45-year-old former KGB agent Vladimir Putin (pictured, left) is plucked from obscurity out of the St. Petersburg local government apparatus by President Boris Yeltsin and named Deputy Chief of Staff. In June, he defends his PhD dissertation in "strategic planning" at St. Petersburg's Mining Institute. Later, this document proves to have been plagiarized from a KGB translation of work by U.S. professors published many years earlier (as if nobody would notice, and in fact for quite a while nobody did).
In a second inexplicable move, Yeltsin names Putin head of the KGB (now called the FSB).
Less than four months after Putin takes over at the KGB, opposition Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova (pictured, right), the most prominent pro-democracy Kremlin critic in the nation, is murdered at her apartment building in St. Petersburg. Four months after that, Putin will play a key role in silencing the Russian Attorney General, Yury Skuratov, who was investigating high-level corruption in the Kremlin, by airing an illicit sex video involving Skuratov on national TV. Four months after the dust settles in the Skuratov affair, Putin will be named Prime Minister.
Completing a hat trick of bizarre spontaneous promotions, proud KGB spy Putin is named by Yeltsin Prime Minister of Russia. Almost immediately, Putin orders a massive bombing campaign against the tiny, defenseless breakaway republic of Chechnya, apparently seeing the reassertion of Russian power there as key to overall resurgence of Russia's military and state security apparatus, his primary political objective. On August 26th, he's forced to acknowledge the horrific consequences of the bombing. Hundreds of civilians are killed and tens of thousands are left homeless as civilian targets are attacked. World opinion begins to turn starkly against Russia, especially in Europe, very similarly to the manner in which it has polarized against U.S. President George Bush over Iraq. Putin's poll numbers in Russia begin to slide.
New Year's Eve, 1999
Boris Yeltsin resigns the presidency of Russia, handing the office to Putin in order to allow him to run as an incumbent three months later. Given the pattern of bizarre promotions Putin has previously received, the move is hardly even surprising. So-called "experts" on Russia scoff at the possibility that Putin could be elected, proclaiming that, having tasted freedom, Russia can "never go back" to the dark days of the USSR.
Despite being the nominee of a man, Yeltsin, who enjoyed single-digit public approval ratings in polls, Vladimir Putin is elected "president" of Russia in a massive landslide (he wins nearly twice as many votes as his nearest competitor). Shortly thereafter, all hell breaks loose in Chechnya. Russia will ultimately be convicted of human rights violations before the European Court for Human Rights and condemned for its abuses of the civilian population by every human rights organization under the sun.
[Between April 2000 and March 2002, Russia plunges into a nightmarish conflict in Chechnya eerily similar to what America now faces in Iraq. Opposition journalists, especially those who dare to report on what it going on in Chechnya, suddenly start dying. In 2000 alone, reporters Igor Domnikov, Sergey Novikov, Iskandar Khatloni, Sergey Ivanov and Adam Tepsurgayev are murdered -- not by hostile fire in Chechnya but in blatant assassinations at home in Russia. On June 16, 2001, at a press conference in Brdo Pri Kranju, Slovenia, President Bush is asked about Putin: "Is this a man that Americans can trust?" Bush replies: "I will answer the question. I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country. And I appreciated so very much the frank dialogue."]
Sergei Yushenkov, co-chairman of the Liberal Russia political party (pictured, left), is gunned down at the entrance of his Moscow apartment block. Yushenkov had been serving as the vice chair of the group known as the "Kovalev Commission" which was formed to informally investigate charges that Putin's KGB had planted the Pechatniki and Kashirskoye apartment bombs to whip up support for the Putin's war in Chechnya after the formal legislative investigation turned out to be impossible. Another member of the Commission, Yuri Shchekochikhin (see below) will perish of poisoning, a third will be severely beaten by thugs, and two other members will lose their seats in the Duma. The Commission's lawyer, Mikhail Trepashkin (see below) will be jailed after a secret trial on espionage charges. Today, virtually none of the members of the Commission are left whole and it is silent.
Putin's popularity in opinion polls slips below 50% after sliding precipitously while the conflict in Chechnya became increasingly bloody. Suddenly, he begins to appear vulnerable, and oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky begins to be discussed as one who could unseat him. All hell breaks loose in Russian politics.
