trouble—Moscow police had shown up at the club he owned with the intention of taking him in for questioning in the investigation of a sensational murder. Vlad Listyev, general director of the Berezovsky-controlled television station ORT, had been shot dead. Litvinenko rushed to the club and held off the police until more members of his own unit arrived, and the altercation was defused. Berezovsky underwent police questioning, but at the club rather than some remote location.
The event quickly cemented the relationship between Berezovsky and Litvinenko. Both felt that, short of the latter’s intercession, the oligarch might have been taken away, only to disappear and later be reported as accidentally killed. Such things happened in Moscow with disturbing regularity. “[T]hey developed a bond shared only by people who have faced mortal danger together—not friendship or attachment, but a special kind of loyalty that no other can surpass,” Marina Litvinenko and Goldfarb wrote in Death of a Dissident.
In other words, Berezovsky more or less owed Litvinenko a blood debt.
In 1997, Litvinenko took command of a four-member team that was part of a shadowy anti–organized crime unit. A superior officer summoned the team and told the men that Berezovsky had to be killed. Speaking directly to Litvinenko, he said, “You will be the one to take him out.” The officer did not say who was ordering the assassination, but implied that the decision had been reached within the leadership of the anti-crime unit itself.
The events that followed reminded me of the old KGB agent Nikolai Khokhlov and his life-changing knock on the door of an anti-Soviet émigré—“I can’t let this murder happen.” Like Nikolai forty-four years earlier, Litvinenko did not perceive his assigned target as a “grave threat to our country”—the words of the superior officer that day. Extreme measures were warranted in wartime Chechnya, but not in peacetime Moscow. The order to kill the oligarch made Litvinenko and his men uneasy; he balked at it inwardly, but was careful to guard his feelings.
During the following three months, Litvinenko’s squad did nothing to carry out the order, and the superior officer never brought it up again. It was a curious situation, to say the least. Litvinenko and his men were dismayed that, whatever criminality had crept into their profession, someone was trying to reinvent them as a moneymaking political hit squad. That was not what they had signed up to be. At the same time, they suspected the threat wasn’t necessarily serious, and they might be able to outwait the officer who had issued the assassination order. So they dragged their feet, and heard nothing more from the officer.
Litvinenko did not immediately make Berezovsky aware of the order to assassinate him. When he later briefed the oligarch on the odd situation, Berezovsky thought the whole business sounded outlandish, but went straight to the director of the FSB. Was it true, what Litvinenko and his men said?
The FSB boss, Nikolai Kovalev, seemed to know nothing about the assassination order. But the accusations were explosive, and he assured the oligarch and Litvinenko that he would investigate. Soon they received word that whatever order had been issued—serious or not—was no longer in effect. Berezovsky would not be killed. However, the officer whose directive had set off the entire brouhaha went unpunished.
Litvinenko would not be soothed, and for good reason. Other troubling propositions were put before him: One superior asked if he was willing to help kill a former FSB man named Mikhail Trepashkin, who had accused the agency of corruption. Another sought his assistance in kidnapping a Chechen hotel owner. It seemed to Litvinenko that he and his men were still being pressured to act as an outlaw force.
Over subsequent months, Berezovsky arranged for Litvinenko’s men to air their complaints outside the FSB—to a Kremlin security official, who passed them on to the federal prosecutor’s office, which took formal depositions. It seemed they were being taken seriously, particularly when Kovalev was fired as FSB chief and replaced by someone whom Berezovsky recommended—Vladimir Putin.
Litvinenko and the other whistle-blowers were now on temporary suspension pending an investigation, but they thought the momentum was going their way. Their testimony could well lead to the reform of the FSB and promotions for all. Litvinenko in particular thought he might be in line for a senior position in the agency, given Berezovsky’s influence. The powerful oligarch had become a Putin zealot and was championing the new FSB boss as a presidential candidate to succeed Yeltsin. Within a relatively short time, he would emerge as one of Putin’s most important political strategists.
But the whistle-blowers had underestimated Putin’s fealty to the intelligence community. When Litvinenko provided a briefing on questionable events at the FSB, Putin listened silently without committing to any action. Whatever had been said about killing Berezovsky reflected “thoughtless statements,” but “did not constitute an intent to commit murder.” Putin reassigned all members of the anti-crime unit—except the Litvinenko group. Litvinenko and his men seemed not to grasp it, but they had become outcasts within the FSB.
It was clear that Putin cared most about being solidly loyal to the intelligence agency he held dear, and less about changing the FSB’s practices.
One day in November—almost a year after the original threat to Berezovsky—Russian émigré Yuri Felshtinsky flew in to Moscow to assume his new duties as a political adviser to the oligarch. Felshtinsky, now a scholar living in Boston, was no fan of the FSB. When, some two years hence, Russia would be shocked by a string of apartment house bombings, he would become a proponent of the theory that the FSB had been involved and that Vladimir Putin had been in on the planning.
But for now, his main interest was “a strange-looking man who was talking and talking and talking” while Felshtinsky and Berezovsky looked on. The talkative man was Litvinenko, who was preparing his men for a press conference the next day at which they would air their grievances against the FSB in public for the first time. There was much cursing and raising of voices as they debated whether to wear masks, weighed the risk of arrest, and wondered if their wardrobes were suitable for such an event. Litvinenko set about writing an opening statement to be handed to reporters.
“Do you mind if I look over the text?” Felshtinsky asked. Berezovsky agreed, and the new man concluded that Litvinenko could write pretty well.
The next day, Litvinenko and five FSB colleagues faced the press. Litvinenko was one of two who did not wear masks. He told reporters that he was deeply troubled by his unit’s activities, and he recounted kidnapping and murder plans to which he had been witness. The FSB had become a criminal organization, “used for settling scores and carrying out private and criminal orders for payments. Sometimes the FSB is being used solely for the purpose of earning money.” Senior officials within the agency were complicit, he said.
There simply was no precedent for such a public confession, at least not in Moscow itself. (Nikolai Khokhlov’s dramatic 1954 news conference had been at a safe distance, in Frankfurt.) The Litvinenko event was televised and widely reported around Russia and in the West as well. The London Independent called it “extraordinary” and a New York Times report said later that “Moscow has talked of little else since.”
What had brought matters to such a remarkable turn? Berezovsky, Litvinenko, and his men had lost faith that the FSB would reform itself and decided their only hope was a dramatic gesture that would marshal public opinion. But still they were not blaming Putin, and indeed shielded him by only citing events that had occurred before he took over the agency. They blamed the system, not the man.
Before the end of the year, they had their answer. FSB chief Vladimir Putin fired Litvinenko and the others for making “internal scandals public.”
Berezovsky stuck by Litvinenko and his men. The whistle-blowers continued to nurse the hope that they would prevail, and the relationship between Felshtinsky and Litvinenko warmed. The latter, prone to non-stop banter, “was glad to have me as a listener,” Felshtinsky recalled. They were opposites in physical appearance, as was apparent in the jacket photo of Blowing Up Russia, the book that they would later coauthor. Standing beside each other, the hulking Felshtinsky and the comparatively small, boyish Litvinenko reminded me of the broad-chested John Steinbeck and his diminutive Hungarian photographer, Robert Capa, in a snapshot taken during research for their classic Russian Journal. In the case of the two Russians, it was the smaller man who had the spellbinding stories to tell.
