Devilish Forces

Stephen Boykewich

On Putin’s Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia, by Steve LeVine. Random House, June 2008. $26

In early October 2007, almost three years to the day after I began my career as a journalist in Russia, a conversation with a former CIA agent brought it to an end.

He was a longtime friend I’d joined in Scotland for a weekend holiday. We were on a train hurtling through the countryside east of Edinburgh after a morning rain; the hills were so vivid it hurt to look at them too long. Idly at first, I told him about a series of encounters I’d had in Moscow with a former agent of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency that runs more spies abroad than any other branch of the country’s secret services. The Russian agent, who called himself Alex, had appeared as though out of nowhere earlier that year and struck up a friendship—only weeks after I’d gotten the attention of the FSB (the reconstituted KGB) with some aggressive reporting in Dagestan, the unstable Russian republic that borders Chechnya in the Northern Caucasus.

Alex picked me up in Moscow when I was hailing a ride on the Third Ring Road. (A large but dwindling number of ordinary Moscow drivers accept passengers to make a few extra rubles if they’re heading in your direction.) Our conversation was a series of coincidences, each of which Alex marked with a celebratory: “Vhat a coincidence!” I was toting a guitar, and he was a guitar player himself: “Vhat a coincidence!” He was wearing a sweatshirt with the emblem of KFOR—NATO’s peacekeeping force in Kosovo—and I had friends who had been in Kosovo during the NATO bombing. “Vhat a coincidence!” I was a journalist, while he had just retired from the Russian Ministry of Defense (he mentioned his work for the GRU later) and had stories from Afghanistan and Iran that would be “very interestink” for a journalist. “Vhat a coincidence!”

My former CIA friend’s eyes grew wider as I narrated the meetings that followed. Alex invited me on banya trips, cookouts, and swims at the lake near his dacha. I met his bank executive girlfriend, his doting, fox-eyed mother, his cousin Olya, a single mother who told me she was an on-site dentist at the FSB headquarters at Lubyanka. All the while, Alex hinted at stories, contacts, and access he could offer that Western journalists in Russia only dream of.

“Tell me you didn’t accept any documents from him,” my ex-CIA friend said. “Please tell me you didn’t accept any documents.”

I went numb. At that moment under my desk in Moscow were four boxes of 3.5 floppy disks with digital photos that I vaguely understood to show NATO military vulnerabilities in Afghanistan. Alex had let me take them home, professing reluctance, after failing to bring a laptop to a meeting where we were supposed to view them together. I knew it was a mistake to take them but couldn’t resist the chance at what might be my Seymour Hersh moment.

“Before you get on a plane back to Moscow,” my friend said evenly, “there are a few more people I think should hear this story.”

A week of frenzied consultations with embassy officials and CIA veterans brought a consensus: I had fallen into a trap the Russians had been laying for naïve Westerners since time immemorial. The targets were journalists, diplomats, scholars, and do-gooders; the bait was girls, boys, drugs, and documents. Former US News and World Report Moscow bureau chief Nicholas Daniloff spent three weeks in a KGB prison in 1986 after accepting from a suspiciously friendly Russian acquaintance—wait for it—military-related photographs from Afghanistan.

I was useless as a blackmail target, but a nerve-wracking handover of power was about to take place in Russia, and I might have made a fine pawn in the propaganda war if the elections got messy and the Western media became too aggressive in its condemnation. As an American working for a French news agency, I would have produced two scandals for the price of one. It seems Western journalists are no longer satisfied poking at Russia with accusations of authoritarianism, the Izvestiafront-pager might have read, over a grainy picture of me taking the disks from Alex.Now they spend their weekends stealing state secrets.

For Steve LeVine, author of Putin’s Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia, the incident would likely be another sign that Russia has taken a dark turn under Vladimir Putin—still the most powerful man in the country since ceding the presidency in May 2008 to his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev.

LeVine lived through his own share of intrigue during eleven years of reporting from the former Soviet Union for the Washington PostNewsweek, and others. As a reporter in Tashkent in the 1990s, he was roommate with Chris Bowers, then a BBC correspondent, now a UK trade diplomat in Moscow who stands accused of being a British spy. In 1995, LeVine became the first American journalist since the fall of the Soviet Union to have his Russian visa revoked, ostensibly because a treaty made Russia follow suit after Uzbekistan revoked LeVine’s journalistic accreditation.

