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Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder

A review of Amy Knight’s book on the circumstantial evidence linking the Kremlin to a number of high profile murders.

June 6, 2018 - Artem Patalakh - Books and Reviews

Biteback Publishing

Political murders occupy a prominent place in the history textbook of many countries. From members of royal families to legislators, from ministers to army generals, from independent journalists to human rights activists— many of the people who tried, or could potentially try, to challenge those in power were murdered throughout centuries. At present, as research shows, such assassinations are particularly likely to take place in autocracies and weak democracies. Perhaps the most illustrative example of the former is Russia, a country where the high-profile murders of the critics of its ruling regime (both those residing inside and outside Russia) have become so frequent that the international media report on them almost as commonplace. The internationally acclaimed historian Amy Knight’s Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder provides an in-depth analysis of a number of recent assassinations in Russia, starting from the 1998 murder of outstanding liberal MP Galina Starovoitova to the 2015 killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. All in all, the book covers almost all of the most infamous political murders of the Putin period. However, given the exceptionally great number of such crimes, which makes it hard to describe them all in one study, this book is unsurprisingly not completely exhaustive. For example, it omits the 2009 high-profile murder of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

In this book, Knight aims to show either direct linkages between Putin and all those murders or, at least, Putin’s interest in them. In some cases—for instance, in that of Starovoitova’s murder—such linkages are counterintuitive and may appear initially odd. However, as one follows the author’s well-presented argumentative line, one is likely to find most of Knight’s statements logical and reasonable, coming to conceive of Putin’s involvement in those crimes as not-so-improbable. Furthermore, the author persuasively contends that even in the cases where no such overt link is observable, it is still the overall environment of iniquity and arbitrariness, which Putin inherited from Yeltsin and nurtured further, that made all those killings possible.

A strong suit of the study is that it locates the assassinations in their contexts. This concerns not only each individual killing, which she provides with detailed background information, but also Putin’s period as a whole, since the first chapter traces Russia’s tradition of political killings down to the 13th century Mongol invasion. While there are other books examining individual cases analysed by Knight, some of which she cites herself, Knight convincingly performs their presentation as a coherent chain, enabling her readers to see dissidents’ murders as something permeating through the entire Putin presidency. Importantly, in her case selection, Knight places an emphasis on assassinations committed in the period of Putin’s rise to power and his first two presidential terms. This is especially timely nowadays, as that period is getting increasingly forgotten, and more and more commentators come to attribute harsh measures mostly to Putin’s third presidential term (2012-2018). What is more, the author underpins her argumentation by citing apt quotations from Putin’s early interviews, when he was yet to try to create the image of himself as a stately leader and used to openly express his true ideas, often in aggressive wording. Not only in this respect, but in general, Knight’s book is full of metaphors, expressions and little details about Russian political life which serve well to familiarise the Western reader with Russian realities, demonstrating the author’s excellent knowledge of Russian history and politics.

A common intuitive notion is that researchers should not merely describe the world, but also aim to improve it. Throughout the study, Knight strongly adheres to this logic, sending at least two powerful messages to her readers. First, she commences and concludes her book by expressing encouragement and appreciation of Russian liberal politicians and civil activists, with many of whom she is personally acquainted. Her work is potent in showing how hard for them it is to try to promote democratic values in a country where political murders are far from infrequent and society at large at best reacts to them passively and at worst regards the authorities’ right to resort to coercion—even involving murders—as somewhat legitimate and acceptable. Second, Knight criticises Western governments for treating the Putin issue instrumentally, successfully demonstrating a remarkable contrast between Russian security organs’ likely involvement in the assassinations, their continuous unwillingness to conduct fair inquests for them—and the West’s reactions, sometimes weak and insufficient and, in other cases, somehow opposite to what should have been done. The examples of the latter comprise, for instance, Bush’s recognition of Putin as a friend in the war on terrorism, Obama’s Russian “reset” and Trump’s initial plans to improve ties with the Kremlin.

Though the book’s arguments are primarily built on circumstantial rather than direct evidence—which, however, is common in historical and political science studies—the majority of them are nevertheless compelling, for the author carefully presents alternative explanations and then attempts to confute them with counter-factual reasoning and factual proofs. Yet, taking into account that Knight mostly advocates the perspective of the Russian democratic opposition, some of her arguments are still somewhat doubtful. First, while few Russian liberals would question the personal involvement of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov in the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, Wright’s point that he most probably simply executed Putin’s order in doing so is far from compelling. Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar, for instance, in his famous All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin, contrariwise, promotes the viewpoint that Nemtsov’s murder evoked Putin’s anger, underpinning it with far more factual evidence than Knight. Second, equally questionable is her point about Russian security services’ probable involvement in the 2013 Boston marathon bombing. Not only is it poorly justified, but also I doubt whether it is shared by any leading Russia expert, Russian independent media or prominent Russian opposition figure—at least, I have not managed to find any evidence of such sources supporting Knight’s viewpoint no matter however hard I tried. The only sources sharing it are some Ukrainian and international media, most of which, however, seem marginal. Third, Knight’s portrayal of Boris Berezovsky as overall a freedom fighter also appears somewhat odd. Indeed, she mentions his large engagement in different kinds of criminal machinations in the 1990s just in passing (mostly in relation to the leading role he played in bringing Putin to power in 1999), instead, making an emphasis on his attempts to promote liberalism in Russia in the 2000s. Due to this, an unprepared reader may get the impression that Berezovsky’s role in the struggle for freedom and democracy in Russia is equal to that of the other assassinated people described in the book. Yet, not only would this be objectively faulty, but also many of those people, in fact, used to explicitly express negative views about Berezovsky.

Nonetheless, Knight’s book is certainly an interesting piece to read for all those keen on Russian politics. However, for people having little preliminary knowledge about it, this study might be a bit difficult to grasp, for it contains many names and events to keep in mind while reading—despite the author’s evidently made great efforts to provide all the necessary details about the people and governmental organs involved. For those having expertise in Russian politics, this book may be useful primarily as a source of knowledge refreshment—yet, even they are likely to find there new facts and interpretations. This especially holds for those with the limited ability to speak Russian and access Russian sources, for Knight widely cites and quotes leading Russian journalists, political scientists and historians. Some parts of the study also draw on her personal interviews with prominent Russian opposition figures and the relatives of those murdered, however, as a whole, the book does not include any significant insider information, being mostly based on openly available sources.

The fact that this book has been published hardly means that the story it describes has finished. Tellingly, over just one year that has passed since it came out, a number of Russian independent investigative journalists—such as Yevgeny Khamaganov, Dmitry Popkov, Andrey Ruskov, Maksim Borodin—were killed or died under mysterious circumstances. In retrospect, it seems somewhat unfortunate that Knight did not add a few empty pages in the end of her book as a sign that political assassinations in Russia will most likely continue as long as the Putin regime holds power.

Artem Patalakh is a PhD student in Political Studies at the University of Milan. His research interests include Russian foreign policy, international relations in the post-Soviet space and competition between Russia and the West.

Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder by Amy Knight

Published by Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press. 19.9.2017 

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