As Felshtinsky listened, Litvinenko described torture he witnessed during his months of service in Chechnya, including once when soldiers burned a Chechen captive alive over an open fire and another occasion when they flayed a Chechen man. A startled Felshtinsky wondered why he didn’t halt the outrages. Litvinenko replied that he couldn’t have even if he wanted to, and that if he had tried, his companions would surely have killed him.
Then and later, Felshtinsky heard Litvinenko defend himself against implied and direct accusations that he had blood on his hands. Litvinenko said he never broke any law, Russian or international. Felshtinsky interpreted this to mean that while he killed men in battle, as dutiful soldiers must do, he never tortured anyone, nor violated any other standard of civility such as the Geneva Conventions.
But Felshtinsky decided there was something over the edge about these whistle-blowers. Hearing them bicker, he thought they sounded much like the gangsters they were trained to round up.
Berezovsky was providing them with monthly stipends of $500 to $1,000, good pay for Moscow. But that wasn’t how the whistle-blowers—indeed, almost anyone around the oligarch—saw things. His retainers clung to the largely unsupported belief that anyone working for him inevitably would become rich, even super-rich. “When you are dealing with Boris, you are not thinking of tens of thousands of dollars, but hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars,” Felshtinsky said. “Even if you are getting enough or a lot, you are disappointed or getting angry at him.”
When one of the whistle-blowers angrily demanded a lump sum payment of $100,000, Litvinenko replied that “We didn’t do it for money.” After a few more rounds of similar sniping, everyone calmed down and the men recovered much of their optimism. Berezovsky was the key to promotions for all; the big money would come eventually. All they needed to do was push the oligarch harder.
Litvinenko himself thought so, too, until the moment, around three p.m. on March 25, 1999, when he was imprisoned.
The FSB charged him with beating up a suspect about two years earlier and planting bomb-making evidence to force the man to confess he was a terrorist. Litvinenko spent seven months in prison before being acquitted, then was jailed again, this time for three weeks. According to Death of a Dissident, Berezovsky obtained his release the second time by intervening with Putin.
One had to question Litvinenko’s judgment in pursuing the FSB corruption matter so assertively. For instance, if the threat against Berezovsky was so serious, why didn’t he call the oligarch at once and tell him the details? After all, he and the oligarch had developed “a special kind of loyalty” to each other, according to Death of a Dissident. And if the order to kill the oligarch was genuine, didn’t the whistle-blowers think it odd that no superior officer demanded to know whether it was being carried out? Perhaps one answer is that, like Nikolai Khokhlov, Litvinenko wasn’t satisfied with quietly saving a life. Rather than remaining behind the scenes, he had indulged a flair for the dramatic and an appetite for the public spotlight.
Almost everyone involved seemed to be looking out mainly for his own interests—the whistle-blowers hoping for enhanced status and more money, and Berezovsky seeking to tame the FSB and extend his political influence. When FSB boss Kovalev was fired and replaced by Putin, the dissidents saw it as evidence that “Berezovsky was winning,” Felshtinsky recalled. Instead, “Litvinenko was fired and imprisoned…. Put in was not Berezovsky’s friend, and Berezovsky was the last person who knew this.”
That Litvinenko was no longer safe seemed obvious. He began planning his escape from Russia. Felshtinsky’s recollection is that the two of them met at Litvinenko’s dacha after his release from prison. Felshtinsky and Berezovsky had recently discussed Litvinenko’s safety in Russia, and both figured it was time for him to leave the country. Now at Litvinenko’s dacha, Felshtinsky related the conversation to him.
“What will I do? Where will I go?” Litvinenko asked. Felshtinsky said he could help. During the early 1980s, difficult years when the border was closed after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he had run an illicit emigration scheme in which he charged Soviets $6,000 each to get out by marrying a Swede or a Finn. Given that he managed to settle people fairly easily during those years, he didn’t see much of a problem once Litvinenko got over the Russian border.
In the meantime, Felshtinsky said, give Marina some money, and tell her to depart separately and meet him—Felshtinsky—somewhere abroad. Berezovsky would help. Litvinenko agreed.
According to Death of a Dissident, Litvinenko had already decided to flee before his émigré friend suggested it. He had been doing his best to evade FSB surveillance, which he was certain was under way. But how would he get out of the country, since he had been refused a passport the last time he applied? He began studying a lengthy land route south.
Not too long after, Natalia Litvinenko—his first wife—had a rare visit from her former husband. He had some plans, he said. It had become too dangerous for him, and he was going to go live on an island somewhere, write a book, and live off the royalties. Did she think that was all right? If he no longer felt safe, she replied, he indeed should go.
A month after the meeting at Litvinenko’s dacha, Felshtinsky was back in Boston. His telephone rang. It was Berezovsky calling from London. “You know we have a common friend in Moscow?” the oligarch said in the vague way that former Soviets speak when they fear their phone is tapped. “Well, he’s no longer in Moscow.”
Felshtinsky understood instantly. Litvinenko had not taken long to act.
His first stop was the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, from which he took a steamer south to the neighboring republic of Georgia, a trip that didn’t require a passport. He traversed seaside towns before finally turning inland and reaching the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. He knew people there and could purchase a false passport.
Litvinenko needed to obtain asylum in a Western country if he was to be out of Russia’s reach. But where? One possibility was London. Another was Germany. Litvinenko had a sister there, and his father had other connections. The Berezovsky machine went into motion.
Berezovsky himself was in trouble with Putin at the moment. The strain had begun a half year earlier, soon after Putin won election as president. In Berezovsky’s estimation, Putin’s rise meant business as usual for him, meaning that he would maintain his profit-making enterprises and continue to exercise influence in the Kremlin.
And that’s how their relationship was initially. But quickly, Putin became offended by Berezovsky’s attitude, which smacked of entitlement. The billionaire argued forcefully against Putin’s plan to rein in much of the country’s power and transfer it to the Kremlin. Berezovsky’s television station, ORT, strongly criticized Putin’s performance during the 2000 Kursk submarine disaster. And, in an interview, Berezovsky had seemed to compare Putin to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Berezovsky had stepped out of line. The punishment would be Kremlin seizure of ORT, Putin decided.
In their final Kremlin meeting, recorded in Death of a Dissident and confirmed by Berezovsky, each seemed to regard the other’s behavior as betrayal.
“Tell me Boris, I don’t understand,” Putin asked. “…Why are you attacking me? Have I done anything to hurt you?…You are supposed to be my friend.”
“…You forgot our conversation after the election, Volodya,” Berezovsky replied, using Putin’s nickname. “I told you that I never swore allegiance to you personally. You promised to continue the Yeltsin way. He would never even think of shutting up a journalist who attacked him. You are destroying Russia.”
That was about it.
“Good-bye, Boris Abramovich,” Putin said.
“Good-bye, Volodya,” said the oligarch.
The two never spoke again. By the time Litvinenko decided to flee, Berezovsky was already an exile living in Europe.
It was vindication for Felshtinsky. Berezovsky’s relationship with his political consultant had gone through a rocky period, mainly because the oligarch felt that Felshtinsky didn’t understand the changes that had transformed Russia in the last two decades. But now, Berezovsky wanted Felshtinsky to serve as his man on the ground, and get Litvinenko to safety. The oligarch instructed Felshtinsky to come meet him in London. Working as a team, they would spirit Litvinenko into Munich via commercial flights and even private planes if needed. Berezovsky provided $10,000 in cash to be funneled to Litvinenko.