The cloak-and-dagger atmosphere is a fact of life for Western journalists working in Russia, particularly since Putin, himself the former head of the FSB, dramatically expanded the organization’s funding, presence, and prestige during his eight years as president. And it’s no small part of the fun. My conversations with other Western journalists in Moscow alternated between horror at the worst incidents of violence—the assassinations in 2006 of investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and FSB agent turned anti-Putin crusader Alexander Litvinenko in London—and hilarity over the Kremlin’s bumbling PR or pseudo-scandals such as the British “spy rock” case when allegations were made that British spies hid a transmitter in a fake rock. A favorite joke in the Moscow bureau of Agence France Presse, where I worked immediately before my unexpected flight from the country, was to answer an anti-Putin remark by lifting a shirt corner and whispering, “You get that, boys?”

Most of us retained an adolescent sense of invincibility during the disasters and scandals LeVine retells, events that characterized the Putin era for most Russia-watchers as one of unremitting violence and increasing authoritarianism: Moscow’s brutal prosecution of the Second Chechen War, the Kursk submarine disaster, the Nord-Ost theater hostage crisis, the state takeover of national media outlets, the legal onslaught against former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Beslan school hostage crisis, and the murders of journalists.

It was hard to be scared for our safety, knowing how little threat our 400-word articles on anemic opposition rallies or Gazprom production figures posed to any regime anywhere. But the hazards to careers were real and usually struck for no other reason than bad luck. A few days after I resettled in the States last October, I was on the phone with a thirty-year CIA veteran my friend had put me in touch with. “It’s the way they’ve always done it,” he said. “They like to have four or five journalists on the hook at any given time. The fact you got out just means one of your buddies got bumped to the top of the list.” As if on cue, I received a carefully worded e-mail that week from a friend at the Moscow Times, asking my opinion on a sudden and insistent offer he’d received of “compromising information relating to the Russian military.” I advised him to stick to Gazprom production figures. In another case this summer, I learned that a pair of FSB agents had showed up at the Moscow office of a major Western news agency for a chat with the bureau chief about one of his correspondents, an American reporter who had provoked rumors by speaking Russian a little too well. The reporter has since been relocated.

Putin’s eight years in office produced an astonishing sequence of headlines, and LeVine is not the first Western journalist to retell them in book form. The most thorough account of Putin’s first term is a team effort by Washington Post Russian correspondents Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution, published in 2005. More current is formerEconomist Moscow bureau chief Edward Lucas’s The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces Both Russia and the West, published in February 2008. Alongside these is a small raft of more specialized books that focus on the radioactive-poisoning murder of Litvinenko, Russia’s rise as an energy superpower, and Putin’s well-concealed inner depths.

The logical question would seem to be what LeVine’s book, which weighs in at a mere 166 pages and retells events occurring long after LeVine left Russia, adds to the debate. But it’s the wrong question, because there is no debate.

Putin’s spy-centric consolidation of power, together with the stream of sensational stories and historical amnesia that would be shocking if it weren’t a national affliction in the US, has helped create a perfect storm of anti-Russian sentiment in the Western media. Seventeen radically transformative years of contemporary Russian history—and the extraordinary complexity and ambiguity of Russia’s current situation—are consistently reduced to a single grim narrative: After nine years of President Boris Yeltsin, a drunk but a democrat (a son-of-a-bitch, but our son-of-a-bitch), former KGB spy Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 and seized his country by the throat. He suppressed dissent, persecuted foreign companies, strong-armed former Soviet neighbors, rattled sabers at the West, and generally revealed himself to be a murderous thug—in spirit if not in fact. Small wonder that when Russia took the global stage in 2006 to host the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, the Kremlin hired PR giant Ketchum to make sure the show ran smoothly.

It was too little too late. In spite of superficial variations in range, tone, and depth of reporting in LeVine’s book and those preceding it, all rely on the same damning central narrative, and few make any pretense of entertaining alternative points of view. With subtitles like Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia, andHow the Kremlin Menaces Both Russia and the West, the book jackets alone are enough to make a non-NATO state cower.

