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A Response to the Review of Putin’s Labyrinth

PUBLISHED: March 17, 2009

Editor’s Note: Steve LeVine, author of the book Putin’s Labyrinth, has asked to reply to the review of his book by Stephen Boykewich that appears in our Winter 2009 issue. His response is printed in its entirety below.

On April 2, President Obama will travel to London for his first Group of 20 summit as the country’s leader. Among items on his agenda is what the White House is calling a “reset” of US relations with Russia. Antagonisms have gone too far, his foreign affairs lieutenants say, and it’s time for the two countries to concentrate on areas of mutual interest, and not those that divide them. The initiative has been welcomed by Moscow, and it seems probable that the agenda—a revival of arms-control agreements; a go-slow approach toward missile defense in Europe; and cooperation on Iran, Afghanistan and the financial crisis—will take down the temperature.

Yet Russia will not regain a full embrace from much of the outside until its leaders act to change a chief underlying cause of foreign suspicion of the country—its record of impunity toward killers, and indifference toward the deaths of innocents.

My latest book on the region, Putin’s Labyrinth, plumbs this dimension as a lens into today’s Russia. Through profiles, the book sets out to bring to life six individuals who are known primarily because of the way they died. The profiles do not seek to deify them, but to present them as they were—real people, with their own complexities, who in the end are killed either because of their own actions, or events not of their own making. Contextually, the backdrop is a comparison of Russia with its fellow members of the club of nations to which it seeks continued rightful membership—the Group of 8, comprised of Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States. I argue that the drumbeat of unsolved, sensational murders and slaughter—such as the Nord-Ost theater gassing that killed 129 hostages; and the murder of Alexander Litvinenko with the nuclear isotope polonium—sets Russia apart from the other G-8 countries.

The theme is provocative: that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin deserves credit for much, but undermines his international credibility once one considers the question of murder. I write:

If you are a citizen of Russia, you are more likely than a person in any other G-8 nation to die a premature death, and to do so in a bizarre or cruel way. When I say premature death, I’m not thinking disease, stillbirth, or an automobile accident—although Russians die at a far higher rate in all these categories than citizens of the other seven countries. I mean the kind of death experienced by Anna Politkovskaya or Alexander Litvinenko or the theater hostages—all deaths that were countenanced or at least tolerated by the Russian state.

A particular subset of writers and other observers are angry about the nasty turn in US-Russia relations. While perturbed with the histrionics of the relationship, this group focuses much of its chagrin on “the prevailing media slant [against] all things Russian,” as one of their members told me in a recent email exchange.

This frame of mind is on display in Stephen Boykewich’s recent review of Labyrinth. In his view, I am part of “a chorus of shame,” an army of wrong-headed, Russia-bashing westerners who are going along robotically with a tired rendering of a much more nuanced and less-menacing Russia. I fail both to appropriately appreciate the West’s peccadilloes, and Mr. Putin’s favorable aspects, including his poll ratings, he complains.

In an article that levels inaccurate charges while ignoring what is actually in the book, Mr. Boykewich argues that I portray post-Soviet history as “a battle between pro-Western angels and anti-Western demons.” The book does nothing of the sort. While pointing out the unique nature of death in Russia compared with the other G-8 states, I also write,

I don’t mean to suggest that other countries occupy a higher moral plane than Russia. The post-9/11 world has upset many people’s presumptions—including my own—that the West in general and the United States in particular can lay claim to generally noble status. We’ve discovered that an American president can treat foreign allies with swaggering bluster while conducting a war of opportunity and employing torture as a policy—with the support of a majority of Americans.

Labyrinth gives Mr. Putin a wholly fair accounting. The entirety of Chapter 3, for instance, is a paean to Mr. Putin, and a scolding of Washington. Here is a sampling:

Putin’s increasingly disagreeable manner was not simply a Russian being difficult. It was at least in part a result of the West’s condescending attitude toward Russia when it was still deep in the throes of economic crisis. Russia’s sense that it had been humiliated when it could least defend itself helped set the stage for worsening relations as the years wore on.

The West called Putin belligerent. But his disparaging remark about the extent to which America had extended its presence seemed altogether reasonable to me—the United States clearly had overreached around the world. America’s reaction to Putin’s complaint showed once again that it could be just as thin-skinned as the Russians, tending to vilify any outspoken critic abroad.

Putin’s exercise of power was applauded by much of the country. After moving aggressively against Chechnya, he took on some of the best-known titans who had amassed their wealth during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency.