At this point, Marina and her six-year-old son, Anatoly, learned for the first time what was going on. Her husband had left Moscow saying he was going to visit his father in the Caucasus. Later, he had called to suggest that she take a vacation in Spain. It was left to Felshtinsky to go to Marina and explain the escape plan.
He began to shuttle between the husband in Georgia and the wife in Spain. Arriving in Tbilisi, Felshtinsky found Litvinenko in a petulant state. He now had Berezovsky’s cash, along with an authentic-looking Georgian passport, and wanted to go straight to the U.S. embassy. He threw a tantrum when Felshtinsky refused to take him there. Berezovsky had ordered that they stay away from the Americans—the oligarch wanted no one to know of the pair’s presence in Georgia, worried in particular that the episode would be associated with one of his longtime business partners who had a reputation for criminal connections.
Litvinenko would have none of it. “If we don’t go to the American embassy, I’m going back to Moscow,” he said defiantly.
Finally, Felshtinsky relented. Okay, we will go, he said, but on one condition—that you never tell Berezovsky. Litvinenko agreed.
Felshtinsky held several meetings at the embassy. The American diplomats were mainly interested in gauging Litvinenko’s usefulness as an intelligence source. Did he know any Russian agents operating in the United States? Or Americans operating for the Russians? Beyond that, the diplomats seemed in no hurry to move things along.
Felshtinsky and Litvinenko became increasingly nervous. For security purposes, they carried several cell phones, including one with Felshtinsky’s Boston number. But only his Russian phone worked in Georgia—and it began to ring. Acquaintances in Moscow were calling, having noted the absence of the entire Litvinenko family and concerned that something was amiss. Felshtinsky worried that it had become too dangerous to remain in Georgia.
He and Litvinenko rushed to the airport and boarded a fourteen-seat luxury Fokker jet rented by Berezovsky in Paris. On the tarmac as the pilot prepared for takeoff, Felshtinsky heard his cell phone ring. It was the American embassy in Tbilisi.
“Call me in an hour,” Felshtinsky said, notwithstanding that they would be in the air at that moment. Then Berezovsky called. Felshtinsky briefed him. In line with the original plan, he said, they were headed for Munich.
“I think you should go to Turkey, not Munich,” Berezovsky replied.
That did not go over well with Litvinenko. Turkey was a nether-world that swallowed up all manner of people. It sounded like Berezovsky intended to abandon him, and he insisted that they head for a Western country—Germany, he said.
Felshtinsky handed the phone to Litvinenko.
Berezovsky went to work on him: I’m not going to abandon you. We just need more time to figure this out.
Berezovsky had a commanding manner. It also mattered that he was financing the escape. Even Litvinenko, prone to argue with anyone, didn’t challenge him too vigorously. Finally he told the billionaire that he trusted him, and switched off the phone.
But then he resumed bargaining with Felshtinsky. Litvinenko would go to Antalya—the Turkish resort region that Berezovsky had in mind—only if Felshtinsky dropped him off, then flew at once to Spain to retrieve Marina and Anatoly.
By now Litvinenko was under tremendous stress, and the arrival of his family the next day with Felshtinsky didn’t ease him that much. He was suspicious of certain men he saw in the hotel lobby. “I know these people,” he insisted. “They are FSB. I know them from Chechnya.” He was sure they were preparing to kill them. Felshtinsky ignored him. He thought that was Litvinenko’s game—using staged nervousness to get what he wanted, which could range from checking into a new hotel, to going to a new city, or simply attracting attention.
Whichever was the case, Felshtinsky was losing confidence. A month earlier, he had thought it would be easy to arrange asylum for Litvinenko. The obvious route was the Americans, but so far that wasn’t working. In Tbilisi, the U.S. embassy had seemed more interested in bargaining for information than rescuing an FSB defector. Berezovsky’s camp had made Felshtinsky even more anxious by suggesting they rent a yacht and sail into international waters—they could wait at sea while asylum was arranged. But Felshtinsky thought that could leave them exposed to an attack, with no escape route should Putin learn their location.
Now Berezovsky dispatched an additional adviser, Alex Goldfarb, to the mission. Goldfarb had an unusual talent for public relations. While still a Soviet citizen in the 1970s, this microbiologist came to be known by Western journalists as a conduit to Moscow dissidents. After the Soviet breakup, he ran the Moscow office of the Open Society Institute, an organization established by hedge fund billionaire George Soros to promote democracy in formerly communist states. Berezovsky eventually hired him to run a foundation that financed anti-Putin political activities. With Goldfarb, it was often difficult to determine where the truth ended and the propaganda began. But if you wanted something to happen, he was your man.
Felshtinsky and Goldfarb began instantly to quarrel. Goldfarb’s first suggestion was that Litvinenko be brought to American diplomats in Turkey, accompanied by a lawyer to protect his interests. Felshtinsky thought this was a terrible idea after their Tbilisi experience, but couldn’t let slip that they had defied Berezovsky’s instructions and already gone to the Americans.
“It’s an idiotic idea,” Felshtinsky said.
Goldfarb said he would dispatch a lawyer.
“If you are going to send in a lawyer, you might as well go yourself, because I’m not going to go with a lawyer,” Felshtinsky replied. He announced that he was leaving, causing Litvinenko to become even more alarmed and his wife to sense betrayal. Felshtinsky had deliberately escalated the argument out of dread that this mission was going very wrong. But his departure would turn out to be a welcome development. While a nice guy, he was not an operator of Goldfarb’s caliber.
Within hours after Felshtinsky left, Goldfarb and the Litvinenko family were on the road to the capital, Ankara. There, they met with diplomats at the U.S. embassy—but again, no one seemed prepared to make a deal.
That night, Litvinenko went into his familiar routine. He called Goldfarb’s attention to a fellow in the hotel lobby. “They’re here already…. We have to get out of here,” he declared, identifying the manas an FSB agent. Goldfarb took Litvinenko seriously and hustled the family out of the hotel. They drove all night to presumed safety in Istanbul. Along the way, Litvinenko stepped up the drama. He directed Goldfarb to stop the car and wait ten minutes to see whether anyone was following them. “I won’t go alive,” Litvinenko said. “If the Turks turn me in, I’ll kill myself.”
Was there a genuine danger? One couldn’t tell, Felshtinsky had said of Litvinenko. And even if you knew he was bluffing, and kept saying to yourself, “He is bluffing, he is bluffing,” Litvinenko was a very good actor, and it was hard to be absolutely sure.
Felshtinsky, back in Boston, received a call from local CIA agents. Could they come meet with him? Before long, a man and a woman showed up at his door. “You left Tbilisi without talking to our friend who was expecting to meet with you,” one said.
“I was trying to check how quick you are,” Felshtinsky replied, remembering the snippet of phone conversation moments before taking off from the Tbilisi airport. He explained what was going on in Turkey. “We left Tbilisi because it’s dangerous, and it’s more dangerous in Turkey.” Could these agents help rescue his Russian friend? “It’s difficult,” the U.S. agents said simply. “It’s difficult.”
Goldfarb telephoned from Istanbul. If the Americans didn’t act quickly, he told Felshtinsky, he would hold a press conference and say that an American’s life was being put in danger, meaning his own. Felshtinsky should pass that message on to his CIA contacts. Felshtinsky advised against such an approach.
“It’s my life, not yours,” Goldfarb replied. “The FSB is already here. It’s our lives, and I ask you to do this on my behalf.”
So Felshtinsky called his contact at the CIA.
