Orders to Kill

Title:                      Orders to Kill

Author:                 Amy Knight

Knight, Amy W. (2017). Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder.  New York, NY: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press

LCCN:    2017028156

HN530.2.Z9 V535 2017


  • Covert violence as a Kremlin tradition — How the system works : Putin and his security services — Galina Starovoitova : Putin’s first victim? — Terror in Russia : September 1999 — Silencing critics — Mafia–style killings in Moscow : Kozlov and Politkovskaya — The litvinenko story — The poisoning — Continued onslaught against Kremlin challengers — Boris Berezovsky : suicide or murder? — The Boston Marathon bombings : Russia’s footprint.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      December 15, 2017

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

A report that has circulated in world intelligence circles for years has finally surfaced publicly in a book by an author who the New York Times has called “the West’s foremost scholar” on the KGB– that Russian strongman (and former KGB officer) Vladimir Putin is a pedophile with a preference for young boys.

The allegation it contained in Orders to Kill, Amy Knight’s book, which is a richly detailed account of the murders of multiple Putin foes over the years, including one brazen assassination of a would-be “reformer” literally in the shadow of the Kremlin. Although evidence strongly points to President Putin as responsible for many of the killings, “Putin is never seen holding a smoking gun,” as Ms. Knight writes.

One of the murders she analyzes is the death (by polonium poisoning) of Alexander Litvinenko, one-time fellow KGB officer and friend of Mr. Putin. The two had a falling out when Litvinenko gave Mr. Putin a scathing report on corruption within the government and the FSB (successor agency to the KGB). He was also appalled by Mr. Putin’s harsh conduct against dissidents in Chechnya.

For self-preservation, Litvinenko fled to London, where he became close to another Putin enemy, Boris Berezovsky. He also became an asset of MI6, the British Secret Intelligence service.

Litvinenko died an agonizing death in 2006 after someone slipped polonium into his cup of tea in a London cafe. (One source of the rare radioactive element is a KGB lab.)

According to Ms. Knight’s account, Litvinenko “sealed his fate” with a 2006 article in the Chechen Press in which he described a “bizarre incident” outside the Kremlin. Mr. Putin chatted with a group of tourists, “then went over to a small boy, lifted up his T-shirt, and kissed him on the stomach.”

Litvinenko wrote that “nobody can understand why the Russian president did such a strange thing.” As Ms. Knight writes, Litvinenko “went on to explain that Mr. Putin had been known by KGB insiders to have been a pedophile and that there were secret tapes he destroyed once became head of the FSB showing him having sex with underage boys.”

True or not, a Litvinenko associate said the accusation was enough to “make Mr. Putin mad regardless of whether he is a pedophile or not.”

So, is the accusation true? I first heard the allegation several years ago when a prominent KGB defector asked me to help him find an agent to market a collection of articles he had written about the KGB. One article dealt with KGB associates who called their colleague Mr. Putin a pedophile. (The book was never published.)

Concerning the current spate of murders in Russia, one sees a different modus operandi from the old KGB, which used its own agents to carry out murders ordered by Joseph Stalin and the longtime KGB head, Lavrenti Beria. In the Putin era, of the few murderers brought to trial, many were low-grade Chechen thugs who killed either for money or to escape punishment for other crimes.

Ms. Knight sees Mr. Putin in an unholy alliance with Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya since 2007. Mr. Kadyrov “has run Chechnya as his own little country, although it is part of Russia, terrorizing its citizens with violence, kidnappings and extra-judicial killings.” Thus, rebellious Chechens are held in check.

“At the same time, Mr. Kadyrov has acted on behalf of Mr. Putin as his ‘hatchet man’ in getting rid of the Russian president’s troublesome critics.” Mr. Kadyrov has called Mr. Putin “a gift from God.” Ms. Knight contends that Mr. Kadyrov thrives because Mr. Putin bills him—falsely as an ally with the West in the fight against Islamic terrorism.

A striking feature of the Russian murders is their brazen character. In separate killings, two investigative reporters are gunned down in city streets. A leading reformer was shot on a bridge only 300 yards from the Kremlin. Authorities claimed that security surveillance cameras on the bridge were not working and hence did not photograph the assassin.