Yuri Shchekochikhin (pictured, right), a vocal opposition journalist and member of the Russian Duma and the Kovalev Commission, suddenly contracts a mysterious illness. Witnesses reported: "He complained about fatigue, and red blotches began to appear on his skin. His internal organs began collapsing one by one. Then he lost almost all his hair." One of Shchekochikhin's last newspaper articles before his death was entitled "Are we Russia or KGB of Soviet Union?" In it, he described such issues as the refusal of the FSB to explain to the Russian Parliament what poison gas was applied during the Moscow theater hostage crisis, and work of secret services from the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, which operated with impunity in Moscow against Russian citizens of Turkoman origin. According to Wikipedia: "He also tried to investigate the Three Whales Corruption Scandal and criminal activities of FSB officers related to money laundering through the Bank of New York and illegal actions of Yevgeny Adamov, a former Russian Minister of Nuclear Energy. This case was under the personal control of Putin. In June of 2003, Shchekochikhin contacted the FBI and got an American visa to discuss the case with US authorities. However, he never made it to the USA because of his sudden death on July 3rd. The Russian authorities refused to allow an autopsy, but according to Wikipedia his relatives "managed to send a specimen of his skin to London, where a tentative diagnosis was made of poisoning with thallium" (a poison commonly used by the KGB, at first suspected in the Litvinenko killing).
Assaults on the enemies of the Kremlin reach fever pitch as the election cycle begins. Within one week at the end of the month, two major opposition figures are in prison.
October 22, 2003
Mikhail Trepashkin (pictured, right), a former KGB spy and the attorney for the Kovalev Commission, is arrested for illegal possession of a firearm (which he claims was planted in his vehicle). Also retain to represent some of the victims of the apartment bombings theselves, Trepashkin allegedly uncovered a trail of a mysterious suspect whose description had disappeared from the files and learned that the man was one of his former FSB colleagues. He also found a witness who testified that evidence was doctored to lead the investigation away from incriminating the FSB. The weapons charge against Trepashkin mysteriously morphs into a spying charge handled by a closed military proceeding that is condemned by the U.S. government as being a blatant sham, and Trepashkin is sent to prison for four years. Publius Pundit reported on Trepashkin's plight back in early December of last year.
October 25, 2003
Just as the presidential election cycle is beginning, Khodorkovsky (pictured, left) is arrested at the airport in Novosibirsk. He will be tried and convicted for tax fraud and sent to Siberia, just like in the bad old days of the USSR, in a show trial all international observers condemn as rigged (his lawyer has documented the legal violations in a 75-page treatise). He is there today, now facing a second prosecution for the same offense. His company, YUKOS, is being slowly gobbled up by the Kremlin.
With Khodorkovsky conveniently in prison and the Kovalev Commission conveniently muzzled, Vladimir Putin is re-elected "president" of Russia, again in a landslide despite his poll numbers. He faces no serious competition from any opposition candidate. He does not participate in any debates. He wins a ghastly, Soviet-like 70% of the vote. Immediately, talk begins of a neo-Soviet state, with Putin assuming the powers of a dictator. The most public and powerful enemies of the regime start dropping like flies.
Nikolai Girenko (pictured, left), a prominent human rights defender, Professor of Ethnology and expert on racism and discrimination in the Russian Federation is shot dead in his home in St Petersburg. Girenko's work has been crucial in ensuring that racially motivated assaults are classified as hate crimes, rather than mere hooliganism, and therefore warrant harsher sentences -- as well as appearing as black marks on Russia's public record.
Paul Klebnikov (pictured, right), editor of the Russian edition Forbes magazine, is shot and killed in Moscow. Forbes has reported that at the time of his death, Paul was believed to have been investigating a complex web of money laundering involving a Chechen reconstruction fund, reaching into the centers of power in the Kremlin and involving elements of organized crime and the FSB (the former KGB).
Viktor Yushchenko, anti-Russian candidate for the presidency of the Ukraine, is poisoned by Dioxin. Yushchenko's chief of staff Oleg Ribachuk suggests that the poison used was a mycotoxin called T-2, also known as "Yellow Rain," a Soviet-era substance which was reputedly used in Afghanistan as a chemical weapon. Miraculously, he survives the attack.
[Throughout the next year, a full frontal assault on the media is launched by the Kremlin. Reporters Without Borders states: "Working conditions for journalists continued to worsen alarmingly in 2005, with violence the most serious threat to press freedom. The independent press is shrinking because of crippling fines and politically-inspired distribution of government advertising. The authorities’ refusal to accredit foreign journalists showed the government’s intent to gain total control of news, especially about the war in Chechnya."]
Andrei Kozlov (pictured, left), First Deputy Chairman of Russia's Central Bank, who strove to stamp out money laundering (basically acting on analyses like that of reporter Klebnikov), the highest-ranking reformer in Russia, is shot and killed in Moscow. Many media reports classify Kozlov's killing as "an impudent challenge to all Russian authorities" and warn that "failure to apprehend the killers would send a signal to others that intimidation of government officials is once again an option." Less considered is the possibility that Kozlov, like Klebnikov, was on the trail of corruption that would have led into the Kremlin itself, which then lashed out at him preemptively assuming he could not be bought.