“We can’t be subject to blackmail and pressure,” the CIA contact replied. “You’re on your own.”
Goldfarb, left to his wilier instincts, improvised. He bought Turkey-to-Moscow tickets for everyone—with a transit stop in London. At Heathrow Airport, Goldfarb introduced Litvinenko to an immigration officer and requested asylum on behalf of him and his family.
Within hours, the Litvinenkos were under the protection of the British government. As for Goldfarb, the United Kingdom declared him persona non grata and sent him on his way.
Berezovsky put up Litvinenko and his family in an apartment in London’s upscale Kensington district and arranged a £5,000 monthly allowance, a handsome sum, considering that their housing expenses were already covered.
Litvinenko and Felshtinsky saw much of each other, laboring over Blowing Up Russia, their book about the 1999 apartment blasts. Berezovsky published the resulting work in Russian, but the Kremlin security services foiled his attempt to smuggle five thousand copies into Russia. The opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta came to the rescue by printing several chapters in one hundred thousand copies of a special edition.
But the transition to life in London was hard for Litvinenko. Unlike Berezovsky, now in self-exile there, he did not speak English and was not very diligent about learning it. That left him isolated, glued to satellite television shows beamed in from Moscow, and unable to wander much beyond the Russian-speaking community.
He sought a meeting with Oleg Gordievsky, the ex–KGB station chief who was the hub and glue of all the U.K.-based spies and former spies. Gordievsky had become a cause célèbre in 1985 when he defected and was spirited out of the Soviet Union by British spies in the trunk of a car. He had traveled to the United States a dozen times, visited Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the White House, and by his own count had written some ten thousand intelligence reports for the West.
Newly arrived Russian exiles regularly made pilgrimages to Gordievsky’s home in Godalming, a village outside London. But the old spy at first refused to see Litvinenko. This new defector from the FSB was not the type of exile he was inclined to meet. This fellow was a mere operative for Boris Berezovsky, and not a genuine dissident.
Berezovsky, on the other hand, was always an interesting guest, especially with all the billionaire’s supplication. Gordievsky recalled their first meeting, at which Berezovsky presented himself as “quite a positive figure” who spent his money on good causes.
“He came here in a limousine, and sat at this table, and told me the story of his life. It was like he felt he had to explain himself to me,” Gordievsky recalled. The two shared a mutual contempt for Vladimir Putin. Gordievsky dismissed the Russian president as one of the “blanket lifters” who spied on Russians abroad when he was a KGB officer based in Dresden, Germany, during the 1980s. Not a professional he could respect.
Litvinenko was finally able to see Gordievsky after another exile vouched for the newcomer. The two quickly hit it off, and Litvinenko visited regularly for lunch, sometimes bringing his wife and son. “Like Berezovsky, he carried two mobile phones,” Gordievsky recalled. “He was always on them.”
Once, Litvinenko brought along Anna Politkovskaya, the crusading Russian journalist with whom he had been exchanging stories of Putin’s war in the restive region of Chechnya, and her glamorous elder sister, Elena Kudimova, a London-based derivatives trader. They dined at the village hotel, called Inn on the Lake, with a view of the surrounding forest.
I took the train down to Godalming, where Gordievsky met me in a blue blazer, with a peach shirt and a violet silk hanky sprouting from his jacket pocket. There was no visible security at his home, but I knew this man—the West’s biggest Cold War catch ever—was well protected by surveillance. Gordievsky was cordial, inclined toward coarse humor punctuated with hearty laughs. At dinner with his English girlfriend along, he whispered conspiratorially, alerting me that she shouldn’t hear.
“Russians want to hear rough language. They think it brings life to the conversation,” he said, giving both sides of his face a light slap for emphasis. This is why Russian men can speak impolitely to their wives, he said.
Like Nikolai Khokhlov, Gordievsky fled Russia without his family. There was much explaining to do when he and his wife, Leila, reunited a few years later. She flew into London with their two daughters—eleven-year-old Mariya and ten-year-old Anna—but reconciliation proved elusive. After a few days, the wife and daughters returned to Moscow, and divorce followed. By the time I met Gordievsky, no one in the family was speaking to him.
I asked why his wife had bothered to make the trip. “She wanted the money,” he replied. He was clearly bitter. “There was £200,000 to her, plus £170,000 of private education for the two girls. Plus she receives £1,250 a month as compensation for being an ‘abandoned wife.’ She brainwashed the girls that I am a traitor.”
IN MOSCOW, I STARTED ASKING AROUND ABOUT AN AMERICAN named Paul Klebnikov. The Forbes reporter’s investigative stories, especially on billionaire Boris Berezovsky, had attracted wide attention there. I had run across his work while writing a book on oil and been struck by his obvious confidence when describing Russia’s elites. Much of the nation’s super-rich—guys I couldn’t get to—granted him access, and the insights that he gained led to a number of exclusive reports on corruption. The detail that filled his stories made them especially enjoyable to read.
I was surprised to discover that Klebnikov seemed a kindred spirit of Vladimir Putin. That set him apart from his more skeptical—in some cases, downright hostile—journalistic colleagues. But then Klebnikov wasn’t an orthodox reporter. He was an unabashed crusader on a shared mission with the Russian president. Both saw themselves duty bound to assist in the restoration of a great Russia—prosperous, powerful, and respected by the world. Both attacked anyone who appeared to be impeding that goal. Neither seemed to pause to consider that his vision of historic Russia might have been more romantic than real.
Klebnikov’s leanings were more understandable when one considered his origins. Unlike Putin, who was most strongly influenced by his sentimental loyalty to Russia’s security services, Klebnikov was driven by blood. A descendant of czarist-era aristocrats, he quoted Pushkin with regularity and spoke fluent Russian with what some acquaintances presumed was the accent of a nineteenth-century nobleman. (New York magazine reported that he and two friends ran the city’s marathon in T-shirts bearing the double-headed Russian eagle, and that Klebnikov led them in Russian military songs to keep spirits high. “We’re fighting for Mother Russia and the czar!” went one lyric.)
He acquired his enthusiasm for things Russian at an early age. His family’s Manhattan apartment was festooned with memorabilia of the old country. Descendants of Russia’s displaced nobility were regular visitors, and the young Klebnikov was taught to respect his family’s place in history. Stories were told around the dinner table about men such as Ivan Pouschine, a Klebnikov ancestor who was imprisoned for involvement in an 1825 uprising known as the Decembrist revolt, and great-grandfather Arcadi Nebolsin, a Russian admiral slain by mutineers during the Bolshevik revolution. An entire generation of the family had fled Russia during the 1917 uprising.
At the same time, Klebnikov became comfortable around the well-to-do. He was a guest at the homes of schoolmates from St. Bernard’s, on the Upper East Side, and Phillips Exeter Academy, in New Hampshire, both exclusive schools. Later, he studied at two highly selective universities, UC Berkeley, in California, and the London School of Economics. His wife-to-be, Helen, or “Musa,” as she was known, was the daughter of John Train, a wealthy New York investment adviser and bestselling author of books including The Money Masters.
Forbes hired Klebnikov in 1989 at the age of twenty-six, soon after he completed his research for a doctorate in Russian studies. His intimate knowledge of life in the upper class dovetailed nicely with the magazine’s interests. He visited Institut Le Rosey, in Rolle, Switzerland, where he had taught tennis five years earlier, and wrote an unforgettable piece about this boarding school for the coddled rich, including the children of princes and kings. Klebnikov’s inquisitive mind was evident in a later investigative report on the wealth of Iran’s Rafsanjani family, whose patriarchs were among “a handful of clerics who call the shots behind the curtain and have gotten very rich in the process.” It was groundbreaking work.