It’s not just the retrospective gaze of book-writing sabbaticals that turns Western journalists sour. The same contemptuous, shaming editorial line is on regular display in the Washington PostNew York TimesWall Street Journal and their British peers, as well as the blitzkrieg “news analyses” dashed off by Reuters, AFP, and the Associated Press.

Nowhere was this clearer than in Western coverage of this summer’s Russian-Georgian war. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili gave twenty interviews to Western television networks in the first eleven days of the war. His characterization of the conflict as unprovoked Russian brutality was echoed virtually without question in the Western press and amplified by commentators’ astonishing comparisons between Russian military action and Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia, while Moscow’s claims that it was responding to a reckless assault on Tskhinvali by Georgian forces was dismissed out of hand. In fact, as Der Spiegel eventually reported on September 15, NATO International Military Staff experts determined that Georgia started the war the night of August 7, raining cluster bombs, artillery, and fire from twenty-seven rocket launchers down on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali in preparation for a planned infantry sweep to the Russian border. The Russian army, according to the Der Spiegel report, did not begin firing until 7:30 the next morning. A follow-up report by the New York Times on November 7 cited OSCE military observers as saying that at least forty-eight Georgian artillery rounds fell in civilian areas of Tskhinvali during the first hour of the bombing.

The Western media’s anti-Russian impulses also drive the work of think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations, whose March 2006 report “Russia’s Wrong Direction” embarrassed even some Putin critics with its hectoring tone. These impulses extend to non-governmental organizations such as Freedom House, whose 2008 ranking of political freedom declared Russia “less free” than countries such as Afghanistan, which last year saw 8,000 combat deaths and a 600 percent rise in suicide bombings over 2005; Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh has reigned since seizing power in a military coup in 1978; and Jordan, a hereditary monarchy where the law defines any meeting of two or more people as a public gathering requiring advanced permission. (Happily, though, all three countries are allies in the US “war on terror.”)

The same attitude fuels the tough-on-Russia rhetoric from both sides of the US political divide. One of the few topics to bring a spark of life to John McCain on the campaign trail was Russian iniquity. Barack Obama attempted to withhold judgment on the outbreak of the Russian-Georgian war but was hammered for it by McCain and quickly joined the chorus of condemnation.

Only in so toxic an atmosphere could LeVine’s thinly sourced, 166-page polemic, which went from conception to publication in little over a year, be printed by a major publishing house and greeted with praise by otherwise serious writers.

As a reiteration of the universal Putin horror story, LeVine’s book falls far short of Lucas’s The New Cold War. Putin’s Labyrinth does have powerful moments, including LeVine’s account of the brutality he witnessed while reporting on the First Chechen War. Also effective is his retelling of the 2002 Nord-Ost hostage crisis, when Chechen separatists held 850 hostages in a Moscow theater for two and a half days until a botched federal rescue operation killed 129 of the hostages. Another strong point is the reconstruction of the detective work around the radioactive poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko, the former FSB agent who broke with the organization in 1998, excoriated Putin from self-imposed exile in London, and died in agony there in November 2006. The following scandal continues to rock Russian-UK relations, with British authorities coming increasingly close to openly blaming the Kremlin, and the prime suspect enjoying immunity from prosecution as a newly elected deputy in Russian parliament.

For the most part, LeVine’s book is rushed and disorganized where Lucas’s is precise and authoritative. In place of evidence on important and frequently verifiable points, LeVine foregrounds hunches and snap judgments, as though the reader’s chief interest lay in a moment-by-moment account of the author’s evolving opinions. “I reconsidered the competing theories.” “I wrote that off to barstool talk.” “Did I find him heroic? I would say I respected and admired him.” “I came to believe that stagecraft was a large part of Nikolai’s psyche.” “I also thought that NATO expansion made sense.” “That rang true.” “I had my doubts.”

