In her latest book, Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder, Amy Knight wishes to convince us ‘how scary and unpredictable Russia has become.’ (p. 3) To this end, her book recounts multiples instances in which, she alleges, the ‘Putin regime’ has orchestrated the murder both of ordinary Russian citizens and of prominent political opponents. Knight is a respectable author whose 1993 biography of Beria I found quite informative. In Orders to Kill, however, she has abandoned academic neutrality in favour of political activism. The result is far from satisfactory.
Knight argues that ‘Russia has become a huge threat to the United States and its allies.’ (p. 7) The reason for this is the purportedly murderous nature of the Russian state and its leader, Vladimir Putin. Early on, though, Knight reveals a weakness in her argument. ‘I do not claim to have definitive proof of the complicity of Putin and his allies,’ she writes (p. 6) ‘but these many crimes form a familiar pattern.’ So, she doesn’t actually have any strong evidence to support her thesis; she just thinks that there’s a ‘pattern’. But she never explores alternative explanations for the ‘pattern’, nor does she consider the possibility that there isn’t really a pattern at all. Instead, Orders to Kill constitutes an extended attempt to squeeze all the cases studied into a predetermined system. This is a decidedly flawed methodology.
Knight begins her book with an analysis of political assassination in the Soviet period, in an apparent effort to suggest that assassination is part and parcel of Russian political culture. The problem is that the two main cases she uses to press her point – the murder of Sergei Kirov and the death of Maxim Gorky – are not very good ones. Knight has written another book about the Kirov murder, which I haven’t read but which apparently argues that Stalin ordered it. I’ve never found this point of view convincing, and was, for instance, not persuaded by Robert Conquest’s book on the subject, which argued the same thing. The Kirov case is speculation. So too is that of Maxim Gorky. There isn’t any firm proof that he was murdered. These two cases set the tone for much of that which follows in Orders to Kill – there’s a lot of speculation, only weakly supported by evidence.
After discussing the Soviet Union, Knight moves on to Putin era, mysteriously skipping almost all of the period when Boris Yeltsin was president of Russia. This is an important gap, and creates a false impression that ‘political’ murder began when Putin came on the scene. The first post-Soviet case that Knight covers is that of St Petersburg politician Galina Starovoitova, who was killed in 1998, before Putin became Prime Minister and then president. This is covered in Chapter 3 entitled ‘Galina Starovoitova: Putin’s first victim?’ The question mark is significant. Knight notes (p. 58) that ‘we still don’t know who ordered her murder’. It is a big leap from that to ‘Putin did it,’ especially as Knight fails to produce even single item of evidence linking Putin to the crime. The logic is solely that Knight thinks that the murder would have helped Putin politically, and therefore he must have been responsible. This isn’t good logic. Moreover, some people were convicted, Putin was no longer working in St Petersburg at the time, and as Knight points out, the Starovoitova murder was hardly the only one in the city – there had been several other murders in previous years, reflecting the relatively lawless state of the city. Divorcing the Starovoitova murder from that wider context seems disingenuous.
Next, Knight covers the apartment bombings which killed a large number of people in 1999. But again, she fails to provide any evidence to link the bombings to Putin. The logic is the same as before: Putin benefited, therefore he must have ordered them. Again, this is weak. It’s worth noting that Knight says that after the second apartment bombing, ‘Putin went ahead with a planned trip to New Zealand, as if to demonstrate that there was no cause for panic.’ ( p. 81) This is hardly compatible with a theory which says that Putin engineered the bombings in order to create panic and justify a clampdown in Chechnya.
From there Knight moves on to murders of journalists in the early 2000s. She writes, ‘scores of other Russian journalists were killed during Putin’s first term in office.’ This is simply untrue. The Committee to Protect Journalists keeps track of the number of journalists killed worldwide, and the data for Russia can be seen here:
According to these statistics, in Putin’s first term in office (2000-2003), 15 journalists were murdered in Russia. That’s not good, but it’s not even one score let alone ‘scores’ as Knight claims. Knight says (p. 104): ‘These cases could not be attributed directly to the Kremlin, because they often involved reporters covering local corruption throughout the country. But the general atmosphere of lawlessness and impunity that the Kremlin did nothing to discourage was what gave rise to these crimes.’ But as we can see from the graph above, the ‘general atmosphere of lawlessness and impunity’ has actually improved during Putin’s presidency – quite substantially, in fact. This is where the lack of broader context becomes a major failing. In starting her work in late 1999, and almost ignoring entirely the Yeltsin period, Knight presents the murder of prominent persons in modern Russia as an invention of Putin’s leadership, and as a matter of deliberate state policy, rather than a continuation, on a much reduced scale, of an ‘atmosphere of lawlessness’ which began under Yeltsin. This is deceitful.
A typical argument used by Knight is to quote the opinion of relatives or friends of a murdered person as evidence of Putin’s involvement. For instance (p. 120), she writes that, ‘Musa (wife of murdered journalist Paul Klebnikov) and Peter (his brother) have not seen evidence of Putin’s involvement in the murder, but they are convinced that the order to assassinate Paul came from the upper echelons of power.’ Maybe it did, but Musa’s and Paul’s opinion isn’t evidence. The same goes for the many other instances in which Knight makes this form of argument. For instance, discussing the murder of Central Bank official Andrei Kozlov, she says that ‘many observers … thought it unlikely that [Aleksei] Frenkel (former chairman of VIP-Bank who was convicted of ordering the crime) was behind the murder.’ Well, perhaps he wasn’t, but the fact that ‘many observers’ thought so doesn’t prove anything.