Along the way, he traveled regularly to Russia and wrote stories lamenting what he saw as its decline into criminality under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. In December 1996, he made his biggest splash ever, with a story highly critical of Boris Berezovsky. The piece—headlined “Godfather of the Kremlin?”—suggested that the oligarch had become Russia’s greatest baron by consorting with gangsters and being complicit in murder. The latter charge led to a Berezovsky libel suit, which was resolved when Forbes publicly retracted the implication that the billionaire had played a role in anyone’s death.
The Berezovsky story had run without a byline, apparently out of concern for Klebnikov’s safety. But it did not take much guesswork in Moscow to determine the author’s identity, and death threats soon began to arrive. He continued to write about Russia, but with an armed bodyguard at his side whenever he visited the country.
Klebnikov heaped scorn on Yeltsin, soon to be succeeded by Putin. In a 1999 piece for Forbes, he accused the lame duck president of presiding over a “gangster state. Corrupt from top to bottom, it is ruled by a small group of political bosses and their crony capitalist friends. The gang feeds on state assets and protects itself with violence.” These virtual traitors were preventing the revival of his beloved Russia, Klebnikov believed.
But Berezovsky topped his list of scoundrels. In 2000, a Klebnikov biography of the oligarch was published under the title of Godfather of the Kremlin. The book drew heavily on the piece four years earlier in Forbes, although this time there was no question mark. Klebnikov ticked off Berezovsky’s alleged misdeeds on the path from small-time mathematician to wealthy kingmaker—a career, he wrote, that was “replete with bankrupt companies and violent deaths.” Klebnikov thought that Berezovsky was an object lesson in why foreigners during Yeltsin’s rule should have let Russia be Russia instead of trying to impose Western traditions. “If it is hard for westerners to understand how the introduction of democratic principles could have been so poisonous to Russian society, Berezovsky’s career holds one of the keys,” he wrote.
According to his editors, to understand Klebnikov one had to read Eastern Approaches, the 1951 memoir of Fitzroy Maclean. The classic account follows the swashbuckling Scot through hair-raising adventures as a British diplomat observing Stalin’s 1937 purge trial of Bukharin; as a clandestine traveler to Central Asia and Afghanistan; and particularly as Winston Churchill’s personal ambassador to Tito in the mountains of Croatia during World War II. I was lucky enough to meet Maclean in Georgia a few months before his death, in 1996, at the age of eighty-five. He dozed off a few times as we sat in his hotel room, discussing his hopes for Georgia’s young independence. But with a bejeweled Georgian sword on the nightstand and a pair of carved Scottish canes by his side, Maclean was still at heart a man of action.
This exceptional man inspired generations of diplomats and journalists, including me. But I never thought I was Maclean. Klebnikov apparently did. “Most journalists think of themselves as observers. But Paul thought of himself as a participant. Like Maclean, Klebnikov wasn’t only interested in recording what he saw. He really believed he could play a part in public affairs,” said James Michaels, the Forbes editor who hired him. William Baldwin, another of Klebnikov’s editors, said, “He had this messianic belief that he was going to be part of the transition from a gangster country to a civilized country.”
I couldn’t relate to this side of Klebnikov. I felt highly uncomfortable with the notion of injecting myself into the affairs of a foreign country. Not Klebnikov. He seemed to have acquired Lord Jim pretensions, exhibiting the vanity of a Westerner who imagined himself rescuing the natives. As to his bashing of Berezovsky, I had dealt with many such unappealing characters over the years, but I felt it was crossing a journalistic line to invest so much personal outrage in one’s reportage.
But that, of course, was precisely the point for Klebnikov. He was personally invested in the story. He did take offense at the perceived misconduct of those he wrote about, Berezovsky being a prime example.
The Russian edition of Godfather of the Kremlin became a nonfiction bestseller, with 110,000 copies sold. Klebnikov tried to repeat that success with a book based on fifteen hours of taped conversation with a well-known Chechen warlord named Khozh-Ahmed Nukhayev. The man had been a debonair law student in Moscow and then a mobster before becoming a Chechen guerilla fighter and finally an anti-Western Islamic fundamentalist. But the book, Conversation with a Barbarian, was a flop, selling only six thousand copies.
Still, Klebnikov’s writings about Berezovsky had impressed his editors. They offered him the editorship of his own magazine, a Russian-language version of Forbes, and he readily accepted. All these years, Klebnikov had been flying from the United States and elsewhere to Moscow to do his reporting, then returning home. Now he could live in the Russian capital.
The forty-year-old Klebnikov, handsome, with piercing hazel eyes and a shock of brown hair, plunged headlong into his new assignment. He threw a champagne party for the magazine’s launch, at the five-star Baltschug hotel on the Moscow River. And he set in motion an editorial project that was breathtaking by Russian standards—an American-style listing of the country’s wealthiest citizens. It would throw the spotlight on Russia’s profiteers and surely offend the gangster element that would be well represented on the list. Klebnikov’s brainstorm seemed impossible to execute. How could anyone assemble such a list in a country where personal wealth is hidden from view, largely stashed in offshore accounts under false names? Yet Klebnikov and his team somehow succeeded, and the resulting layout, “The Golden Hundred,” was an instant sensation. It appeared in the magazine’s second issue, in May 2004, and catapulted Forbes Russia into the top tier of the country’s business magazines.
One might expect Klebnikov’s editorial daring to have triggered threats of physical retaliation; death threats had been quick to follow publication of “Godfather of the Kremlin?” in the magazine’s U.S. edition. But I could find no record of any threats against Klebnikov while he edited Forbes Russia. This was somewhat puzzling. As Leonid Bershidsky, his publisher in Moscow at the time, observed, “He was doing investigative stories and was making enemies with every story.”
Klebnikov now moved about Moscow without bodyguards, outwardly confident that he was in no personal danger. He was heartened by Boris Berezovsky’s self-exile in London and the firm rule of Vladimir Putin, now president of Russia. A fresh breeze was blowing through the country, he thought. But the private Klebnikov seemed somewhat ambivalent about security conditions. His wife and their three children had remained in the United States; she didn’t want to live in Russia and Klebnikov had agreed to take the job for just a year. When a visitor asked why his family was not with him, he replied, “I don’t know if it is safe for my family.”
Bershidsky, technically Klebnikov’s boss at Forbes Russia, was employed by Newsweek when I first met him in Moscow in the early 1990s. I was writing for the magazine and he was a “fixer,” on call to translate and solve any problems encountered by its reporters. He had since become a notable success in the business world. He told me that Klebnikov’s managerial skills were lacking, but that his journalism was towering. Klebnikov, he said, could “spend a month on a project and dig out something that others wanted to but couldn’t for ten years.” The American editor dazzled on all fronts. “People gathered around to hear how he carried out interviews,” Bershidsky said.
But as I talked with other journalists in Moscow, I discovered that Klebnikov’s reputation was mixed. Again and again I was told that his main claim to fame—the book Godfather of the Kremlin—was based on documents and interviews provided by a single disgruntled former Berezovsky ally, Alexander Korzhakov, who had been Boris Yeltsin’s chief of security. Prevailing wisdom said it was a hatchet job.
