No Comment, Six Questions — July 8, 2008, 2:30 pm

Six Questions for Steve LeVine, author of Putin’s Labyrinth

Less than a year ago, Steve LeVine, the chief foreign affairs writer for Business Week published The Oil and the Glory, a penetrating examination of the post-Soviet oil industry and the role it plays in the region’s politics. Now he’s out with a second book which takes a much deeper look under the covers of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In Putin’s Labyrinth LeVine surveys the heavy handed and often murderous techniques that Russia’s men of power use to retain and advance their positions–developments that any reporter residing in Russia covers at his great peril—a point abundantly chronicled in the book. I put six questions to Steve LeVine.

1. It looks to me like you started to write a book about Alexander Litvinenko, whose death was certainly one of the most mysterious political assassinations in recent years, and wound up with something a bit more diffuse. In a sense you’ve spun a tale of the paradoxical rise of Vladimir Putin–not a complete political biography or a psychological portrait of Putin, but rather a story of the techniques used to install Putin as Russia’s autocrat. You’ve covered the turf that most reporters don’t want to tread upon, mostly out of concern for their own safety. Am I right about this? Do you think you could have written this book if you were still living in Moscow?

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To be sure, Litvinenko was the genesis of Putin’s Labyrinth in that his murder led my editor at Random House to ask, “Do you want to write a book about Litvinenko?”

“No,” I replied. Thinking further, I added: “But if you want something on the shadowy underside of Russia as a whole, I’d be interested.” A few days later, an offer came for that book. I just didn’t think that Litvinenko warranted a whole book. Though he did not deserve to die, especially how he died, I did not regard him as a particularly sympathetic character. But I did think that Litvinenko could be a wedge into a larger canvas–a profile of a country where such things could happen, and have happened routinely since Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. My editor agreed to a book on the Russian continuum (which is what is meant by the “labyrinth” in the title).

As for pursuing the topic, I am again and again astounded at the prodigious and courageous output of Mark Franchetti, the long-time Moscow correspondent of the Sunday Times. While writing Labyrinth, I asked Mark: “Why aren’t you dead?” I inquired in the context of the Paul Klebnikov and Anna Politkovskaya murders; after all, Mark was carrying out some of the same dangerous reporting. Mark replied that one generally gets killed as a journalist for one of two reasons: one has dug too deeply into a person’s personal life (“gotten really personal,” is how Mark put it), or somehow interfered in an important business deal. Mark felt he had never done either, and didn’t plan to, so he was relatively safe. Another foreign reporter whom I find particularly courageous is Chris Chivers of the New York Times. Of course, there are tons of incredibly brave Russians.

I do think that this theme was unusual in one way, and it really is what Labyrinth is all about: There is a group of people who are known for how they died. From the journalism and films out there, we know them primarily as victims. I intended Labyrinth as a window into how these same people lived, to show them as individuals. By the end of the book, after spending time with each of the victims, I hope the reader understands more about this monumentally complex country and its leadership.

2. You pack the book with references to history and historical process, contrary to the perspectives that some of the Russian “insiders” you interviewed took. The Marxist historical dialectic on which they were all trained taught history as an unfolding process in which ages have a spirit, in the Hegelian sense. Yet your interviewees scoff at references to Ivan IV and other efforts to stereotype Russian history as a constant. Wouldn’t it be fair to say they are talking about those who have a dilettante’s understanding of Russian history—who have not bored deeply enough into it? It is impossible to follow politics in Russia today and not be taken by the powerful role that history plays, as images like Peter the Great, Stalin, and “Iron Feliks” Dzerzhinsky show. And does this not show how much Russia, and particularly Russia’s political consciousness, is in the thrall of her history?

You are absolutely correct in the threads of the past being highly visible in the present. Indeed it is not happenstance. Just as Stalin deliberately sought historical answers to his problems in Ivan, Putin I think looks to the past as adviser, example, and inspiration. As to some of the Russian interviewees who rejected this conclusion–one, as you recall, said it was ludicrous to put Ivan and Putin in the same sentence–you might be right as to their motive. Perhaps they have seen one too many dilettante. But I also sensed a deep resentment toward any foreigner suggesting a possibly unattractive, sweeping parallel. I also think they did not appreciate the observation on its face–that Russia is a continuum; that in a way it and its people are trapped by their own history, yet in another sense they have voluntarily chosen the perverse comfort of a medieval past. By that I mean they have selected–the vast majority voted this way in the last two presidential elections–presidential leaders who value the reputation and power of the state over any individual life.