From the outside, Russia might have appeared to be under the thumb of a rogue regime. But at home, Putin was seen as demonstrating that Russia was governable.

The fresh pride that Putin instilled in his people bore resemblance to the feel-good mood that Ronald Reagan inspired in many Americans with a famously successful political slogan. Vladimir Putin created what a clever Moscow ad man might have marketed as ‘It’s Morning Again in Russia.’

Among Mr. Boykewich’s specific gripes is what he calls Labyrinth’s use of “foreground hunches” and “snap judgments, as though the reader’s chief interest lay in a moment-by-moment account of the author’s evolving opinions.” He argues that these hunches and snap judgments—including this one: “I wrote that off to barstool talk”—are used “in place of evidence on important and frequently verifiable points.”

But none of the examples that Mr. Boykewich cites as evidence back up his claim. Let’s take the barstool example. The talk to which I referred was character assassination by other Moscow journalists of Paul Klebnikov, the murdered Forbes editor who is profiled in the book. Almost every Russian correspondent I interviewed about Mr. Klebnikov claimed that his tour de force, Godfather of the Kremlin, was wholly unoriginal—that he had simply scribbled down what “everyone” in Moscow already knew about Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, the subject of his book. I came to believe otherwise: “While he misfired on some occasions,” I wrote, “Mr. Klebnikov was practicing professional, tough, American-style journalism and was among the very few writers who penetrated Russia’s criminal underside.”

Putting Mr. Boykewich’s assertion to the test, is the quality of Mr. Klebnikov’s book—whether or not it is derivative—in fact verifiable? It seems to me that the only thing verifiable in this context is that I think it is not derivative, which is what I stated. Moreover, dealing with such a factually unprovable assertion, is it unimportant, as Mr. Boykewich suggests, to offer a conclusion? On the contrary, it is essential, which is why I defended Mr. Klebnikov’s work.

Let’s continue. Here are two more phrases cited by Mr. Boykewich: “Did I find him heroic? I would say I respected and admired him” and “I came to believe that stagecraft was a large part of Nikolai’s psyche.” Both of these phrases refer to Nikolai Khokhlov, another profile subject in the book. I met and interviewed the 85-year-old Mr. Khokhlov several months before his death in 2007. A half-century earlier, in the 1950s, Mr. Khokhlov was the equivalent of Alexander Litvinenko. He was a trained KGB assassin who defected to the West and was later poisoned with a suspected nuclear isotope, in his case an isotope of thallium. Mr. Khokhlov cast himself all these decades as a valiant dissident of a ghastly Soviet Union, and was feted as such across Europe and the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. Again, is Mr. Khokhlov’s heroism a verifiable fact? And is it provable whether or not theatrics were engrained into him? I think not. Heroism and showiness are subjective matters, and incidentally are also the nuts and bolts of biography.

How about another of Mr. Boykewich’s examples: “That rang true.” In this case, I am referring to whether Alexander Litvinenko suspected treachery by a Russian doctoral student who had approached him at one point to discuss Chechnya. The woman, Julia Svetlichnaja, has asserted since Mr. Litvinenko’s death that he sought her partnership in a blackmail plot against one or more Russian oligarchs. But in an interview, Mr. Litvinenko’s co-author, Yuri Felshtinsky, cast doubt on Svetlichnaja’s allegation. He told me that, if Mr. Litvinenko did make such a suggestion to her, he did so only to try to determine if she was independent or working for the KGB.

Again, is the state of Mr. Litvinenko’s mind while he engaged Ms. Svetlichnaja “easily verifiable,” as Boykewich insists? Since Mr. Litvinenko, like all the main characters in the book, is dead, it is not. What I can say after having researched the case, however, is that Felshtinsky’s educated guess seems valid; Mr. Litvinenko did in fact often perceive a conspiracy in people or events he encountered.

I do not wish to belabor every blunder in the review. Let’s move on and cover the highlights.

Mr. Boykewich often wants it both ways. Later in the essay, he is seriously offended by my description of Mr. Klebnikov. I “conclusively” discredit myself, Mr. Boykewich says, by writing that Mr. Klebnikov “seemed to have acquired Lord Jim pretensions, exhibiting the vanity of a Westerner who imagined himself rescuing the natives.”