I concluded that some of the criticism was sour grapes. From the endnotes, one can see that Korzhakov provided Klebnikov with a road map—the knowledge and documents that he needed to get started. But finding fault with Klebnikov seemed to overlook how investigative journalism often begins with information supplied by an insider. Then the real work begins: The reporter must seek corroboration, authenticate documents, test the credibility of sources, and broaden the story to include all sides. Klebnikov’s twenty-nine pages of endnotes are an impressive display of such footwork. Overall, the book was solid journalism, covering a vast amount of ground, with insider detail that gave the reader a “you are there” feeling.
Not that it is bulletproof. Valeri Streletsky, the publisher of the Russian-language edition, was in fact Korzhakov’s former deputy, and thus an interested party. Streletsky told me that Klebnikov brought him the English-language manuscript that was being published by Harcourt, the Florida-based house, and that he simply hired a translator for the Russian edition. He didn’t see anything unscrupulous about his role, and given that it was a straight translation of the English edition, I didn’t either. Still, it was reckless for Klebnikov to expose himself to this appearance of partiality.
The English-language edition occasionally suffers from disingenuous writing. It hints at a Berezovsky connection to certain murders, but presents no proof. For example, Klebnikov writes that many of Berezovsky’s business ventures “were marred by the assassination or accidental death of key players,” but “there is no evidence that Berezovsky was responsible for any of these deaths.” What was Klebnikov’s point, other than to plant in the reader’s mind the opposite message—that Berezovsky somehow was to blame? Klebnikov also overexerts himself in some instances to show cause and effect. For example, he intimates that Berezovsky caused the Second Chechen War by making ransom payments to Chechen kidnappers who then attacked Russia. Berezovsky’s aim, according to Klebnikov? To make Putin president. Without something more in the way of evidence, the scenario is strained and unconvincing.
Some colleagues grumbled that Klebnikov was simply reporting what “everyone knew” about Berezovsky and the other oligarchs. I wrote that off as bar-stool talk. While he misfired on some occasions, Klebnikov was practicing professional, tough, American-style journalism and was among the very few writers who penetrated Russia’s criminal underside.
Which raises yet another rap against him—that he was a romantic. Alexander Politkovsky, an investigative reporter and the estranged husband of Anna Politkovskaya, told me that Klebnikov “didn’t really understand what was going on in Russia in reality.” Oleg Panfilov, who runs a nonprofit Moscow office that teaches journalists how to protect themselves, said: “He was naïve. He worshipped Russia, and understood nothing about Russia.”
Others whose advice I also respected made similar assertions—that Klebnikov’s reporting on Russia was flawed from the beginning because he was less knowledgeable than he thought. If so, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I had met numerous well-meaning but presumptuous second-and third-generation Americans who traced their ancestry to the former Soviet Union and came seeking to help the homeland. Their relatives in Russia and the neighboring republics often found these visitors to be condescending, and the Americans just as often were disappointed by the experience. In Armenia, some visiting kinfolk from America were told that the best thing they could do was stay home and send a check.
There was something to that advice.
I wondered how Berezovsky felt about having been the object of Klebnikov’s vilification. I dropped by his Mayfair, London, office on April 23, 2007, just hours after momentous news had arrived from Moscow—Boris Yeltsin had died at the age of seventy-six.
The billionaire, sporting a black silk shirt and striped white-and-gray slacks, was pacing and brooding. “Everything is topsy-turvy,” he said. Berezovsky, who had adulated Yeltsin, went on at length about the debt Russia owed this man who “helped millions of people to be released from slavery.”
He felt quite the opposite about Yeltsin’s ungrateful successor, Vladimir Putin, whom the billionaire aimed to bring down. If he couldn’t manage to oust him, he would at least make the autocratic Russian leader as miserable as he was.
Berezovsky had retreated to London about six years earlier, and the warfare between him and Putin had only worsened since then. Russia repeatedly sent prosecutors after him, hoping to extradite the onetime oligarch on a series of charges, including the alleged theft from a Russian manufacturer of two thousand cars worth some $13 million. But British courts refused to hand him over.
For his part, Berezovsky sank tens of millions of dollars into an anti-Putin crusade. He was the backer of Blowing Up Russia, the book that accused the Kremlin of complicity in the terrifying 1999 apartment bombings, and a companion documentary called Assassination of Russia.
In 2004, Berezovsky financed Putin’s opponent when he was up for reelection, a veteran lawmaker named Ivan Rybkin (whose campaign went off the rails when he vanished for five days, then reappeared in an incoherent state that suggested he had been drugged). The same year, Berezovsky panicked Russia’s ruling class by spending $30 million to support the so-called Orange Revolution in Ukraine. A Kremlin critic named Viktor Yushchenko emerged as president of the former Soviet republic after he was poisoned with dioxin, an unsolved assassination attempt that left his face disfigured. Popular opinion in Ukraine upended a rigged election and forced the rejection of a Moscow-backed candidate. Similar “street power” had unseated the president of neighboring Georgia only a year earlier, and Putin feared Russia—and he—could be next.
Berezovsky assembled a team of intellectuals and writers to help orchestrate the ouster of the Russian president. In this respect, he resembled an Old World patron of kept artists. His key allies in this endeavor were the former 1970s dissident Alex Goldfarb, the Boston-based political scholar Yuri Felshtinsky, and of course Alexander Litvinenko. These men churned out books, blog postings, and statements lambasting Putin. But Putin continued to rule, leaving Berezovsky to pout.
At its simplest, the ongoing struggle between Berezovsky and Putin was about one issue: Who would control Russia’s treasures? Berezovsky wanted the nation’s industrial might to be in private hands, with a large part reserved for him, naturally. Putin believed in state ownership, albeit with a generous helping set aside for his own favored oligarchs. Television was an excellent example of this. Once, the industry was controlled by media moguls such as Berezovsky, who acquired huge television holdings in the corrupt 1990s and made stations serve their political desires. Then the state wrested control, and television became the dutiful servant to Putin and the Kremlin.
As for Klebnikov, Berezovsky met with him once, for an interview in 1996. He described the Forbes editor as “a captive of his emotions, with all this idea of great Russia, of Russia for Russians.” He did not find Klebnikov to be an impressive journalist. What particularly upset him, Berezovsky said, was the suggestion in the original “Godfather” article that he had played a role in the murder of Vlad Listyev, the talk-show host at Berezovsky’s television station. He had sued, he said, “to demonstrate in the West that I am ready to protect my reputation, and I have done so.”
With that, Berezovsky was off to his next meeting. A Russian journalist wanted to talk about defecting to Britain. Could the billionaire help?
Klebnikov praised Putin for beginning to correct the errors made during “Russia’s flawed transition from Communism to a market economy in the 1990s,” which he labeled “one of the most mishandled reforms in history.” While much remained to be done, “the Russian marketplace is benefitting from the stability brought by the administration of President Vladimir Putin. Gone is the gangster free-for-all of the Yeltsin era. Putin has chosen a more measured pace of market liberalization, as well as more predictable rules.” Under Putin, the admiring editor wrote, “the country is finally creating a serious consumer market. Some of the oligarchs’ wealth, it seems, is starting to trickle down.” The May 2004 issue of Forbes Russia that listed the country’s richest citizens contained this exuberant testimony from Klebnikov: “Dynamism is one of the core characteristics of capitalism, and capitalist Russia is one of the most dynamic countries in the world right now.”
