Categories: Book reviews, corruption

Review of Putin’s Kleptocracy by Karen Dawisha

Professor Karen Dawisha’s new book Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who owns Russia? promised much.  According to the blurb on the jacket it “describes Putin’s rapid rise to power, the cabal he brought with him, the oligarchs they have created, the billions they have looted…she reveals a deeply corrupt country ruled by a thieving regime”.  Further, Cambridge University Press “declined to publish it for fear of running afoul of libel laws in the U.K.” (p.351) and indeed the current publisher, Simon & Schuster, has only published it in the US.  But in the age of the internet, it can easily be acquired by anyone in the UK.

Books of this kind, which aim to expose or document specific acts of corruption within a regime, are pretty rare, and this is what drew my attention to the book.  However, to be credible this sort of work depends very much on the quality of the evidence, and in this respect I found Putin’s Kleptocracy seriously wanting.

I am not a Russian specialist and my knowledge of Russia comes from mainly from reading the UK media.  Nor do I have any knowledge of the Russian language.  However, I do not feel that disqualifies me from making some observations about the book.

There are some on the left who take Putin seriously, often because they approve of the way he stands up to what they perceive as US hegemony over world affairs.  I do not share this perspective.  In my view Putin’s repeated statements about the US disregard for the “rules” of the international system, while they would be reasonable if uttered by most people, are, coming from him, hypocritical and self-serving and not to be taken seriously.  Given recent events in Ukraine and the Crimea, it seems very strange to me to believe that if Putin had more influence in international affairs, the outcome would be more benign.

The two main problems of the book are ones of style and substance.  Firstly, as is often the danger with investigative work, Professor Dawisha appears overly focused on setting out all she knows about Putin’s kleptocracy rather than bearing the capacity of the general reader in mind.  As a result, the narrative contains a very large number of individuals, companies and episodes, and this makes the book hard to follow.  The task she has set herself is a formidable one, and inevitably a great deal does need explaining, but she would have been better off focusing on a smaller number of episodes and individuals, and explaining these in a clearer way.  Some of the deals are very complex and without quite a slow laboured explanation, which is not provided, are almost unfathomable.  Unfortunately the result is the book loses quite a lot of its “punch” as the reader is mired in a wealth of detail, some difficult to follow for the non-specialist.

Secondly, the main problem is the quality of the evidence, and furthermore how Professor Dawisha treats it.  She describes her sources in the introduction as (pp.11-12)

archival sources, the accounts of Russian insiders, the results of investigative journalism in the United States, Britain, Germany, Finland, France, and Italy, and all of this was backed by extensive interviews with Western officials who served in Moscow and St. Petersburg…I also consulted with and used many accounts by opposition figures, Russian analysts, and exiled figures who used to be part of the Kremlin elite.  These have become an increasingly credible source of information, particularly as the number of émigrés increases.  Above all I have relied on the work of Russian journalists…Finally, the dump of nonredacted cables from Wikileaks is a very regrettable but also a completely fascinating source of information.

Dawisha does not discuss in the introduction the potential problems of relying on sources such as these, and in the main body of the book there is almost no discussion about the quality of the sources when many very serious claims about individuals are made.

The archives are only really used to describe the early part of Putin’s career, when he served with the KGB in East Germany.  Once the Communist Party of the Soviet Union lost power, Dawisha’s ability to rely on archives largely ceases, and of course this pre-dates most of Putin’s rise to power and his business dealings.

While interviews with insiders/diplomats etc. can of course be useful sources, they are problematic for a work such as this, as the claims made cannot be evaluated because naturally such people wish to keep their identity secret.  Further, reliance on “opposition figures” or “exiled figures” is obviously problematic, and it seems to me inadequate to assert they are “an increasingly credible source of information, particularly as the number of émigrés increases”.  Surely what matters is whether or not their claims can be verified or favourably evaluated, with reference to other sources of information which are of good provenance?

As for journalism, this can of course range from the very bad to the very good; again what really matters are the nature of the underlying sources.  Now most people, quite rightly, in their day-to-day lives will assume what journalists say is correct, without having to see the underlying sources.  However, when you are trying to argue Russia is “a deeply corrupt country ruled by a thieving regime” then not unreasonably standards of evidence have to be higher.  Putin’s Kleptocracy contains 60 pages of notes, and on the surface this appears quite an apparatus of erudition.  I do not have the time to count, but I would estimate that over half the references are in fact to books or articles by journalists, and many URLs are (commendably) provided.  However, what is not clear to me, and what Dawisha generally does not discuss, is whether she has herself seen the underlying evidence behind the stories and satisfied herself it is valid.  The problem is that without doing so, the book appears as the stitching together of a mighty trawl of the internet for articles about Putin and his cronies, in which all facts contained in the articles are assumed to be true.  This might be an unfair conclusion to draw, but it is one Dawisha has left herself open to by her methods.

