Amy Knight’s expose book on the Putin Regime begins with an eye-opening depiction of how the current political system evolved and how it works. After the fall of the Soviet Union, President Boris Yeltsin disbanded the KGB spy service. This released a flood of spies who used their connections and skills to obtain positions in various areas of government and economy. Some began using their covert skills in support of the rising rich, some switched to other government branches, some became employees of the growing organized crime organizations. Relationships between former KGB agents knit these three groups together in a form of mutual support. There would always be competition between various factions and individuals, even killings, but they understood that maintaining their position depended on each other.
Then “Yeltsin, an impulsive, erratic leader, whose commitment to democracy was half-hearted, faced popular opposition and thus needed the police and security organs to keep him in power. So he systematically rebuilt these agencies…By the time Vladimir Putin became Russian president in 2000, the security services had become every bit as powerful as the former KGB” (Knight, p. 32). With Putin, a former KGB administrator, the cooperation between new security agencies, organized crime, new wealthy oligarchs and government became even more cohesive. The new president appointed many former KGB colleagues to the highest posts in government, called “power ministries.” These individuals are called “Siloviki.” They are “former members of the Communist Party. But they believe in economic nationalism, a centralized, authoritarian government, and the restoration of the supposed greatness of the Soviet Union” (Knight, p. 33). They also believe in amassing personal wealth and are willing to use corrupt practices to do so. With such cohesive power, economic ambition and their web of connections, they tolerate no internal dissent, political opposition or media scrutiny of their dealings. Hundreds of reporters and opposition politicians have been assassinated.
Because police and security agencies are part of the system that orders assassinations, subsequent trials convict trigger men, but not the functionaries ordering these murders. Even if a persistent, unconnected investigator or attorney were able to make a case, “telephone justice” determines the outcome: “a call from someone higher in rank than the judge or prosecutor giving instructions as to how the case should be resolved…telephone justice, accompanied often by monetary bribes, and even threats of violence, prevails…because Russia has no tradition of a democratic legal process” (Knight, p. 58).
After this depiction, Knight focuses specifically on the most high profile murders of pro-democracy politicians and journalists. This is where the author’s narrative moves from solid historical evidence to facts mixed with fuzzy speculation. Her examples exhibit a spectrum of reliability. On one end of this spectrum are murders that were likely carried-out by Putin’s government, such as the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London. There, the “British High Court in January 2016” concluded “that Litvinenko was killed most probably on Kremlin orders” (Knight, p. 8). On the other end of the spectrum are doubtful claims and a few frankly crack-pot theories, like the assertion that the Boston Marathon bombers of November 2011 were “pawns in the hands of Russian security services” (Knight, p. 254). In between these extremes are a multitude of cases tried in Russia where culpability cannot be properly ascertained due to government interference and absence of evidence. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the author’s investigative prowess or the strength of her cases. But even if one assassination of a pro-democracy victim were carried out by the Putin regime, it is an indictment of that regime’s integrity. Would the citizens of any legitimate democracy tolerate a murder committed by their president?
The question that should concern most US citizens, given Russia’s combined government-espionage-crime-business system, is: What kind of business relationship does Donald Trump have with Russia? All major US intelligence services agree that Russian espionage efforts attempted to disrupt US elections to favor Trump. Business relations do exist between Trump and this nefarious Russian system. Donald Trump, for his part, has expressed a perplexing, admiration for Putin that has persisted in spite of hacking and international aggression by Russia. Trump has even gone so far as to defend the murders discussed in Knight’s book. When Fox News Host, Bill O’Reilly, reminded Trump that “Putin was a killer,” Trump responded “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?” (Knight, p. 280). The current President of the United States even fired the FBI director investigating Russian election interference, and bragged to Russian diplomats that he did it to ease pressure from the investigation.** The connection between Trump’s businesses and Putin’s criminal system should be fully disclosed.
Amy Knight writes with aplomb that Putin is directly responsible for the ever growing piles of journalist and opposition politician corpses in Russia. She catalogs the evidence and conclusions of others with the dedicated hand of a court stenographer. But, for all of her confidence, she is not a convincing prosecutor. She lacks both the necessary evidence and the sleuthing ability to place a smoking gun in the hands of a Putin functionary. The most she can do, from the safety of North America, is to introduce the statistical likelihood that, out of the crushing hundreds of assassinations, Putin is responsible for at least a few. The victims deserve a more probing book. Unfortunately, most of those who attempted first-hand investigation have already been killed. So perhaps being an ally to opposition journalists and compiling the cases is all we can ask a writer to risk.
However, this does not detract from what the book provides for US and international audiences. First, it creates a clear picture of the collaborators with, and agencies of, Putin’s regime. Second, it presents a record of assassinations, revealing a consistent pattern of violence against regime critics. Though a reader will not observe a direct connection between Putin and any individual crime, she will find her view of Russian politics expanded.
Knight, Amy. Orders to Kill. The Putin Regime and Political Murder. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017.
**https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/19/us/politics/trump-russia-comey.html. “Trump Told Russians That Firing ‘Nut Job’ Comey Eased Pressure From Investigation.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 May 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/05/19/us/politics/trump-russia-comey.html.