In July of that year, his wife, Musa, came to visit for a few days. They strolled Moscow together and dined with Mark Franchetti, the investigative reporter for the London Sunday Times. The three had been meaning to meet socially for some time—Musa was friends with a cousin of Franchetti’s—but had been unable to synchronize their schedules. Over a four-hour meal at the Pushkin Cafe, the two men debated the state of affairs in Russia. Franchetti told me that Klebnikov thought he was too negative about the country, while Franchetti felt that the American was “too much an apologist for Putin and naïve about the place.”
At one point, Musa asked Franchetti, “Is it safe here, or not safe?”
Franchetti, sensing that she was worried about her husband, didn’t know how to reply.
“Russia is changing,” he finally said. “Now people turn to lawyers, not contract killers.”
Klebnikov took Musa to the airport two days later, then returned to his grueling routine, working late hours at the Forbes Russia office. It was situated in a building across from the lovely Botanichesky Sad, or “Botanical Garden.” Klebnikov was in the habit of commuting by metro, using a station in the park a short walk from his office.
On Friday, July 9, two days after his wife’s departure, Klebnikov was working late again. He made a series of phone calls—to Musa, his brother Peter and his sister, Anna—in which he voiced high hopes for both Russia and Forbes Russia. Then he quit for the night. On his way out of the building, he passed an office used by Newsweek reporters, some of who were still working. It was about nine-thirty p.m., but still light outside.
Klebnikov walked across the street and approached the park. Suddenly, a dark Russian-made car, a Lada, halted behind him. A man inside the vehicle pointed a 9-millimeter Makarov pistol at the editor and fired four bullets. The car drove off without any words being spoken.
A guard rushed into the Newsweek office: “Somebody just called. He says that someone shot Paul Klebnikov in the stomach.”
Reporters Mikhail Fishman and Alexander Gordeev trotted into the street, where police, ambulance attendants, and spectators formed a circle around the fallen editor. Klebnikov was on his back on the sidewalk. Gordeev saw blood coming from one of his ears, soaking his shirt. A pool of blood was visible about thirty yards away, marking the spot where Klebnikov had been hit. It appeared that he had tried to get back to the office, but collapsed. He was still conscious and able to talk.
“Do you know what happened?” Gordeev asked Klebnikov in English.
“No,” Klebnikov calmly replied in Russian. “Someone was shooting.”
“Do you know who?”
Klebnikov described the gunman as a Russian, with black hair and wearing black clothing. He asked the Newsweek reporter to call his wife and brother. Then he asked for oxygen. There was none, but fluids were administered intravenously, and Klebnikov was loaded into an ambulance. Gordeev saw that he was tensing up. His eyes took on a desperate look, and he began to shake his head, as if to say, “No.” A doctor had to restrain Klebnikov from getting up. After a twenty-minute wait, the ambulance crew was told which hospital would receive them, and the vehicle sped from the scene.
Fishman, the other Newsweek reporter, rode along. “You can do it. It will be all right,” he repeated as Klebnikov slipped in and out of consciousness. At the hospital, there were more delays. The entrance gate was locked, forcing the ambulance to wait to be admitted. Once inside, Klebnikov was loaded onto a gurney and into an elevator, but it became stuck between floors.
At 10:48 p.m., just over an hour after Klebnikov had left his office, Gordeev’s phone rang. “It’s all over,” Fishman said. “He’s dead.”
Klebnikov had died either in the stalled elevator or shortly after, in the operating room. The doctors gave different stories, and no one knew whom to believe.
“None of us ever had the feeling that someone could kill him,” said Klebnikov’s deputy, Maxim Kashulinsky. “In retrospect, obviously everyone missed something.”
Russian police sometimes resemble the Keystone Kops. But they can be quite effective if they are motivated to solve a case, and if politics doesn’t get in their way. The killing of Klebnikov had their full attention.
Pyotr Gabriyan, one of the most skilled investigators in the federal prosecutor’s office, was assigned to the case. His team located the Lada used in the attack the very next day, and dusted it for fingerprints. Then they applied some old-fashioned shoe leather, with a high-tech twist. Gabriyan’s men reviewed cell phone activity in the vicinity of the park and discovered a number of suspicious calls to or from the area almost nightly for two weeks prior to and including the day of the murder. The callers were Chechen thugs who were identified as members of a murder-for-hire gang. Fingerprints and trace amounts of lint linked some of them to the Lada.
Four months after Klebnikov’s murder, authorities announced that two Chechens had been arrested in the case. One of them, Kazbek Dukuzov, the alleged triggerman, had been captured in Belarus. Extradition proceedings moved slowly at first, arousing suspicion that corrupt Belarus officials were protecting him. When the delays suddenly ended and the Chechen was shipped back to Russia, some suspected that Putin had intervened.
“I think Putin himself called [Belarus president Alexander] Lukashenko and pushed to have him extradited,” one of Klebnikov’s colleagues told me. “I think that Putin has pushed to make sure that the case is pursued.”
Putin openly expressed interest in the case, something that was unusual for him. In fall 2005, he met with Klebnikov’s widow and one of his brothers in New York. At his annual news conference in 2007, he said, “Not long ago one of our American partners said something very true: ‘Paul Klebnikov died for a democratic Russia, for the development of democracy in Russia.’ I completely agree with him. I fully agree with this evaluation.”
Police said they believed that the killing was ordered by Khozh-Ahmed Nukhayev, the central figure in Klebnikov’s book Conversation with a Barbarian. The book was highly critical of the Chechens in particular and Muslims in general. It was said that Nukhayev had become so incensed that he hired the Chechen gang to assassinate its author. But he disappeared from sight after Klebnikov’s slaying and was never tracked down by police.
(Valeri Streletsky, the book’s publisher, is skeptical about Nukhayev being the mastermind. Not long after Conversation with a Barbarian was released, a package arrived at the publisher’s office. It contained writings by Nukhayev and a note from his representative asking if Streletsky might want to publish them. The publisher declined, but told me that the package helped to persuade him that “Nukhayev had no role in the killing.” If he was so furious about the Klebnikov book, why would he want to have any dealings with the man who had made it possible?)
Once in custody, both suspects openly boasted that they had participated in the murder of Klebnikov, according to inside information that reached Russian journalists. Such braggadocio might strike Westerners as reckless. But gangsters regarded Russian law enforcement as largely impotent and had few inhibitions about virtually daring police to take them on.
The trial was closed, not witnessed by reporters or family members. But the prosecution was confident of its case, which was based on an array of circumstantial evidence: cell phone records; fingerprints and other clues gathered from the Lada; information linking the gang to other murders; and testimony that prior to Klebnikov’s killing, the gang members had bragged that they were to be paid $3 million for a “big job.” The boastful confessions did not figure in the trial because the two suspects refused to sign them, ruling out their use by prosecutors.
Klebnikov’s supporters began to have misgivings when word got around that the defendants and defense lawyers seemed to relax as the trial wore on. Suspicions arose that someone had tampered with the jury, always a possibility in Russia. In May 2006, the jury acquitted both defendants and the judge ordered their release. The Klebnikov camp felt defeated. But six months later, the Supreme Court intervened—in Russia, there is no concept of double jeopardy—and overturned the acquittals. A new trial was ordered. The second Chechen suspect, Musa Vakhaev, appeared at preliminary hearings, but the accused shooter, Dukuzov, vanished. In his absence, the judge halted all proceedings; the retrial was pending as of this writing.