Anna Politkovskaya (pictured, right), author of countless books and articles exposing Russian human rights violations in Chechnya and attacking Vladimir Putin as a dictator, is shot and killed at her home in Moscow. In her book Putin's Russia, Politkovskaya had written: "I have wondered a great deal why I have so got it in for Putin. What is it that makes me dislike him so much as to feel moved to write a book about him? I am not one of his political opponents or rivals, just a woman living in Russia. Quite simply, I am a 45-year-old Muscovite who observed the Soviet Union at its most disgraceful in the 1970s and '80s. I really don't want to find myself back there again." Analysts begin to talk openly of Kremlin complicity in the ongoing string of attacks. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum writes: "Local businessmen had no motivation to kill her -- but officials of the army, the police and even the Kremlin did. Whereas local thieves might have tried to cover their tracks, Politkovskaya's assassin, like so many Russian assassins, did not seem to fear the law. There are jitters already: A few hours after news of Politkovskaya's death became public, a worried friend sent me a link to an eerie Russian Web site that displays photographs of 'enemies of the people' -- all Russian journalists and human rights activists, some quite well known. Above the pictures is each person's birth date and a blank space where, it is implied, the dates of their deaths will soon be marked. That sort of thing will make many, and probably most, Russians think twice before criticizing the Kremlin about anything."
Alexander Litvinenko (pictured, left), KGB defector and author of the book Blowing up Russia, which accuses the Kremlin of masterminding the and Pechatniki and Kashirskoye bombings in order to blame Chechen terrorists and whip up support for an invasion of Chechnya (which shortly followed), is fatally poisoned by radioactive Polonium obtained from Russian sources. Litivinenko had given sensational testimony to the Kovalev Commission and warned Sergei Yushenkov that was a KGB target). In his last days Litvinenko himself, as well as other KGB defectors, including Oleg Kalugin, Yuri Shvets and Mikhail Trepashkin (who allegedly actually warned Litvinenko that he had been targeted before the hit took place) directly blamed the Kremlin for ordering the poisoning. Recent press reports indicate that British investigators have come to the same conclusion. With Litvinenko out of the picture, the only member of the Kovalev Commission left unscathed is its 77-year-old namesake chairman, dissident Sergei Kovalev -- who has grown notably silent.
On Sunday February 25th, the American TV news magazine Dateline NBC aired a report on the killing of Litvinenko. MSNBC also carried a report. The reports confirmed that British authorities believe Litvinenko perished in a "state-sponsored" assasination. In the opening of the broadcast, Dateline highlighted the analysis of a senior British reporter and a senior American expert on Russia who knew Litvinennko well. Here's an excerpt from the MSNBC report:
Daniel McGrory, a senior correspondent for The Times of London, has reported many of the developments in the Litvinenko investigation. He said the police were stuck between a rock and a hard place. “While they claim, and the prime minister, Tony Blair, has claimed nothing will be allowed to get in the way of the police investigation, the reality is the police are perfectly aware of the diplomatic fallout of this story,” McGrory said. “Let’s be frank about this: The United States needs a good relationship with Russia, and so does Europe,” said Paul M. Joyal, a friend of Litvinenko’s with deep ties as a consultant in Russia and the former Soviet states. Noting that Russia controls a significant segment of the world gas market, Joyal said: “This is a very important country. But how can you have an important relationship with a country that could be involved in activities such as this? It’s a great dilemma.”Five days before the broadcast aired, shortly after he was interviewed for it, McGrory was dead. His obituary reads "found dead at his home on February 20, 2007, aged 54." Five days after the broadcast aired, Joyal (pictured, right) was lying in a hospital bed after having been shot for no apparent reason, ostensibly the victim of a crazed randomstreet crime.
CONCLUSION: Did the Kremlin have anything to do with either of these Joyal's or McGrory's fates, or is it just conincidence that both were struck down within days of giving statements directly blaming the Kremlin for Litvinenko's killing to the American press? Would the Kremlin really be so brazen as to attack an American for speaking in America? Whether it did not not is almost beside the point: the thing you can't see is always scarier than the thing you can. The Kremlin is now positioned to turn random accidents into weapons. Appelbaum sums it up: "As Russian (and Eastern European) history well demonstrates, it isn't always necessary to kill millions of people to frighten all the others: A few choice assassinations, in the right time and place, usually suffice. Since the arrest of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003, no other Russian oligarchs have attempted even to sound politically independent. After the assassination of Politkovskaya on Saturday, it's hard to imagine many Russian journalists following in her footsteps to Grozny either."