A British inquiry into the Litvinenko death— a masterpiece of criminal investigation—fingered two Chechen characters as the guilty parties. Russia refused to extradite either of them—and indeed, one won a seat in the Duma, the Russian legislature, and became rich as a TV personality.

One involved section of Ms. Knight’s book— making ample use of circumstantial evidence—points a finger at Russian involvement in the Boston Marathon bombings. Men involved in the attacks indeed learned much in Russian-sponsored training camps; here a “smoking gun” is implied rather than proved.

No matter. Her detailed indictment makes a strong case that Vladimir Putin and the criminal empire he created survives because dissidents are slain without any consequence.

Oddly, President Trump scoffs at reports that Mr. Putin has sponsored murders. Campaigning, he said, “Nobody has proved that he’s killed anyone. He’s always denied it. It is not been proven that he’s killed reporters.”

Mr. Trump has voiced disdain for reading books. Perhaps someone should slip a copy of Orders to Kill onto his nightstand.[2]

Another Assessinent, a review by Peter Oleson[3],[4]

Orders to Kill is a powerful but chilling book. In describing today’s Russian politics, Dr. Amy Knight explains the organizations, elements, methods, and personalities that control a criminal state through intimidation and murder. She details the intricate relationships, often based on corruption, other criminal activity, and kompromat (compromising information of each others’ crimes) that binds the surviving oligarchs and siloviki (those that emerged as national leaders from the security services after Vladimir Putin came to power). She explains the long history of assassinations in Russia and the St. Petersburg connections of those cronies close to Vladimir Putin, many drawn from his days in the KGB (Committee for State Security).[5]

Putin—by 1998 head of the FSB (Federal Security Service)—was supported by some oligarchs, such as Boris Berezovsky, who were close to the ineffective, corrupt, and alcoholic President Boris Yeltsin, to be prime minister. When Yeltsin resigned, Putin became acting president on 31 December 1999. Since his accession, the use by the state of false legal charges, imprisonment, and murder have increased significantly. Knight admits she does not have definitive proof of Putin’s or his allies’ complicity in these many murders, pointing out “that would be impossible, given that they control the investigations and that there would be no written orders.” But she details convincing circumstantial evidence.

Russia has often reached beyond its borders to conduct extraterritorial killings. Famous historical cases include the axe murder of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940 and Nikolai Khokhlov, a KGB defector, poisoned by radioactive thallium in Germany in 1957. The list of extraterritorial killings has grown significantly under Putin, especially after the Russian Duma passed a law in 2006 legalizing (at least in Russia) such killings of “terrorists.” “‘Terrorism’ would become the Kremlin’s label for many forms of political opposition,” Knight points out. BuzzFeed has listed 14 deaths linked to Russia in the United Kingdom alone.[6] There have been other questionable deaths in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States.

While Putin had been successful in silencing many of the oligarchs that he turned against to consolidate power through trumped up prosecutions or forced sale of their assets to his cronies, he still had many critics. Knight lays out in detail many of the prominent murders of Putin opponents. Methods varied. Some killings were Mafia-style in which the authorities enlisted the criminal underground. Examples included the gunning down of anti-corruption banker Andrei Kovlov and journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Some were poisoned: Alexander Litvinenko by polonium-210, Alexander Perepilichnyl bya toxic fern (Gelsemium elegans, which induces a heart attack), and Oleg Gordievsky (who survived) by radioactive thallium.[7] Poison has been a favorite Russian technique for decades. There has been a special NKVD/ KGB/FSB laboratory dedicated to perfecting untraceable poisons for assassinations since the 1930s. Fatal automobile “accidents” have also occurred.

