The political, social, and economic complexity that play such profound factors in characterizing the institutions of the Russian Federation provide an ample foundation for Litvinenko and Felshtinsky’s work. The work itself provides a comprehensive background to the development of a changing political climate within the Russian Federation and a general condemnation of the events leading up to the present time. The format of this review will look critically and objectively at the work itself as well as try to get a broader scope of the relative changes occurring within Russia, and finally attempt to formulate the objectives the authors had in mind when writing their work.
The book focuses on key events leading up to Putin’s ascension to the position of President of the Russian Federation. The events which lead the reader to the authors’ transparent conclusion begin with the strategic creation of conflicts with the Chechen republic. The authors begin with in 1994-95, focusing primarily on the role of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) and other “agencies of coercion” in their subversive efforts to foment war with Chechnya. The authors make no hesitation in implicating the criminal elements in the actions of these agencies. The events of 1994-95 introduce the reader to the willingness of Russia’s security forces to actively use criminal and terrorist tactics in order to influence national policy to suit their aims.
The authors continue the trend of focusing on historical events that involve the security forces in acts which are clearly in violation of Federal, Penal, and Constitutional law of the Russian Federation. These premises are far from subtle, and much of the text is rife with outright accusations (but again, supported with comprehensive evidence). As the book progresses chronologically the reader is familiarized with repeated premises that directly link FSB activity to the notorious bombings of Buinaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk. These premises serve not only to indicate the active role of antagonist in regards to the FSB, but the overall complicity of other agencies (MVD, MUR, GRU, and FAPSI). The book also spends a great deal of time focusing on the unfortunate events in Ryazan, and the embarrassing course of events for the government in trying to provide excuses; namely the description of events as an “exercise.”
Litvinenko and Felshtinsky go even further in their incrimination of the Russian security services. Chapters five, six, seven, ten, and eleven focus on abuses of power; chapters eight and nine detail the cooperation between the FSB and organized crime groups in Russia and the North Caucasus. Chapter eight specifically deals with the recruitment of Free-Lance Special Operations Groups to carry out FSB objectives. Coinciding with the use of these organizations, the book also addresses the issue of hired contract-killers to perform tasks of murder and assassination for which direct involvement of the FSB was seen as undesirable. These chapters demonstrate the willingness of recruiting and organizing criminal elements by the FSB to carry out directives, and furthermore aide in the conclusion that the FSB is itself a terrorist organization.
The concluding remarks made by the author include a letter from former FSB Colonel and lawyer, Mikhail Trepashkin  addressed to the then-serving President of the Russian Federation, Boris Eltsin. The letter supports the authors’ arguments, and concludes that the FSB not only engaged in criminal activities, but also worked cooperatively with organized crime syndicates and recruited individuals from these organizations to serve within the ranks of the FSB  at the expense of trained, professional operatives with decades of service. The letter is used by the authors to resolve the question of whether or not the FSB is capable of reform. The conclusion thus unfolds to reveal a multiple-dimension reality for the reader: 1) The FSB used terrorist tactics against its own people to instigate war with Chechnya, 2) The FSB used coercive measures and tactics that clearly violated the Federal, Constitutional, and Penal laws of the Russian Federation, 3) These measures were taken to promote the leadership of Vladimir Putin and sustain his hold on a succeeding regime in a Post-Eltsin era, and 4) finally that reform of the FSB is impossible and as an organization and state apparatus must be liquidated.
An interesting perspective throughout Blowing Up Russia is the authors’ use of focusing on both individual actors and institutions involved in the events taking place. Considerable attention is given to key players, particularly those involved with the leadership of the FSB. Focus is also given to the criminal factor in the development of the FSB as an abusive state agency; such as the Kurgan group, the Lazovsky brigade, and other nefarious characters to supplement the authors’ conclusions. The rise of Nikolai Patrushev to the leading ranks of the FSB is given special notice, as an entire chapter (2) is dedicated to his introduction to the reader as responsible agent for the FSB terror .
Surprisingly, Putin’s role amidst all the surrounding events is implied, but not detailed in any meaningful way. Little is mentioned of Putin in general throughout the entire book, but rather loose accusations and insinuations as to his involvement in the affairs of the FSB and the correlation between his ascendancy and the attacks on the Russian population. Contrast this to other literature examining this question of Putin and the FSB, such as that of Anna Politkovskaya, Putin’s role is rarely mentioned and his rise is described in a secondary manner throughout the book. Rather than a condemnation of the administration of Putin himself, this book clearly focuses mainly on the aspect of the FSB, regardless of Putin’s role in it, as the main antagonist in Russian society. The authors do take time to assess Putin’s presence in the operations of the FSB and his responsibility in its actions, but from the perspective of the reader most (if not all) attention is turned onto the FSB itself.