I will now go through some specific examples to illustrate my concerns about how the evidence presented in the book is treated, in what seems to me to be an uncritical manner.

I understood from Putin’s Kleptocracy that Boris Berezovsky became an oligarch under the regime of Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, and that when Putin took power, he effectively forced Berezovsky out of Russia.  Berezovsky is cited on occasion throughout the book to back up claims Dawisha makes.  But when what he says does not suit her, he is discredited.

Dawisha claims that “one of the most persistent contradictions in statements about Putin is the view that he never directly took a bribe but that he surrounded himself with many figures…who did”.  Clearly this line of argument is a big problem for Dawisha, as it goes against the main point of her book.  Dawisha believes that “since much of our view of Putin’s incorruptibility comes from Boris Berezovskiy…it should be taken with a grain of salt”.  Her evidence for this is the famous British High Court judgment where Mrs Justice Gloster said he regarded “truth as a transitory, flexible concept”.  Dawisha quotes just these words from the judgment, and indeed cites a Financial Times article, not the actual judgment, as her source.

However, the judgment is of course freely available online, and is rather more damning than Dawisha presents (paragraph 100):

On my analysis of the entirety of the evidence, I found Mr. Berezovsky an unimpressive, and inherently unreliable, witness, who regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept, which could be moulded to suit his current purposes. At times, the evidence which he gave was deliberately dishonest; sometimes he was clearly making his evidence up as he went along in response to the perceived difficulty in answering the questions in a manner consistent with his case; at other times, I gained the impression that he was not necessarily being deliberately dishonest, but had deluded himself into believing his own version of events. On occasions he tried to avoid answering questions by making long and irrelevant speeches, or by professing to have forgotten facts which he had been happy to record in his pleadings or witness statements. He embroidered and supplemented statements in his witness statements, or directly contradicted them. He departed from his own previous oral evidence, sometimes within minutes of having given it. When the evidence presented problems, Mr. Berezovsky simply changed his case so as to dovetail it in with the new facts, as best he could. He repeatedly sought to distance himself from statements in pleadings and in witness statements which he had signed or approved, blaming the “interpretation” of his lawyers, as if this somehow diminished his personal responsibility for accounts of the facts, which must have been derived from him and which he had verified as his own.

Now one could argue Dawisha might have presented six words of the above only because it would have been tedious for the reader to read the whole of paragraph 100.  But the problem for Dawisha is that she relies on Berezovsky as a source repeatedly throughout the book, even though Mrs Justice Gloster said nothing he said could be believed.

From page 207 to page 223 Dawisha discusses claims that a campaign of apartment bombings in 1999 that killed 301 people was masterminded by Putin’s circle to propel him to power.  This is quite a claim, to put it mildly.  But in support, among other sources, Dawisha cites an interview with Berezovsky where he makes exactly that claim (p.211).  And, further, given that at the time of the interview Berezovsky was living in exile, he is not exactly an impartial observer.

She then cites Berezovsky as a source in her discussions of Kremlin strategy towards Putin opponent Yevgeny Primakov (p.226), and as someone who “must have had more information than most about Putin’s real intentions” when she discusses Putin’s moves to assert control over the regions (p.271).  Incredibly, Dawisha then cites Berezovsky’s evidence at the High Court in London as evidence for an allegation that Roman Abramovich asked him on Putin’s behalf for a “contribution” towards a $50 million yacht for Putin (p.279).  Ten pages later, Berezovsky’s evidence in the trial is again relied on for an account of a meeting between him and Putin, where Putin allegedly told Berezovsky to sell his shares in ORT (a TV channel) or face jail (p.289).  Dawisha then cites evidence from another witness – Presidential Administration Chief of Staff Voloshin – to back this claim up but by Dawisha’s own account all this proves is a meeting took place, and it ended at “an impasse”; it does not prima facie back up Berezovsky’s claims (I did not check the web reference as Dawisha warns us against websites infected with viruses).  All these claims by Berezovsky are presented uncritically without any comment, and so presumably the reader is being invited to believe them.

There are many other serious allegations made in the book, which appear to rest on rather shaky foundations.  Here are four examples:

  • Dawisha says that Putin advanced the equivalent of almost $28 million from the St Petersburg city budget in the early 1990s to an organisation called “Twentieth Trust” in loans and advances that were never paid back, and that “Putin appears to have used his connection with Twentieth Trust to make many transfers of funds to his friends, and for his own benefit, both in Russia and abroad” (pp. 145-6).  This affair was apparently subject to a Ministry of Internal Affairs Investigation.  But, as Dawisha states in a footnote, “these documents have not been made public”.  Instead she relies on those who claim they had access to them.  But how does she know their accounts are fair and accurate?
  • Dawisha claims Putin’s “Prime Personal Project” was Gazprom, and that he aimed to have direct influence over it (pp.280-3).  She then cites two former Russian Energy Ministers who claim that when Gazprom shares were bought back by the company they “began to mysteriously disappear.  The process was gradual but anyone who wishes to do so can see how it went by looking at Gazprom’s Quarterly Reports prepared to international accounting standards…6.4% of Gazprom’s shares have somehow fallen off its balance sheet” (p.283).  The reader is later left to infer that Putin and his cronies looted Gazprom for their own benefit (pp. 283-5).  Dawisha does not tell us whether she has analysed Gazprom’s Quarterly Reports herself to verify the Ministers’ extraordinary claim.  It appears she has taken it on trust.
  • Dawisha claims that “more than half of the $50 billion spent on the Sochi Olympics simply disappeared into the pockets of Putin’s cronies, according to detailed analyses by multiple Russian experts” (p.314).  This claim or variants of it have been widely made.  But Dawisha offers no discussion of how reliable this claim is, or the evidence underlying the “detailed analyses”.
  • Dawisha claims that when the Russian Government bailed out the state-supported banks in 2008 to the tune of “approximately $230 billion”, “government ministers who sat on boards (such as Finance Minister Kudrin, who sat on the board of VTB Bank) simply helped themselves to their own private stimulus package” (pp.332-3).  This again is an extraordinary claim to make, and appears to be unsourced.

The final example I will use to demonstrate Dawisha’s rather cavalier use of evidence is on page 341 where she claims 300,000 Russians now reside in London.  Anyone who knows London, as I do, would not believe it.  The average size of a London Borough is around that figure, and so this seemed to me a deeply suspicious claim. so I checked the latest Census figures.  In fact, the 2011 Census showed there were 8,173,941 people living in London, of whom 157,754 had their country of birth categorised as “Rest of Europe”.  The Office for National Statistics defined “Rest of Europe” as Russia but also Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Cyprus (non-EU), Georgia, Iceland, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Norway, Serbia, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, the USSR and Yugoslavia.  So it is very likely that the number of Russians residing in London is actually somewhere below 100,000.  These data are freely available on the web, yet Dawisha instead makes an unsubstantiated claim, and includes no reference for it.

Dawisha deserves some credit for taking on a very difficult and important subject.  However, like any public policy field, anyone looking to change things has to be working from a sound base.  And that means good and ideally excellent standards of evidence.  But unfortunately these are not found in Dawisha’s book.

I am myself inclined to believe Dawisha’s thesis is broadly correct.  The most effective part of her book is the last chapter, where she discusses the “future of kleptocratic authoritarianism”.  There she eloquently sets out the problems of contemporary Russia, pointing out median household wealth there is lower than India, while 110 people control 35 per cent of Russia’s wealth.  She shows how the kleptocracy is destroying any possibility of freedom within Russia.  It is a shame then that a book that is trying to expose this very sad state of affairs falls far short of what is needed to be credible.

3 comments to Review of Putin’s Kleptocracy by Karen Dawisha

  • Eric Zuesse

    Thank you so much for providing the only reader-review of this book that seems to me to be good — and I would go so far as to say it is superb, because you focus on the quality of evidence, and that’s the top concern that I or any intelligent reader would have (but it’s ignored elsewhere). The reviews at amazon, and at various publications such as The New York Times, are utterly untrustworthy, because they do not focus on the quality of this book’s underlying evidence. I just want you to know that, as a person who is very involved in legal/forensic analysis, I respect your review, and I don’t respect any other review that is online of this book, neither the praising ones nor the condemning ones.

  • Steve Middendorf

    Very good review of the evidence. I have been aghast at the effectiveness of the anti Russia propaganda machine of the American empire which has only accelerated since the fall of the USSR. Of course Russia is controlled by a priveleged few. This is the same as in the US where corporate money has bought and sold the congress many times over (See: Republic Lost by Lawrence Lessig) Leaving aside whose corruption is more noble, the real worry is the growing chorus of western mainstream media seemingly calling for military confrontation with Russia.

    Kissenger has said that NATO tanks on Russia’s western borders would be intolerable to Russia, as indeed the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba was intolerable to the US. However the US, rather than living up to its pledge to Gorbachev to stop NATO’s eastern expansion with East Germany, are now pushing on Russia’s western borders with the potential accession of Ukraine into the NATO alliance. The dogs of war are baying. I only hope that European Alliance, having hosted so much war and 70 million lives lost, can resist the US creating another conflict with Russia played out on the blood soaked soil of Europe.

  • Andre de Koning

    I join the commentators of this review in the argument around lack of proper evidence and its references. The usual tactics of demonization, mud slinging in the hope it will stick, are too clear a tactic followed by the CIA and war mongers from the US and this made Ukraine’s coup by the US so easy in the end. As Oliver Stone shows in his Ukraine on Fire, there was a coup, a suspended government and a lack of proper protocol to install a new government (they did not even have the necessary 3/4 vote count, but the US officials endorsed them. Stone shows evidence and too many people are ready to pursue propaganda by the US in order to confront one of the last major countries and subjugate it as it did to all the other ocuntries that did not play ball with Uncle Sam.