Journalists critical of Putin or his cronies have been favorite targets. In 2000 alone five were killed covering the atrocities of the Second Chechen War. Two were clearly assassinated. In another case Igor Domnikov, a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, a crusading anti-Putin periodical, was beaten unconscious in his apartment house on 12 May 2000 and died six weeks later. Paul Klebnikov, the editor of Forbes magazine in Moscow and a US citizen, was shot in broad daylight on 9 July 2004. He died in a hospital elevator that was hijacked by unidentified thugs. Klebnikov had accumulated detailed information on the origins of the wealth of many of Putin’s supporting oligarchs. One of Klebnikov’s sources, Ian Sergun was also killed. “In the Klebnikov case,” Knight observes, “like those of many other political murders in Russia, investigators went through the motions of trying to solve the crime without really doing so. It was if they had been hired as actors in a play, where the scenario was already written.” Another Novaya Gazeta journalist was particularly irksome to the Kremlin. Anna Politkovskaya reported on the horrors of the Chechen war. Her reports prompted the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to condemn the Russian government. She was particularly critical of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, the Putin supported dictator of Chechnya. On one flight to Chechnya she was poisoned but survived. However, on 7 October 2006 she was gunned down in her apartment house in Moscow. The government blamed the Chechens and dragged the inconclusive investigation out for over six years.

Parliamentarians were not immune to audacious murders. The first was Galina Starovoitova, leader of the Democratic Russia party, who campaigned against corruption in St. Petersburg when the city was largely run by gangs with which Putin maintained a close relationship. She was gunned down in St. Petersburg in November 1998. Vladimir Golovlev, a Duma deputy and leader of the opposition party, Liberal Russia, that was formed by Berezovsky, Sergei Iushenkov, and others, was shot dead on the street on 21 August 2002. Iushenkov himself, who was investigating the suspected involvement of the FSB in the September 1999 multiple apartment building bombings in Moscow, blamed on Chechen terrorists and which helped catapult Putin into the presidency, and the FSB’s use of poison gas that killed all the Chechens and many innocents in the Moscow theater siege in October 2002, was shot when exiting his apartment building in April 2003. On 3 July 2003, IIuri Shchekochikhin, another Duma deputy and deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, died from an unknown poison. Authorities declared his diagnosis a “medical secret.” Shchekochikhin had been investigating weapons smuggling, tax evasion, and bribery and was talking with the FBI about money laundering via Bank of New York.

Others were added to the “list” of those to be eliminated over time. Andrei Kozlov, first deputy of Russia’s Central Bank, was gunned down in September 2006. He was investigating money laundering via Russia’s Diskont Bank and Austrian Bank Raiffeisen. “With Kozlov gone, the way was clear for those high up in the Kremlin to pursue their corrupt financial dealings unimpeded.”

The Alexander Litvinenko case made international headlines. A former FSB officer who defected to the United Kingdom in 2000, he was close to exile Boris Berezovsky. He was supporting Italian and Spanish investigations of Russian money laundering. He wrote highly critical articles about Putin, including alleging that he was a pedophile. Poisoned by two former FSB associates in London, Litvinenko died on 23 November 2006. Knight details how his inept assassins, using polonium-210, left a radioactive trail on airplanes, in apartments in Germany, and in hotel rooms, restaurants, and cars in the UK. After more than one try they succeeded by poisoning his tea, but also exposed many others, including their own families, in what was a case of international nuclear terrorism. Six years later, overcoming resistance by the British government that did not want to upset relations with Moscow, an inquest by Sir Robert Owen laid the killing at the feet of Vladimir Putin.

Boris Berezovsky was always a controversial figure. An oligarch and initial supporter of promoting Putin to be FSB chief and then prime minister, the two soon fell out. Facing charges in Russia, Berezovsky fled to Britain and obtained asylum. With his enormous wealth he funded anti-Putin activities and became “enemy number one,” especially after the anti-government demonstrations in Russia in 2012. He was a supporter of Alexander Litvinenko’s scathing attacks on Putin. On 23 March 2013, Berezovsky was found dead in his bathroom. Initial findings were of a suicide. However, subsequent analyses cast doubt on that conclusion. At the time of publication of Knight’s book the case remains a mystery.