3. The case of Litvinenko could be a good case in point. At the start of your book you say, referring to his death, “I could find no precedent for an assassination of this type.” But you could see the strike against Litvinenko as the latest in a long series of such attempts. The Romanovs’ Okhrana had a major focus on the émigré revolutionaries and a whole department in Paris dedicated to tracking, disrupting and occasionally killing them. Under the Bolsheviks this effort became even more intense, and you quote from Pavel Sudoplatov, the NKVD leader famous for his ingenious assassination plots, of which the Trotsky assassination in Mexico City was perhaps the most daring. You chronicle the Sudoplatov cases. If the Litvinenko case did result from Russian secret service planning, as now seems all but certain, doesn’t this put Putin well within the tradition that the Russian state had employed to deal with those who threaten its top leaders?

You are right that Ivan was forcing unhappy subordinates to drink poison five centuries ago. And, after all, the Kremlin tried in 1957 to kill KGB defector Nikolai Khokhlov, one of Sudoplatov’s proteges, with poison. But in this case my reference was quite literal–Litvinenko’s is the only successful targeted assassination I could find by nuclear isotope. So yes, of course, the Russians are known for the incredibly convoluted ways they go about assassinating people. Shooting a guy with a .45 or pushing him in front of a moving car isn’t good enough. It’s not fancy enough. Plus it’s too hard for the assassin to escape. So it’s got to be an exotic poison sprayed into an unsuspecting victim’s face in a dark stairwell (which happened twice in the 1950s); a ricin pellet in the thigh on Waterloo Bridge (Georgi Markov in 1978); or, in Nikolai Khokhlov’s case, a nuclear isotope of thallium in a cup of coffee. Which is why a lot of people instinctively think of Moscow as the chief suspect in the Litvinenko case. But the aspect of the case that stuck out in my mind immediately, notwithstanding this past, was the degree to which the continuum appeared still to be alive.

4. You lay out the attempted murder of Kholkhov as a direct precedent for the Litvinenko case. Tell us about this case and explain the parallels you see.

The parallels are eerie. First, just as personalities, Khokhlov and Litvinenko were extremely similar–both were hams and actors, both not so much pulled unsuspecting into a trap as much as self-propelled into crises by their desire for the spotlight. And they were attacked in similar ways. Khokhlov was in his thirties, a trained assassin who had a crisis of conscience over an order to lead the assassination of a Ukrainian dissident named Georgi Okolovich in 1954. Fast forward, we are at Okolovich’s apartment in Frankfurt, and there’s a knock at the door. It’s a young blond Russian saying he’s been sent to murder Okolovich, but he just can’t do it. Khokhlov could have left it at that, could have simply said, “Scram, Georgi, the KGB is after you,” then disappeared into the night, and lamented to superiors later that his prey somehow disappeared. Instead, Khokhlov started plotting with Okolovich on what to do about the “situation” in which they now found themselves. So then you got the CIA involved, and the spectacle of Khokhlov’s high-profile defection, and his despondency over a wife and child left behind in Moscow after a hare-brained escape plan that would take too long to explain here. If Khokhlov truly wished only to save a man’s life, why didn’t he just warn Okolovich? That’s what I asked Khokhlov when I caught up with him five decades later in San Bernardino, California, where he was a retired psychology professor. He never produced a credible reply.

Litvinenko did pretty much the same thing. He was ordered to kill Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch, but didn’t want to. As with Khokhlov, Litvinenko could have simply warned Berezovsky, whom he knew pretty well. But that wasn’t good enough. He had to hold a news conference with the entire foreign and local press corps present. That was in 1998. That led to jail time for Litvinenko, then his defection to Britain two years later. It’s said that the KGB never forgets a defector. That appears to be only partly true–after all, there are quite a few high-profile defectors in both Britain and the United States. Still, the circumstances of Litvinenko’s death are highly suspicious. As with Khokhlov, Litvinenko was caught up in events larger than himself, and was poisoned apparently because of that.

