From Russia with Blood

Heidi Blake

Collins £20

Review by Hugh MacDonald

Sometimes literature, in the manner of a decent brand of creosote, does exactly what it says on the tin. The subtitle to this chronicle of Buzzfeed news investigations states starkly: Putin’s Ruthless Killing Campaign and Secret War of the West.

The accusation is supported by 300 pages of narrative that is breathtaking in its scope and commendable in its detail. Heidi Blake and her colleagues at Buzzfeed have produced the most damning indictment on Vladimir Putin and the Russia he rules.

There will be those who cavil that not much new has been brought to the table in the published book. Those following the Putin story will be aware of the rise of the one-time secret service agent, his ties with the Russian mafia, particularly in St Petersburg, his brazen dispersal of the country’s assets and his ruthless disposal of the oligarchs he once needed but now finds wearily superfluous to his grand plan.

But Blake’s triumph is that she can pull an extraordinary tale of larceny on a grand scale, corruption of unprecedented levels and serial murder into a brisk, comprehensible narrative.

She is particularly adept at drawing characters and her story has a gaudy cast. The most conspicuous can be colourful and reckless or are dedicated and honest. They share a common fate. They end up dead. They are poisoned by radioactive material, choked on dog leads, shot outside their homes or found impaled on railings outside a bijou London residence.

The list, of course, includes Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned by drinking tea contaminated with radioactive material in a London hotel. It also contains a woman who had no idea of the intricacies of Russian internal politics but who was fatally contaminated by the contents of bottle of perfume found in a park in Salisbury. It had been discarded by two Russian security agents who had come to murder Sergei Skripal, a Russian double agent.

The death list is long and probably still not comprehensive but two victims give an idea of the range and power of Putin and his assassins. Boris Berezovsky and Scot Young serve as human ciphers to the story of 21st century Russia, or the Wild East as it became known.

Both were far from innocents. Indeed, Berezovsky greased the rise of Putin and ate insatiably and regularly at the table of commercial excess and theft. He benefited greatly from the carve-up of Russian resources. His wealth became almost impossible to calculate accurately. He was consumed by thoughts of power, invincibility and unlimited sex.

Young, perhaps best described in the local vernacular as a one-time chancer from Dundee, had traded in his career as a drug dealer for a post as Berezovsky’s fixer. His lifestyle made the Wolf of Wall Street seem unduly restrained.

Their careers soared under Putin’s patronage but matters change dramatically once Berezovsky realised he had been conned by the Russian president. The oligarch fled to England. He died there, besieged by debtors, denuded of friends and aware that he was on a death list that had been drawn up ruthlessly and prosecuted similarly. There is strong evidence that Young, too, was on the list. He was found on the railings outside his Marylebone flat in December 2014.

The police investigation was perfunctory. Scratch marks were found on the window sill by his daughters but no rigorous forensic examination was carried out. Indeed, all the deaths chronicled by Blake are further sullied by official investigations that do not deserve the name. There are political, economic and diplomatic reasons for this, of course.

The killing spree – and it has all the hallmarks of such – has been an embarrassment to the government and law enforcement agencies. From Tony Blair onwards, British prime ministers have tried to placate Putin, who they believe could be useful in the fight against Isis or valuable in trade deals.

He has treated these accommodations with undisguised contempt. His disavowals over the killings abroad are now absurd. His interventions have become invasions (see Georgia). His machinations have become cyber-sophisticated (see US elections).

His power is uncontested in Russia. His critics lie silent, dead or in hiding. The press remains muted save for extraordinary examples of bravery. The Buzzfeed investigations are courageous. It would be wonderful to believe that they would produce something other than a fine book.

There is evidence that British governments have been woefully complacent. But have they been, indeed still are, complicit?

A parliamentary intelligence report on possible Russian interference on the 2016 European referendum remained unpublished as Britain headed to the polls this week. Whatever its conclusions, it is surely a decision that would have found the approval of Putin.