Similar problems lurk in the stories which follow. Knight devotes considerable space to the murder in London by polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. She describes the case well, and it is clear that there is compelling evidence to believe that the two main suspects, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitrii Kovtun, were guilty of the crime, and given the difficulty of getting hold of the murder weapon, it isn’t unreasonable to believe that the Russian intelligence and security services were involved. This is the most compelling part of Orders to Kill. But as Knight has to admit, while ‘suspicions of his [Putin’s] involvement were widespread … there was no smoking gun.’ (p. 187) Likewise, she can’t provide any solid evidence linking Putin to any of the other murders studied in the book. This is a problem, especially as there quite credible explanations for many of them which have nothing to do with Putin or the Russian state (for instance, organized crime or aggrieved businessmen).
In other cases, it’s not even obvious that the death described was murder. A notable example is that of Boris Berezovsky. Knight spends a long time discussing his life and death, and concludes that ‘Berezovsky’s death remains a mystery.’ (p. 230) But is it? Berezovsky was financially ruined, and had just lost a major court case in which the judge had called him ‘an unimpressive and inherently unreliable witness who regarded truth as transitory, flexible concept, which could be molded to suit his current purpose.’ (p. 226) As Knight admits, Berezovsky suffered from depression but had stopped taking his medication. And the police investigation revealed that ‘there were no signs of trauma suggesting force had been used. No intruders were seen on the CTV cameras that surrounded the home. … there was good reason to assume that he had taken his own life.’ (p. 227) By devoting so much space to this case, Knight is clearly trying to imply that Berezovsky too might have been murdered by Putin, but in fact the evidence points in the opposite direction.
Similarly, Knight stretches credibility by insinuating that the Russian state (and therefore, Putin) was responsible for the Boston marathon bombings which killed 3 people and wounded 260 in the United States in April 2013. The sole ‘evidence’, if you can call it that, for this claim is that one of the bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, returned home to Dagestan from the United States for a few months in 2012. The insinuation seems to be that during that period the Russian secret services recruited Tsarnaev to carry out the bombing. But, as so often in this book, the suggestion is pure speculation not supported by any firm evidence. The logic is purely that Putin allegedly benefitted from the bombing as it encouraged the United States to believe that Russia and the USA faced a common enemy in Islamic terrorism, and because Putin benefitted from it, he must have done it. Knight writes (p. 236) that, ‘The Kremlin needed to distract Western attention from Russia’s insurgency [in Chechnya] and show that other nations faced the same problem.’ Based on this, she concludes (p. 237) that ‘a close look at the facts … point strongly to Russian involvement’ in the Boston bombings. This is quite a leap.
Underlying the entirety of Orders to Kill is a particular view of Russia as a country in which nothing significant ever happens without the direct participation of Vladimir Putin. Knight therefore asks of the killing of Boris Nemtsov, ‘would anyone dare kill such as prominent figure as Nemtsov without the Russian president’s permission?’ (p. 269) ‘Quite possibly, yes’ would be the answer, especially since Knight, as mentioned, speaks of a ‘general atmosphere of lawlessness and impunity.’ The idea that Russia is a highly controlled state in which the president controls everything is surely wide of the mark; Russia’s problems derive as much, if not more, from an overly weak state as from an overly strong one.
Knight finishes her book by moving on from the murder of alleged domestic opponents of the Putin regime, and arguing that the murders show that ‘Russia is a dangerous and unpredictable adversary.’ (p. 309) In the process, she repeats some quite unproven complaints. For instance, she speaks of Russian ‘collusion with the Taliban in Afghanistan.’ (p. 308) But even if she is correct that all the murders described in her book were ordered by the Russian state, the killing of domestic political enemies is unrelated to foreign policy and whether Russia is, or is not, a ‘threat’ to the West. The two are entirely separate – a state can be entirely oppressive and yet very friendly with Western powers. The linkage is revealing, however. It shows that the ultimate purpose of this book is to propel a specific foreign policy agenda for Western powers – one which involves confronting Russia. This isn’t, then, an academic study; it’s one pursuing a definite political agenda. Readers should bear this in mind.
Certainly, there have been an alarming number of murders of journalists, politicians, and human rights activists in Russia in the 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is far from desirable and indicates that Russia still has a long way to go towards establishing a firm rule of law. The problem long predates Vladimir Putin’s presidency, however, and Amy Knight’s efforts to show that the murders of prominent persons in Russia form part of a concerted campaign by Putin to cow political opposition into submission are not at all convincing. Orders to Kill fails to provide any compelling evidence to prove that the cases it examines are connected or that they represent a peculiarity of the ‘Putin regime.’ This book isn’t as egregiously awful as Luke Harding’s Collusion, but it suffers from many of the same deficiencies, above all a tendency to treat speculation as proof. I wouldn’t advise people to read it, but if they do, they should treat its claims with some caution.