The methods of assassination were so similar–a nuclear isotope. One is tempted to see a thread there, but I think that’s over-thinking. I am intrigued to know how Litvinenko’s killer thought of polonium as a poison, but I don’t think it was because of institutional memory of the Khokhlov case.

5. Shortly after coming to power, Putin faced a grave crisis when the Kursk submarine sank and its entire crew was lost. This in retrospect is seen as Putin’s low point in office. His climb back to success, it is now apparent, hinges on a series of fairly dramatic incidents which built popular demand for a “strong leader” in late 1999: the series of apartment bombings which the government linked to Chechen terrorists and the Second Chechen War. When terrorists seized a school in Beslan and then took over a Moscow theater during a performance of the popular musical “Nord-Ost,” Putin’s support soared, crossing the seventy percent approval level. You present us with the accusations that Putin’s enemies level, linking many of these allegedly terrorist incidents to Russia’s FSB, the successor to the KGB and the agency that Putin headed before he took control from Yeltsin. You follow that up with the evidentiary case behind these accusations, making it plain that they can’t be dismissed as the crazed rantings of the politically eclipsed. So–was Russia’s FSB behind the 1999 apartment bombings?

There is no question that part of the FSB was involved. In just one bit of evidence, a telephone call from suspects in the abortive last bombing–in Ryazan–was traced to FSB headquarters in Moscow. But the key question isn’t whether any FSB were involved (by that token, at least one FSB officer was involved in Anna Politkovskaya’s murder too in that he provided the murderers with her home address. FSB officers are for sale, so junior, middle-ranking or former FSB operatives could have been involved for payment in the apartment bombings as well.) The issue in terms of the big picture, I think, is whether the FSB’s senior leadership played a role. Because if it did, Putin–at the time only recently the head of the FSB–would be directly implicated in the murder of more than 300 people. And with all due respect to colleagues who have concluded otherwise, I found no conclusive evidence of that senior involvement.

6. As your book appears, Putin has turned over the presidency to his handpicked successor, Dmitri Medvedev, and in exchange, Putin has been appointed prime minister. So he has adhered to the legal technical requirements of the Constitution, but he has not really relinquished power. You quote one of his advisers as saying that Putin has prepared himself for two to three decades of rule in Russia. And so it seems paradoxically that as he leaves the presidency, Putin is more powerful than ever. His strategies have been marvelously successful. Russian popular opinion accepts the notion of an autocratic state and of Putin as a proper autocrat. Oil clearing $142 a barrel means that the Russian treasury is flush with cash, putting the state in a position to pay salaries and meet its pension and benefit obligations with little fuss. Russia seems unquestioningly resurgent on the international stage. On this point, a Russian close to Putin’s administration tells me “Why should we dislike Bush? What American leader has done more to advance Russian interests in the world? He has squandered American authority, built distrust within the NATO alliance that we never could have imagined, and helped us gain entry into the Middle East by alienating the entire region. He has paved the way for a generation of Russian successes.” So what are Putin’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses? Are there any?

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Putin has shrewdly and coolly exploited an ideologically-oriented, over-stretched and hubristic adversary. As you point out, the price of oil, a highly disciplined approach to policy-making and -execution, and numerous foreign policy triumphs put Russia in an extremely advantaged position. Yet Russia’s underbelly is still its underbelly–the Central Asians and Caucasus peoples, for instance, still don’t particularly by and large like to be under the Russian yoke. So, there is wiggle room for a bold, organized and acute foreign policy under whichever party wins the White House next. Can Turkmenistan’s president be persuaded to get behind the construction of a non-Russian, trans-Caspian oil and natural gas pipeline network? Why not? Will Georgia be absorbed by NATO? Why not?

For the last several years, Washington has been focused elsewhere as Russia has stolen a march on U.S. interests on the Caspian and in Europe. Russia’s vulnerability? A focused, well-led policy by a recognized graybeard–just send Zbigniew Brzezinski out there.

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