Mr. Klebnikov was an outstanding journalist both in and outside Russia. Yet Mr. Boykewich ought to be familiar as well with the psychology of émigré returnees, the western-raised grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Russians, Armenians, Ukrainians and others who poured in to the former Soviet Union before and after the breakup in a sincere effort to bring their foreign teaching to the old country. If not, perhaps he ought to consider these remarks from Mr. Klebnikov’s two closest editors, quoted in the book:

“Most journalists think of themselves as observers. But Paul thought of himself as an actor. Like [British diplomat Fitzroy] Maclean, Klebnikov wasn’t only interested in recording what he saw. He really believed he could play a part in public affairs,” said James Michaels, the Forbes editor who hired him. William Baldwin, another of Mr. Klebnikov’s editors, said, “He had this messianic belief that he was going to be part of the transition from a gangster country to a civilized country.”

Mr. Klebnikov saw himself not as an observer in events, but an actor. Call Mr. Klebnikov’s attitude what you like. I call it Lord Jim.

When I went to see them, Mr. Klebnikov’s wife and brother asked me not to profile him alongside critics of Mr. Putin such as Mr. Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya. They said he did not fit in the same group. But, as I concluded in the book,

It makes no sense to pretend that Mr. Klebnikov does not belong in the company of these victims of the Putin era. He crossed the same invisible line as the rest, and it became acceptable for someone to murder him. In the end, he became the victim of a Russia whose nature he never fully grasped.

Mr. Boykewich is particularly offended by the last sentence in this passage. He finds it “galling to hear LeVine suggest he understands the nature of Russia better than Mr. Klebnikov, who was steeped in Russian culture from birth, who spoke Russian like a native, and whose ease of movement in circles closed to foreigners made him the envy of his colleagues.”

But, other than the fact that I presumed to write a book about the country, I have never suggested, either in Labyrinth or elsewhere, that I know the country better than anyone else, including Paul Klebnikov. However, again, perhaps it would be helpful to Mr. Boykewich to listen to Mr. Klebnikov’s Russian journalist acquaintances, as quoted in a passage where I consider the émigré experience:

Alexander Politkovsky, an investigative reporter and the estranged husband of Anna Politkovskaya, told me that Mr. Klebnikov “didn’t really understand what was going on in Russia in reality.” Oleg Panfilov, who runs a nonprofit Moscow office that teaches journalists how to protect themselves, said: “He was naïve. He worshipped Russia, and understood nothing about Russia.” Others whose advice I also respected made similar assertions—that Mr. Klebnikov’s reporting on Russia was flawed from the beginning because he was less knowledgeable than he thought. If so, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I had met numerous well-meaning but presumptuous second- and third-generation Americans who traced their ancestry to the former Soviet Union and came seeking to help the homeland. Former Soviets who encountered these visitors could find them condescending, and the Americans were often disappointed by the experience. In Armenia, some visiting kinfolk from America were told that the best thing they could do was stay home and send a check. There was something to that advice.

Mr. Boykewich concludes that Mr. Klebnikov’s murder “upsets” me, not because he was killed, but because the death contradicts what he says is the theme of the book. He writes, “Unfortunately for LeVine, there is one glaring counterexample to his claim that ‘Putin’s rule protects those who are inside the system or at least accept it’: the murder of Paul Klebnikov, a US journalist who was one of Putin’s greatest advocates in the West.”

The author writes in a “gotcha!” style, as though discovering a glaring incongruity. The problem is that I myself point out that incongruity in the book. But I reach the opposite conclusion about its significance: I find Mr. Klebnikov’s murder the most powerful statement of all the deaths I profile. Despite Mr. Klebnikov being a full-throated fan of Mr. Putin’s, an unseen hand decided that he should die, and that no one should be punished for the act. Though by all appearances Mr. Putin truly regretted Mr. Klebnikov’s murder—he suggested as much publicly, unlike his usual half-hearted stated sympathies for murder victims—the organizer was never charged. The alleged triggermen, too, went free. In other words, the atmosphere of impunity for killers perpetuated by Mr. Putin is so powerful, it’s bigger than Mr. Putin himself.

Mr. Boykewich is altogether mystified as to why I draw a straight line from Ivan IV to the present when the sixteenth-century czar’s European contemporaries were brutal as well. It is Mr. Boykewich’s right to dismiss Russia’s long arc of history as a context in which to understand the country today. But he might consider that European visitors to Russia at the time themselves regarded the savagery they witnessed as far worse than anything they had seen at home. For starters, I suggest that Mr. Boykewich re-read Russia at the Close of the Sixteenth Century, a reprint of the 1591 manuscript of Sir Jerome Horsey, who lived in Russia for 16 years. I cite it amid 19 pages of footnotes in my “thinly sourced” book, as Mr. Boykewich describes Labyrinth.

