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Originally published Friday, July 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Putin's Labyrinth" is a sobering look at corruption and apathy in Russia

Steve LeVine's new book, "Putin's Labyrinth: Spies, Murder and the Dark Heart of the New Russia," exposes the chaos and corruption inside Vladimir Putin's regime, where the elimination of political dissidents and murders of prominent journalists are perpetrated by a shadowy fringe element eager to curry favor with the leadership.

Bloomberg News

"Putin's Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart

of the New Russia"

by Steve LeVine

Random House, 224 pp., $26

If Steve LeVine's aim in his new book, "Putin's Labyrinth," was to chill us to the marrow about post-communist Russia, he has succeeded. His thesis could scarcely be gloomier, and his opening sentence sets the tone.

"This is a book about death in Russia," he writes. It's a story, as the subtitle puts it, about "Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia."

LeVine covers foreign affairs for BusinessWeek and has served as a correspondent in Russia. As he sees it, Vladimir Putin, the former Russian president and now prime minister, has inherited a land in the grip of a brutal history that shows few signs of abating. The national watchword — whether in financial corruption or in the elimination of political dissidents — is bespredel, meaning "without limits," or anything goes.

LeVine highlights links between Russia's dark past and harsh present. In the 16th century, for example, the mother of a prince who angered Ivan the Terrible was gang-raped and murdered, her bones fed to hunting dogs. And so it was, in our time, that it wasn't enough to have KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko quietly shot; the revenge wasn't complete until he died a prolonged and agonizing death from a dose of radioactive polonium-210.

Faced with official lawlessness and gangsterism, Russian citizens remain as passive as ever, lacking — in LeVine's depressing phrase — "the inclination to care." To support that argument, he reviews a catalog of hair-raising recent events.

These range from the murders of outspoken journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov, the American editor of the Russian edition of Forbes, to an alleged official involvement in the 1999 dynamiting of apartment blocks in Moscow and Dagestan, blasts that killed more than 300 innocents and were blamed on Chechen rebels.

Though his material may not be new, LeVine's investigations and interviews are thorough and his conclusions sober. He doesn't, for example, conclude that Putin himself ordered the bombings and killings, instead faulting the prime minister for "the complicity of his inaction."

The actual hit men, LeVine writes, probably operate in the shady circles on the fringes of the intelligence community, a netherworld teeming with semi-criminals all too keen to gratify the regime's unspoken wishes in the knowledge that they will never be caught or punished.

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He sees no credible case against Putin over the shooting of Politkovskaya, for instance. Yet he notes the sinister circumstance that her murder took place on Putin's birthday — an unrequited gift, as it were, to the man in the Kremlin.

Not that the government cares overmuch for its international image. LeVine, appalled, notes that Putin signed a decree in July 2006 permitting his intelligence agencies to assassinate Russia's enemies abroad, including those deemed guilty of slandering the country's president — i.e., himself. (Imagine George W. Bush signing a similar law; it would take an army of CIA assassins to eliminate his detractors around the globe.)

In foreign affairs, Russian behavior is marked by "a bullying self-importance," LeVine says. He's fair-minded enough to recognize that NATO's rush to expand to the west and south of Russia was ill-advised. But let's face it: The rise of Russian nationalism in reaction would have happened in any event. If someone is paranoid by nature, I guess, they aren't going to cool it merely because their fears prove groundless.

On the primary question of lawlessness and killings within the country, LeVine detects no change of mood since the installation of the new president, Dmitry Medvedev.

If LeVine is to be believed, the outlook is pretty bleak. Sadly, he makes a strong case for pessimism. We are reduced to hoping that aspirations for a civil society in Russia, symbolized by the bravery of her journalists and activists, haven't been definitively extinguished by their assassins' bullets.

George Walden, a former U.K. diplomat

and Member of Parliament, is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions are his own.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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