In surer authorial hands—or coming from a journalist present in Russia during the events he recounts—a sense of the author’s evolving opinions might be more engaging. But LeVine’s sources are mostly previously published accounts and interviews he conducted in 2007, and the obviously rushed writing leads to lapses and unintentionally amusing mischaracterizations. After mentioning that exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky “sank tens of millions of dollars into an anti-Putin crusade,” LeVine adds: “Berezovsky assembled a team of intellectuals and writers to help orchestrate the ouster of the Russian president. In this respect, he resembled an Old World patron of kept artists.”

But LeVine had little reason to worry over the finer points, because in Putin’s Labyrinth, the devil isn’t in the details. The devil is in the Kremlin. The book opens with the claim that “Russia’s acquiescence to [its] bloody state of affairs sets it apart from other nations that call themselves civilized,” and closes with the following statement on the Putin-obsessed Litvinenko: “One thing was certain, though. Those who had scoffed at Litvinenko’s paranoia had been proven wrong—the devilish forces he said he was battling turned out to be all too real.”

This startling crudeness makes Putin’s Labyrinth a useful book. While LeVine’s predecessors stopped short of portraying Russia’s post-Soviet history as a battle between pro-Western angels and anti-Western demons, at last the gloves are off. The full irrationality of the Western animus against Russia is finally on proper display.

It comes as no surprise that LeVine ignores opportunities to explain the Putin era—or even as limited a phenomenon as Putin’s domestic poll ratings—in terms of the struggles and preoccupations of ordinary Russians. A country in the grip of “devilish forces” can be only condemned or mocked, and in this case LeVine chooses mockery: “After eight years of paralysis under Yeltsin’s rule, Putin’s display of testosterone—dutifully reported on state-controlled television—sent his popularity rating over seventy percent.”

A more generous author might note that as a result of Yeltsin-era “paralysis,” the number of Russians living on less than four dollars a day rose from two million (in 1989) to seventy-four million (in 1996), while the collective national wealth was funneled offshore at a rate of $2 billion a month. He might also note that in addition to “testosterone,” the Putin era brought a doubling of real incomes, a 50 percent drop in poverty, a 70 percent rise in GDP, and accumulation of $157 billion in a national Stabilization Fund.

But why struggle to understand Russia’s recent past when its character and fate were sealed 350 years ago? For LeVine, Russia was a uniquely brutal nation under Ivan the Terrible—never mind the contemporaneous reign of “Bloody” Mary I of England, the mass torture and public burnings of the Spanish Inquisition, and the massacre of thousands of civilians during the French Wars of Religion—and continues to be so under the man who has “set about restoring the legacy of brute Russia.”

Why have Russians not taken to the streets over stricter NGO registration laws? Not because NGOs have failed to engage a broad public with issues most immediately relevant to them, but because Russians are so spiritually bankrupt as to “respond to Putin’s steady withdrawal of their individual liberties with obedience combined with defiant nationalism, a standard set four centuries earlier under Ivan IV.” Why did both Yeltsin and Putin start out hoping for closer relations with the US and end up deeply cynical? Not because President Bill Clinton broke the US promise not to expand NATO, bombed one of Russia’s closest allies, and extracted bitter concessions at Yeltsin’s moments of greatest weakness. Not because President George W. Bush lied to Putin about removing US air bases from Central Asia, unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, is building an anti-missile system in Russia’s backyard, and supports a third round of post-Soviet NATO expansion on Russia’s borders. No, says LeVine: It’s because Russian presidents are bitter about “Russia’s historic problem since Ivan the Terrible: Much of the world felt uncomfortable with Russian ways, and kept the country at arm’s length.”

The author is forthcoming enough to mention that the Russian historians he consulted, Alexei Miller and Alexander Kamenskii, “told me that my thinking was too simplistic . . . Miller was especially contemptuous of anyone who would mention Putin and Russia’s iconic sixteenth-century czar, Ivan IV—known as Ivan the Terrible—in the same sentence.”

But LeVine is undeterred, armed as he is with the insights of Western investment bankers. “The keenest observers on almost any matter in nearly any country are often the bankers, who have much to lose if their judgment is wrong,” he writes, turning to Rory MacFarquar, the Moscow research director of Goldman Sachs, to plumb the depths of the Russian soul. Lest we be skeptical of seeking spiritual insights from the same Western financial elite whose economic advice helped bankrupt tens of millions of Russians twice during the 1990s, we learn that “MacFarquar is persuasive partly because of his long years and deep study of Russia, and also because of his clear and painstaking choice of words.”