On 27 February 2015, Boris Nemtsov was assassinated by two gunmen on a bridge within sight of the Kremlin’s walls. A former Duma member and deputy prime minister, Nemtsov had become a harsh critic of the regime’s corruption and human rights abuses. He had testified before the US Congress, supporting legislation that imposed sanctions on many of Putin’s associates. This was viewed by those targeted as treasonous. He was preparing a damning report on the corruption surrounding the Sochi Olympics when he was shot. Knight concludes “… Nemtsov’s revelations about Russian corruption were directed specifically at Putin and his close cronies, which is why he was killed. His associate, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was poisoned in May 2015, a month after appearing before the US Congress but survived despite being in a coma for over a week. After promoting a film in praise of Nemtsov throughout Russia, Kara-Murza was poisoned again in February 2017.

Not well covered in the US press is the evidence that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing brothers, may have been a Russian agent, recruited by the FSB to demonstrate that Chechen terrorism was not just a problem for Russia. With the International Olympic Committee worrying about security of the upcoming 2014 Sochi Olympics, Knight traces the evidence that suggests Tamerlan may have been indoctrinated covertly and recruited by the FSB during his 2012 visit to Russia to be a jihadist and conduct the Boston bombing, demonstrating for public opinion that Chechen terrorism was a worldwide problem, and not just in Russia.

Knight explores the dependent relationship between Putin and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, whom she describes as “deeply connected to the Chechen criminal world.” Moscow funds Kadyrov’s government, including his 80,000-man militia. Kadyrov in turn pledges obeisance to Putin and has provided him with assassins when requested. Like Putin, Kadyrov is sensitive to criticism. Natalia Estemirova, a human rights advocate, had challenged Kadyrov for human rights abuses and the reign of terror by his forces against the general population in Chechnya. She was kidnapped and shot in July 2009 after being threatened by Kadyrov.

Knight points out that Western governments have largely failed to confront the “uncomfortable truths” of Russian state sponsored murders and explains how Putin took advantage of the post-9/11 political environment to manipulate White House anti-terrorism policies and get favorable treatment from Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. This gave Putin a pass to pursue his savage war in Chechnya and suppress his opponents both inside Russia and overseas. Obama’s “reset” of policy toward Moscow failed to yield anticipated benefits as Putin continued his murderous ways.

Putin can be charming but is a master manipulator. George W. Bush once said that he got a “… sense of his soul…” In reality, Putin’s soul is that of a serial killer. Anyone who believes that Putin is someone to be admired ought to read this book.

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 2 Fall 2017, pp. 104-105). Joseph C. Goulden is a long-time review of espionage and spy books for Intelligencer, for the Washington Times, for law journals and other publications. Some of these reviews appeared in prior editions of the Washington Times or the Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association). Joe Gouldon’s most recent book is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. His 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books.

[2] Readers are also directed to a second assessment—by Peter Oleson—of this important book which follows Mr. Goulden’s review.

[3] Dr. Amy Knight is a scholar of Russian politics and history. She has written six other books and many articles on the Cold War and Soviet/Russian intelligence. She has a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and has taught at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), George Washington University, and Carlton University in Ottawa, Canada. She was a Soviet/Russian expert at the Library of Congress for 18 years. The New York Times has called her the “West’s foremost scholar” of the KGB.

[4] Peter Oleson is the author of “Stalin’s Disciple:Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Newest ‘Wet Affairs,’” the Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2, Fall 2016, pp 19-27. In his article he detailed over 4o political murders that have occurred since Putin gained power. Oleson is a former associate professor at the University of Maryland University College, senior intelligence advisor to the Under Secretary of Defense (Policy) and Assistant Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

[5] The KGB was disbanded In 1991. Its parts were divided into several organizations, which are described in Knight’s book.

[6] BuzzFeedNEWS, “Poison in the System,” “From Russia with Blood,” “The Man who Knew Too Much,” and “The Secrets of the Spy In the Bag.” https://www.buzzfeed.com/heidiblake/from-russia-with-blood-14-suspected-hits-on-british-soil?utm_term=.isa8d3jdj6#.omRdQp7Q76 .

[7] Gordievsky was a defector from the KGB. See Andrew, Christopher (1991) and Oleg Gordievsky. KGB: The Inside Story of Its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev. New York: HarperCollins Publishers

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