PUTIN’S LABYRINTH: SPIES, MURDER, AND THE DARK HEART OF THE NEW RUSSIA by Steve LeVine (Random House), 193 pages, $30 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Political assassination and dictatorial power are threads that run through much of Russian history.
For a brief time in the early 1990s, it looked like totalitarian politics were disappearing from the Russian landscape.
Today Russia has returned a stronger, richer and more confident nation, having barely survived the plundering of its wealth and the impoverishment of its people during the drunken reign of Boris Yeltsin.
But Russia's resurrection has come at a high price. Steve LeVine, chief foreign affairs writer for BusinessWeek and one of the U.S.'s most astute Russia watchers, chronicles that tainted rebirth in his short book Putin's Labyrinth: Spies, Murder And The Dark Heart Of The New Russia.
In brief, crisp chapters, LeVine recounts the rise of a humourless Russian spy chief named Vladimir Putin, who became president of Russia by using his spies to help cover up the personal corruption of his mentor, Yeltsin.
Not surprisingly, one of Putin's first acts as president was to pardon Yeltsin and his family for any crimes they may have committed during his presidency.
Then the killing began. A series of murderous apartment bombings in Moscow - originally blamed on the Chechens but later traced back to the secret service Putin headed - gave Putin the moral authority to launch a second war in Chechnya. Things got sticky for a while when the Russian security service was linked to an unexploded bomb in another building.
In 2006, Putin signed a law giving his intelligence agencies the right to kill Russian exiles for crimes, including slandering the president of the Russian Federation. A short time later, an erratic exiled spy named Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium and died in London. His accused killer was then elected to the Russian parliament.
And now Prime Minister Putin is the most powerful Russian since Stalin. Russia has come full circle.