Catherine Belton’s book, Putin’s People, is the kind of work that comes around once in a generation and defines it. Just as David Hoffman’s The Oligarchs was the definitive account of the ruling class of the Boris Yeltsin era, Putin’s People is the best record of the Putin era. Starting in 1980s Dresden and taking the reader through to the present day, Belton shows exactly how Vladimir Putin used his position and connections in the K.G.B., and later the F.S.B., to build a shadowy financial empire, one that he has used to fund Moscow’s efforts to undermine the West. In Washington, the book made a big splash since it was published a year ago. It has been read and discussed everywhere from Capitol Hill and the White House to C.I.A. headquarters at Langley. Which bodes well for the U.S. government’s view of Russia: if they’re imbibing Belton’s meticulous and original reporting, as well as her accurate portrayal of how Putin’s Russia runs, then there’s a good chance they won’t be as misguided as in years past.
I don’t just say that because Catherine is an old friend from our days as reporters in Moscow, though I’ll admit that I’m obviously a little biased. By the time I arrived in the Russian capital in 2009, Catherine had been living and working there for years, which she had started doing, off and on, since the Soviet collapse. And because she had been there in the relatively loose 1990s, she was on a first-name basis with many of the Yeltsin-era oligarchs. Like the rest of the foreign correspondents in Moscow, I had always looked up to Catherine, whose dogged and lucid reporting on the murky financial dealings of Russia’s oligarchs, had earned her the nickname “the Beltron.” She was a machine, yes, but it took more than that to find needles in the haystacks of financial disclosure, and to earn the trust of some of the most (justifiably) paranoid people in the country. Catherine deftly managed both, making her an absolute legend.
Ever since Putin made the criminally stupid decision to invade Ukraine, I’ve been wanting to talk to Catherine. I wanted to know what the oligarchs and the people in the Russian elite thought about the war, and if they had any appetite to stand up to Putin as so many in the West fantasized they might. I also wanted to know what Western sanctions would mean for these men. Would Western punishment peel them away from Putin—or drive them further into his embrace? And because Catherine was sued for the revelations in her book by several Russian oligarchs at once, including then-Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, I wanted to know if the war had changed the way that Russian money had once muzzled the British press.