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13 November 2018

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Book Review

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Orders to Kill

By Amy Knight (Thomas Dunne, $27.99)

There seem to be two main, competing views of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Kremlin in Western circulation.

The first sees Putin and his coterie as merely exemplars of the strong, authoritarian rulers that Russian history tells us Russians crave (being a multi-national polity ever surrounded and besieged by enemies), and that their actions and activities should be interpreted through that lens: they are neo-nationalist leaders reacting to the hostile environment into which history and geography has placed them.

The second view is far less benign. It sees the current denizens of the Kremlin as thugs who have usurped Russia’s hard won democratic freedoms, pillaging the country of its wealth, and ruthlessly eliminating any and all challengers and “enemies,” be they real or imagined.

Amy Knight, one of the West’s most respected and widely published writers on the KGB, spies, and the Cold War (old and new), is decidedly in the latter camp. With the determination of a battle weary lawyer laying out a complex prosecution, she recounts what is known and unknown about several high profile cases of suspected “political murder,” from Galina Starovoitova to Alexander Litvinenko, from Anna Politkovskaya to Boris Nemtsov, with side trips into the 1999 apartment block bombings, the Boston Marathon attack, and others.

Some of the most fascinating documentation she offers is to be read between the lines: notes about the backgrounds and associations of the lead Kremlin actors, how their tightly woven web of personal and professional connections reinforce and spread their influence and power, and how much of it traces back to St. Petersburg.

In all, this book is a disturbing catalog of circumstantial evidence (Knight readily admits that “proof of Putin and his allies in these crimes... would be impossible, given that they control the investigations and that there would be no written orders.”) that Knight asserts coalesce into a familiar pattern reflective of a quote she cites by Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, “Eleven centuries of a history notable for its murders make Russia unlike any other country.”

Indeed, there is something disturbingly fascinating about, say, Catherine II’s and Peter I’s strange combination of reform and absolutism – striving for modernization while clinging to medievalism.

In essence, Knight is saying this dualism is still with us, and offers little prospect that Russia will soon see any sort of political pluralism or real democracy. Further, she concludes that there “should be no expectation of a breakthrough with Russia on the urgent problems that plague the international order.”

And, in answer to those who say that, yes, this is all interesting and disturbing, but really none of it can be proven, Knight offers a valuable reminder, quoting Harvard historian Franklin Ford: “There may be a temptation to say that because we don’t know everything, we really don’t know anything – we shall have to wait. That, however, seems irresponsible.”

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2018