MacFarquar’s clear, painstaking verdict, then?

“The local attitude is: ‘Shit happens,’ said Rory MacFarquar.”

The Goldman Sachs line fits with LeVine’s experience during the First Chechen War, when he came to believe that Russians are largely incapable of experiencing the suffering of fellow human beings the way holders of different colored passports are:

At first, Muscovites seemed to react with genuine anguish to the ugliness in Chechnya. This was attributable to the Russian media, which provided saturation coverage, including much dispassionate reporting. But even the shocking stories of Russian soldiers mistreated by their own military didn’t seem to move many people; the main thing was to pay the necessary bribes so that your son was not conscripted or sent to fight there. [emphasis added]

In other words, the spiritually dead Russian masses were provoked to a momentary approximation of human feeling by well-made TV, just as the false spring of perestroika momentarily provoked them to a simulacrum of political engagement.

The images that had caused me to view Russians as basically callous to the lives of others gradually slipped from my mind. But then came a series of reminders of the anguishing events I had seen in Chechnya. . . . Now Russia is again Russia, its dark side emergent and, for the most part, tolerated by the populace. [emphasis added]

One advantage of characterizing the entire Russian population as less than fully human is that it frees LeVine from the need to demonstrate direct responsibility for any particular incident of violence. It doesn’t ultimately matter who sprayed the polonium in Alexander Litvinenko’s tea or pulled the trigger in Anna Politkovskaya’s apartment lobby: Putin is responsible, since he is the guardian and guarantor of Russia’s ancient tradition of inhumanity. The FSB is the agent of his demonic power, and every indifferent Russian down to the babushka selling sunflower seeds outside of the Barrikadnaya metro stop is partly responsible. Of the murder of Politkovskaya, the Russian investigative reporter and Putin critic, LeVine writes:

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. Putin is responsible because, as with Nord-Ost and Paul Klebnikov, he created the climate of impunity in which someone decided that Anna could die. Putin’s rule protects those who are inside the system or at least accept it. Outsiders cannot expect the same protection. [emphasis added]

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 case clearly upsets LeVine, who spends much of his chapter about Klebnikov casting aspersions on the slain journalist’s judgment and acumen—an odd task in a book proclaiming to be a tribute to the victims of Putin-era violence.

Klebnikov was an American of aristocratic Russian descent who was all but unique among Western journalists in his professed admiration for Putin. Klebnikov saw Putin as freeing Russia from the grip of rapacious oligarchs and leading it into a more stable and prosperous future. After fifteen years reporting for American Forbes, frequently on corruption in Russian business, Klebnikov was made editor of Russian Forbes on its launch in April 2004. Three months later, he was gunned down outside the newspaper’s Moscow office. The case has yet to lead to a conviction.

Even given LeVine’s doctrine of collective Russian responsibility for all acts of violence in the country, it seems strange to lay blame for Klebnikov’s murder at Putin’s door, in light of the mutual admiration between the Forbes editor and the Russian president, which Putin demonstrated by visiting the Klebnikov family in New York after his death. In fact, LeVine’s decision to place the Forbes editor alongside murdered Putin critics such as Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko so upset Klebnikov’s family that they refused to cooperate in the writing of Putin’s Labyrinth.

Again, LeVine is undeterred:

Klebnikov’s murder repudiated his own message about Russia—that Putin was taking it toward deserved greatness and that it was on the cusp of achieving equal footing with the West. . . . Putin was following the path dictated by his autocratic predecessors for centuries, glorifying the state over the individual. He was presiding over a system that continued to protect those who killed to further its interests. . . . In the end, [Klebnikov] became the victim of a Russia whose nature he never fully grasped.

Laying aside the question of how the death of Putin’s most credible advocate in the West furthered Russian interests, it is galling to hear LeVine suggest he understands the nature of Russia better than 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. LeVine conclusively discredits himself when he tries to dismiss Klebnikov as having “Lord Jim pretensions, exhibiting the vanity of a Westerner who imagined himself rescuing the natives.”

