The Age of Assassins: The Rise and Rise of Vladimir Putin

March 19, 2008

Since Dimitri Medvedev’s predictable triumph in Russia’s presidential elections, the future of the Kremlin’s internal power balance has fascinated those who scrutinize events in Moscow. As ever, questions outstrip answers. The central issue is whether the latest choreographed ballot signified a true shift of power away from Vladimir Putin.

Since 2000, when Putin came to office, Russia has been ruled with ever-increasing intolerance of opposition and ever greater authoritarianism. Medvedev promised a new liberalism, but one school of thought suggests that his ascent to the Kremlin is a manoeuvre to allow Putin to return to the presidency in 2012 without breaching the constitutional limit of two consecutive four-year terms.

In the meantime, much attention will focus on Putin’s placemen in Kremlin, many of them drawn, like Putin himself, from the KGB and its domestic successor, the FSB – the so called siloviki, who control both the levers of raw power and an increasing slice of Russia’s economy. Their activities are chronicled alongside Putin’s in this book by Yuri Felshtinsky and Vladimir Pribylovsky, both critics of the Kremlin. Pribylovsky is identified as a Russian journalist running several human-rights websites. Historian Felshtinsky is better knows as an associate of Alexander Litvinenko, the former FSB officer poisoned in London in November 2006. Felshtinsky and Litvinenko co-authored Blowing up Russia, which blamed the Russian authorities for the apartment house bombings that preceded the Second Chechen War – the conflict that cemented Putin’s rise to power – in 1999.

This latest book depicts the Putin era as one in which the President and his secret service comrades have usurped power to create the equivalent of a corporation to carve up the country’s wealth among its executives and shareholders – the siloviki. ” The question for the rest of us is what will happen when the economy has a downturn and the Russian trough of plenty empties,” the authors write. “Strife between the shareholders is likely to be fierce, manipulative and brutal.”

As with much else about Putin’s Russia, this work makes little distinction between analysis and polemics. Felshtinsky is an associate of Boris Berezovsky, the self-exiled tycoon waging a ferocious propaganda war on the Kremlin from London. Some of the book’s accusations lack the sourcing that could reasonably be expected of a historian  or a journalist. (Chapter One, for instance, has no footnotes.) The Age of Assassins does not illuminate what might lie ahead so much as  consider over key developments of the last eight years, sometimes in a conspiratorial and unsubstantiated manner. But it contends that the silovisi  are the true repositories of power rather than the public figures ruling on their behalf.

Reviewer: Alan Cowell is London correspondent of The New York Times and author of a forthcoming book on the Litvinenko affair.