Another of Mr. Boykewich’s assertions is that I characterize all Russians as “less than fully human,” and indeed that I blame “every indifferent Russian down to the babushka selling sunflower seeds outside of the Barrikadnaya metro stop” for the murders of Ms. Politkovskaya and Mr. Litvinenko.

What I write is that Russians are generally passive toward the violence and brutality around them. That is one reason why Moscow’s leaders have gotten away with such practices all these decades and centuries. I try to explain why people are this way—why are they not in the streets?—by speaking to a variety of Russians, and by tracking back that phenomenon historically. One of the Russians I quote is Yuri Sinenshchikov, a former deputy Moscow city prosecutor who had dealt with murder his entire professional life. Sinelshchikov told me: “If people go in the street, they won’t gain materially. Any murder can be compared to a show where an actor comes to entertain them. It doesn’t really affect someone unless it happens to them directly. People get angry if they lose a meter of land, or their children are hurt, or someone installs a door that is heavy and could hurt someone.”

In short, I do not blame ordinary Russians for the violence around them. As the current financial crisis has challenged the social contract in Russia, people in fact are protesting publicly. We shall see if that increases over the coming months, and whether it alters how President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin rule the country.

Meanwhile, in addition to mischaracterization, trivialization, and simply getting it wrong, Mr. Boykewich misrepresents direct quotes, inserting elipses for passages that contradict his intended point. An example is this one, delving into whether or not—as some suspect—the Kremlin played a role in the murder of Ms. Politkovskaya.

Here is the passage precisely as quoted by Mr. Boykewich:

My hunch is that this was not a murder that required approval at the top. But it is reasonable to suspect that the FSB was complicit in Anna’s death, at least at some level . . . [The murder showed] a level of confidence that one would expect to find within the FSB, or someone close to the organization. . . . In the end, though, such speculation is an almost pointless exercise.

But the final set of ellipses omits the following sentence: “One of the first suspects to be arrested was an FSB officer, who was accused of providing Anna’s address to the triggerman.”

In other words, a serving FSB officer is implicated directly in Ms. Politkovskaya’s murder. I did not randomly include that paragraph, and particularly that missing sentence, which wholly undermines Mr. Boykewich’s assertion that the book suggests no direct responsibility but simply lays blame everywhere. What the book does is exercises caution. In this case, what we know is that a relatively junior FSB officer is accused; but that does not mean that senior FSB officers were involved.

Similarly, the ellipses omit these sentences:

What about Putin? Did he order Anna’s murder? I have not heard anyone present a credible case against the Russian president. I don’t believe it happened at his explicit direction, or even his vague suggestion. Some have suggested a theory like the one linking Anna’s killing to [Ramzan] Kadyrov—that it was a gangland-style present to Putin. She was slain on the exact date of the president’s birthday.

Again, Mr. Boykewich elects to leave out language that undermines his theme. He demonstrates no understanding, and never mentions, the book’s true central theme: Mr. Putin is responsible because he created the atmosphere in which murderers know they will not face justice. In the case of Ms. Politkovskaya, she was an outsider crossing an unseen line. As for Mr. Klebnikov, his murder demonstrates that being a genuine insider isn’t as simple as merely supporting Mr. Putin.

Having arrived late on the scene, serving as a Moscow correspondent from 2004 through 2007, Mr. Boykewich appears angry at, among others, veterans of the beat who have formed what he regards as “toxic” impressions of some events in Russia. He is unhappy with the “narrative,” as he calls it—the events to which writers seem attached in discussing Russia, including the series of murders that I profile in Labyrinth. Perhaps if Mr. Boykevich had been based those three years not in Moscow, but in one of the far-flung regions that he visited on occasion, he would conclude differently. I myself am heavily influenced by the eleven years I lived and worked as a correspondent in Central Asia and the Caucasus, places often at the receiving end of Russian foreign policy.

Finally, Mr. Boykewich starts out his essay with a long account of how he pulled the plug on his Moscow career when a CIA agent friend persuaded him that he had fallen for a KGB trap and risked becoming a pawn in Russian politics. Mr. Boykewich says that I probably would see that as “another sign that Russia has taken a dark turn under Vladimir Putin.”

Not really—as Mr. Boykewich himself notes, almost every foreigner in Moscow knows of the long-time KGB practices of ensnarement. But as an example of credulousness, he is right.

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