Warships, including submarines, were also sold at bargain prices to unidentified foreign buyers. The organization nominally in control of the warships did not always go along with the racket, as witnessed by the murder of its deputy general manager in 1994. Sobchak lasted longer: he and two of his aides all died simultaneously under mysterious circumstances in 2000.
In 1999, having held several important jobs in Yeltsin’s government, Putin took over the country. Within weeks of assuming office he consolidated his position by starting the Second Chechen War, using explosions in four Moscow apartment blocks as a pretext. Rumors immediately circulated that Putin had ordered the apartment bombings, taking his cue from the Reichstag Fire.
Putin’s KGB colleague Alexander Litvinenko put together a dossier of evidence to that effect. He then published it as a book (Blowing Up Russia), eventually attracting rather extreme literary criticism from Putin’s lifelong employer.
After the explosions, Putin made his immortal speech on the fate awaiting Chechen terrorists: “We’ll find ’em wherever they hide,” Putin promised. “If they hide in a toilet, we’ll whack ’em in the shithouse,” he added in the underworld slang used throughout the KGB.
And he was as good as his word. Over a hundred thousand Chechens, most of them not terrorists, were “whacked” in the next few years. When they tried to fight back by taking hostages, they were all “whacked” together. One such action was undertaken in a Moscow theater, when the “whacking” was done with a poison gas whose composition still remains unknown.
In Putin’s Russia, the “whacking” is not limited to real or presumed terrorists. Opposition politicians and journalists are a particularly high-risk group. A disturbingly high quotient of them have been dying.
Yuri Shchekochikhin, opposition MP, died of a mysterious illness, with his internal organs collapsing one by one. His skin went blotchy and he lost all his hair. Paul Klebnikov, the American editor of the Russian Forbes, was riddled with bullets in Moscow. Andrei Kozlov, of Russia’s Central Bank, who had tried to stamp out money laundering, was shot dead. Anna Politkovskaya, who had publicized Russian brutality in Chechnya and attacked Putin as a dictator, likewise. Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer who blew the whistle on a major corruption scam reaching all the way to the top, died in prison. The Kommersant reporter who had exposed Russia’s secret supplies of arms to Iran and Libya just happened to fall out a window. Human-rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov was shot in broad daylight, together with the young journalist with whom he was talking, Anastasia Baburova.
Under Putin, first as president and then as the wire-pulling premier, more and more businesses have been brought under state control. Owners who objected too loudly have been killed or, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, imprisoned. The press, which for a short while under Yeltsin enjoyed some freedom, has been reined in.
But websites such as Compromat.ru still publish information detrimental to the ruling KGB elite. In the future, hopefully they’ll be able to help answer the following questions: Is Putin now milking all of Russia the way the dossier says he used to milk St. Petersburg? How realistic is the $40 billion estimate of his wealth? And finally, can we in good conscience do business with Col. Putin?
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