Like his book publisher, I was not satisfied with the notion that Klebnikov died because of the way he portrayed a Chechen warlord in print. I turned to Mark Franchetti for some insight. He had lived and worked in Moscow for a decade, and was a seasoned reporter. Franchetti figured that a journalist in Russia had to do one of two things to get killed: either get really seriously into someone’s personal life, or ruin someone’s business deal. For instance, in 1994, a twenty-seven-year-old Russian reporter named Dmitri Kholodov was investigating allegations that the then defense minister, Pavel Grachev, and others were selling off military goods for personal gain. One day, a source called to say he had documents that could help advance Kholodov’s corruption probe. When the reporter opened the briefcase supposedly containing the documents, it blew up, killing him.
Investigative reporters in Russia know that the unpublished story poses the greatest danger to the writer. After a piece is printed, the damage is done. But when the makings for a potentially explosive article are still in a journalist’s notebook, everything is at risk, especially the reporter’s personal safety. Some believe Klebnikov was working on a blockbuster at the time of his death, a story involving large sums of money stolen in the multi-billion-dollar reconstruction of Chechnya. Klebnikov’s family, which has access to his computer hard drive and other personal effects, said there was no evidence of such a story. But it is an angle worth further consideration.
It is not possible to know, of course, but I think it likely that Klebnikov would have disapproved of this book, especially my critical view of Putin and the “new Russian state” that he fathered. Klebnikov was a tough reporter in pursuit of elements he felt were sullying the state he loved, but toward the end of his life he thought it was time to write more positively about the country itself. Klebnikov’s wife, Musa, and his brother Peter declined to cooperate while I was doing my research. They specifically objected to his murder being lumped in with the deaths of Litvinenko and others who had defected from Russia or were enemies of Putin, or both. Klebnikov’s story was fundamentally different—he was not one of them—and he did not deserve to be in their company.
But here is the trouble with that reasoning: Klebnikov’s murder repudiated his own message about Russia—that Putin was taking it toward deserved greatness and that it was on the cusp of achieving equal footing with the West. In my opinion, his death sent the opposite message: that Russia was more prosperous but ultimately the same dangerous place it had always been. Putin was following the path dictated by his autocratic predecessors for centuries, glorifying the state over the individual. He was presiding over a system that continued to protect those who killed to further its interests.
It makes no sense to pretend that Klebnikov does not belong in the company of these victims of the Putin era. He crossed the same invisible line as the rest, and it became acceptable for someone to murder him.
In the end, he became the victim of a Russia whose nature he never fully grasped.
I NEVER MET THE JOURNALIST ANNA POLITKOVSKAYA. WHEN I covered the First Chechen War, she was in Moscow toiling for a small-time newspaper. By the time the second war rolled around, I had left for Afghanistan and environs. That is when Anna began reporting on the horrors of Chechnya, a career-changing experience that turned her against Vladimir Putin. She soon became the most angry and acid public critic of Putin in all of Russia.
“Putin has, by chance, gotten hold of enormous power and has used it to catastrophic effect,” she once wrote. “I dislike him because he does not like people. He despises us. He sees us as a means to his ends, a means for the achievement and retention of personal power, no more than that. Accordingly, he believes he can do anything he likes with us, play with us as he sees fit, destroy us if he wishes. We are nobody, while he whom chance has enabled to clamber to the top is today czar and God. In Russia we have had leaders with this outlook before. It led to tragedy, to bloodshed on a vast scale, to civil wars.”
My introduction to Anna was Putin’s Russia, her gritty 2004 account of life under the Russian leader. It is a defense of the defenseless, and its powerful language is rich in detail and often moving. She was blessed with unerring intuition and stuck to writing about what she actually saw. Anna was self-possessed, but not self-impressed.
That was all the more remarkable in view of her celebrity abroad and the admiration showered upon her by some of the most hard-bitten Western correspondents in Moscow. Time magazine’s talented war correspondent Yuri Zarakhovich in 2003 wrote that Anna “made her name by writing detailed, accurate and vivid reports on the plight of the civilian population in Chechnya…. She tells stories of people who are taken from their homes at night and never come back; about extra-judicial executions; about the hungry refugees in cold and damp camps.”
A year later, James Meek, a talented reporter with the British newspaper Guardian, described her as “one of the bravest of Russia’s many brave journalists.”
“Her seriousness is not just her frown, her severe glasses and full head of gray hair,” he wrote. “It’s the tension, anger and impatience in her whole body, making clear that her sense of the continual injustice being perpetrated in her homeland never leaves her, that she can’t shut it out in a way almost all British journalists, even the campaigning, radical kind, can.”
In her coda to Putin’s Russia, Anna made this plea: “We cannot just sit back and watch a political winter close in on Russia for several more decades. We want to go on living in freedom. We want our children to be free and our grandchildren to be born free. That is why we long for a thaw in the immediate future, but we alone can change Russia’s political climate.”
The West wasn’t going to help, she continued: “All we hear from the outside world is ‘al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda,’ a wretched mantra for shuffling off responsibility for all the bloody tragedies yet to come, a primitive chant with which to lull a society desiring nothing more than to be lulled back to sleep.”
Anna pushed journalistic boundaries in a way that would be frowned upon in the West: She repeatedly crossed the line between journalist and active participant in events she covered. Trying to resolve the Nord-Ost hostage standoff was an example of that. She thought that playing dual roles was a shrewd strategy.
It was not something I could see myself doing—negotiating with terrorists—but Anna’s style did lead her to a more profound understanding of the play of events and personalities than virtually anyone else I read in Russia.
It also earned her a following among the multitude of Russia’s downtrodden and powerless, who saw in Anna someone who would listen and, more important, write something. When she arrived in the office each morning, she often was greeted by a pile of mail and a line of people out the door, all hopeful that she could help them obtain justice.
The aftermath of an explosion in a nine-story apartment building on Guryanova Street in southeast Moscow on September 9, 1999. In a two-week period in August and September, explosions killed nearly three hundred people in four Russian apartment buildings, leading Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to blame Chechen terrorists and order an all-out war in Chechnya. Putin’s popularity rating soared.
Nikolai Khokhlov in South Korea in 1964, while serving as an anti-insurgency adviser to the Seoul government. Khokhlov defected from the KGB in 1954 rather than carry out the assassination of an anti-Soviet leader in Frankfurt. Three years later, the Soviets attempted to murder him with a nuclear-activated form of thallium. He went on to become a professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino.
(Courtesy of Tatjana Khokhlov)
Vladimir Putin during a March 2008 meeting of his security council. After his rise from nowhere to be named by Boris Yeltsin as his successor, Putin won election as president in 2000, largely based on his hard-line stand in Chechnya.
(Vladimir Rodionov/AP/RIA Novosti, Presidential Press Service)
In October 2002, terrorists took over a Moscow theater that was staging the musical Nord-Ost. To end the three-day siege, Russian security forces used a mysterious opiate gas that was intended to—and, together with a subsequent shootout, did—kill all the terrorists, but also took the lives of 129 of the 800 or so hostages. Here, a security officer carries a body out of the theater, with the bodies of other hostages in the foreground.
Irina Fadeeva and her fifteen-year-old son, Yaroslav. Yaroslav died at Nord-Ost.
(Courtesy of Irina Fadeeva)
Elena Baranovskaya with her husband, former military intelligence officer Sergei Baranovsky, and her twenty-year-old son, Andrei Nikishin. Both the men died at Nord-Ost.
(Courtesy of Elena Baranovskaya)