What LeVine fails to understand is that Klebnikov did not see Russia as an alien land, or Russians as “natives” in need of “rescue.” Klebnikov is a mystery to LeVine because in the same vast, bewildering country where LeVine finds only inhumanity—a country that remains chaotic and dangerous for foreigners and Russians alike—Klebnikov found reasons for pride, love, and hope.

The few Western writers to dissent from the chorus of shame about Putin’s Russia have been precisely those willing to recognize the US policy of “relentless, winner-take-all exploitation of Russia’s post-1991 weakness,” as NYU professor Stephen Cohen wrote in a 2006 Nation article titled “The New American Cold War.” Cohen cited the “growing military encirclement of Russia, on and near its borders, by US and NATO bases,” “a tacit (and closely related) US denial that Russia has any legitimate national interests outside its own territory, even in ethnically akin or contiguous former republics such as Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia,” and “familiar cold war double standards condemning Moscow for doing what Washington does—such as seeking allies and military bases in former Soviet republics, using its assets (oil and gas in Russia’s case) as aid to friendly governments and regulating foreign money in its political life.”

Journalist and political analyst Anatol Lieven reported alongside LeVine during the First Chechen War but emerged believing that Russians are fully human—and may have legitimate grievances against the West. In a March 2007 article in American Conservative entitled “To Russia With Realism,” Lieven wrote:

[R]adical free-market economic change in the 1990s proved utterly disastrous for ordinary Russians, plunging tens of millions into deep poverty and driving millions to an early death. Ordinary Russians’ association of these changes with Western influence was not wholly fair, as the most rapacious and ruthless aspects of the process were the work of the new Russian elites themselves. Nonetheless, the elites justified their actions in the name of “westernization,” and the proceeds of Russia’s 1990s kleptocracy were to a great extent transferred to Western bank accounts, Western real estate, and Western luxury goods. So the hostile reaction of ordinary Russians is also quite understandable.

Lieven also has the breadth of perspective to judge Russia’s development not in comparison with the US or Switzerland, but with its logical peers:

Today’s Russia is like many U.S. allies past and present: a corrupt, state-influenced market economy with a partly democratic, partly authoritarian system. Russia has no global agenda of ideological or geopolitical domination but mainly wants to exert predominant influence (but not imperial control) within the territory of the former Soviet Union and the centuries-old Russian empire. Moves by the state to dominate the oil and gas sector are unwelcome to Americans but entirely in line with world practice outside the U.S. and U.K. Russian corruption is extremely serious, but on the other hand, the fiscal restraint of the Putin administration holds lessons for the present U.S. administration, not the other way around. Like India, Turkey, and many other democratic states, Russia has used brutal means to suppress a separatist rebellion.

Rather than looking for more sticks to beat Russia with and more crimes to lay at Putin’s door, Lieven believes “we should be very glad that the Putin administration is as pragmatic as it is in its international policy and as relatively law-abiding at home.”

It may be that the Russian-Georgian war has doomed any chance of cooler heads prevailing in US-Russian relations during the Obama administration, even if the comic-book version of the conflict sold in the West is thoroughly discredited. One can only hope President Obama will turn out to be as level-headed and pragmatic as his campaign indicated and will let the urgency of Russian-American cooperation on nuclear security, arms control, anti-terrorism, and other vital issues take priority over the childish demonization of Russia that Washington has scarcely ceased since the end of the Cold War. One would also hope that President Medvedev, a former corporate lawyer with no known past in the intelligence services, will moderate the influence of the secret services in Russian life and the paranoid strain in Russian government—which the US has done all too much to encourage. Finally, one would hope that Russia will find a Western chronicler who can write as soberly and feelingly of the country’s suffering as Alma Guillermoprieto writes of Latin America’s frequently bloody present, or Martin Meredith wrote of Africa’s monstrously brutal post-colonial struggle. For my part, I hope I haven’t seen the last of the country. Until then, we’ll have to pray our guardian angels keep the “devilish forces” at bay.

Editor’s note: Steve LeVine, author of Putin’s Labyrinth, responds to Stephen Boykewich’s review on our blog.