Catherine Belton’s “Putin’s People” – book review

Catherine Belton worked from 2013-2017 as the Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times. Her book, Putin’s People provides a narrative of the mechanics and ideological conception behind Putin’s government.

I’m not an expert on Russia, so in many ways I’m not the best person to be reviewing this book, even though I learned a lot when I was reading it. It’s a chunky tome –   and I found it rather difficult to get into to start with. To start with, there were a lot of names and roles that I was unfamiliar with and they had a tendency to blur into one. I found the book much easier to read once Putin got his presidency and I began to recognize more names that I know. 

Belton starts by describing the KGB methods of working in Eastern Germany by using connections with the mafia and funding terrorists.  She points out that modern Russia is operating in much the same way, but without the ideological framework of communism. 

Instead, even a person with a possible connection to the Romanovv imperial family uses his connections to think tanks or orthodox organizations that support Putin’s influence abroad under cover of defending “Christian values” against the secularizing West. 

Crucially, however, everything is done around the thoughts and suggestions of one man – Putin. Everything is a matter of state in Putin’s Russia. There are no decisions that are simply economic. And state simply means Putin and his friends, who have to get a cut of every major deal made. Belton backs up these claims with carefully managed footnotes, which link to Russian newspapers and personal interviews she has made. 

Putin’s money is traced to various offshore accounts connected to Putin’s people. He has fingers in many pies, including among others, Hungarian, French and Italian politics. 

A number of people have been keen to accept the rush of new Russian oligarchs’ money, without thinking what it might expose them to. Roman Abramovich famously bought the Chelsea Football Club. Suleiman Kerimov (affected by the US sanctions after 2018) had a lovely mansion on Cap D’Antibes where he hosted lavish parties, including entertainment from singers such as Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, and Shakira. These are well- substantiated stories. 

But there are also other claims that Belton makes based on personal interviews with often anonymous sources. And of course, due to the nature of the allegations being made, the sources must be anonymous if they wish to remain alive. 

There lies the problem. How can we impartially assess the veracity of Catherine Belton’s sources? How can we ever know what the truth actually is? 

What are the chances that we will get insight into Russian state archives in the next hundred years and they will tell us what is actually going on? 

Or will all we find are simply lots of shredded paper?

For example, there’s the question of the hostage taking in the Dubrovka theatre, which Belton suggests could have been inspired by the head of the KGB, Nikolai Patrushev in an attempt to keep Putin in power. The idea is that after the attack, Russians would feel that they must support a tougher stance on Chechnya and support for Putin would rise. 

The suicide devices that the assassins were wearing were reportedly fake. 

I was absolutely shocked by the Dubrovka allegations. But most of the reviewers of this book didn’t seem to be. I spent a while googling reviews of this book. 

Anne Applebaum fails to mentions the Dubrovka theory in her very thorough review of this book for the The Atlantic.

Looking through Western mainstream press, only The Washington Post mentions Belton’s theory regarding the Dubrovka terrorist attack. Does this mean the other reviewers found it obvious? Or not credible? Or did they simply miss it? Or is it that they are too interested in Putin’s connections to Trump to talk about a terrorist attack that was targeted at Russians?

How can we ever now what is true? What if it was simply someone with their own agenda blaming Patrushev, not simply for a botched rescue operation but for the terrorist attack itself?

It is also rumoured that the very terrorist attacks that first put Putin in power were arranged by sad men in grey suits. This rumour I have heard of before. Again, it is hard not to crave hard and concrete proof, and, of course, it is the nature of the story, is that proof is quite difficult to come by. Putin’s regime is very good at covering its tracks when it needs to be. 

Do not let the apparent carelessness of Navalny’s assassins deceive you. In his particular case, the Putin’s regime wants to be traced. An assassination attempt does not work as a warning if people don’t know it happened… They want to spread fear, not to do the job quietly. 

Most of the cases outlined in this book are not necessarily as clear cut. Belton does not cover the UK assassinations in detail, although she can’t avoid mentioning some apparent “suicides”.

So reading this book at the one hand, I ended up thinking “This is a persuasive argument”, on the other “Am I turning into a conspiracy theorist?”. The problem is I’m not very likely to find out any time soon. To Belton’s credit, she does not insist on the truth of stories she finds uncertain. She merely suggests that they are not entirely unlikely.

This is a fascinating book which provides lots of food for thought and it is very carefully researched. One could spend a long time reading the footnotes. Let us hope that with investigators as thorough and brave as Belton, we will finally get to some of the truth hiding behind the troll farms and oligarchs of Putin’s Russia. 

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