The book succeeds in presenting the reader with a logical argument that flows from premises to conclusion rather smoothly. The argument itself is rather simple, even if the events that took place are not, nor do I intend to diminish their affects on the people involved. However, the book is not complex in any way. The presentation of facts provided are used in a manner which altogether leaves out the possibility for the reader to reach his own conclusions. Although one would be mistaken to believe this was done unintentionally, as the authors had clear objectives in writing this piece. While the argument itself is transparent, understanding the objectives as to why the authors decided to write the piece is another matter entirely.
In the context of the vast literature studying post-Soviet Russian politics, there are some things that make Blowing Up Russia extraordinary. The detailed and comprehensive retelling of accounts by a former insider of the FSB – Alexander Litvinenko – provides the reader a compelling sense of trust in what the author has to say. Litvinenko is able to provide facts and details about the apparatus of the security services of the Russian Federation in a clear and experienced way which most can only speculate on. This is definitely a successful tool in assessing the authors’ arguments, as Litvinenko’s experience in the FSB provides a critical understanding of how things operated on the “inside.” While it may be fallacious to believe that a former Lieutenant-Colonel of the FSB would be an ‘expert’ on the operations and happenings within an organization as large and vast as the FSB, nonetheless the reader is presented with an authoritative source that leaves little to question in regards to facts.
As mentioned before the work is not one of objective facts reported in a way in which readers are left to their own conclusions. This becomes problematic for the reader when the authors attempt to produce a deductively logical argument to explain political events. The problem lies in that while his argument is deductive in nature the author on several occasions admits to speculation, or at least does not provide concrete evidence in support of a given minor conclusion. This is not to say that their conclusions are wrong, but that their approach to the argument is flawed. Perhaps from a logical point of view, if the argument had been constructed in an inductive manner it would have been able to avoid the problem of speculating on the basis of fact, and rather admitted presumption.
However despite these syllogistic flaws the authors do a tremendous job in laying out details in an organized and coherent manner. The Appendix also provides sample documents for which the authors collected in the course of their research. The Appendix spans 66 pages (pp. 241-307) and is definitely a worthwhile read in itself. It includes interviews, direct testimony, letters, and other forms of primary sources that provide background and insight into the facts outlined by the Litvinenko and Felshtinsky. However, I do feel that given the relatively recent time-line of events throughout the book, endnotes or footnotes to document the various sources would’ve been beneficial to the reader so that one could look further into the credibility of the argument and any questions of speculation on facts could be resolved.
The book is simple to read in that the level of complexity of the argument (as mentioned before) is straightforward and the text is organized in a clear, organized, and well structured manner that is not confusing to the reader. The reader outside of Russia may have trouble remembering the abbreviations for various agencies and facilities, but a list of abbreviations in the beginning preceding chapter one is available. One who is not familiar with the security and law-enforcement agencies of Russia will undoubtedly have to make considerable reference to this list throughout the book, although one really only has to familiarize oneself with the FSB, MVD, and GRU. Another problem for the non-Russian reader is the lack of familiarity with certain actors in the course of events, or general lack of information on recent and historical political developments within Russian politics. Having some background information on Russian politics and events within the last decade are certainly helpful, but not requirements to enjoy this work, nor will it impede one’s ability to understand and ascertain the conclusions the authors desire.
The most interesting aspect of the book is its comprehensive detail of the events covered, particularly the failed bombing attempt (covered as an ‘exercise’) in Ryazan. The authors do an excellent job in providing testimony and direct quotes that contradict the statements of the FSB. The use of statements by Nikolai Patrushev in describing the events of September 22, 1999 in Ryazan as a failed bombing attempt contrasting later statements of the FSB describing the events as an exercise demonstrates the fluid nature of the FSB and its almost arrogant willingness to try and manipulate popular perception . Another point within the argument that makes it exceedingly strong is the constant use of facts to counter almost everything disseminated from the FSB spokesman. The story of Senior Lieutenant Yuri Tkachenko (the explosives expert who conducted the analysis of the substance in the sacks found in the Ryazan apartment building) not only points to the inconsistency in FSB statements and the absurdity that it was sugar – not hexogen – but also the way in which the FSB is willing to take coercive measures against those who seemingly attempt to contradict their version of events.
The chronological sequence of events combined with the element of a piece-by-piece analysis present the argument in a very “matter of fact” way in which the authors’ conclusions are remarkably clear. This is both positive and negative. It’s positive in that the reader does not have to struggle to understand what the authors’ are trying to convince them; it’s a negative in that it makes the book a bit dull due to its lack of engaging the reader in any meaningful mental work. One can read the book from cover to cover without feeling any sense of attachment to the literature itself. To counter this, the authors’ do an excellent job in personalizing the events. This is perhaps one of the strongest elements to the reading outside of the presentation of facts. The authors’ success in turning characters in a series of events into real people, with real experiences, and victims of real consequences gives the book a human-element that makes it more interesting to read overall than dry facts.
The inclusion of a forward and epilogue to aide in the contextualization of the facts as well as the book are decisively beneficial to the reader. Both help in understanding the authors’ objectives in writing this book, and give insight into their motivations. The epilogue consists of a Presidential decree made by President Vladimir Putin that essentially disables much of the security services of the Russian Federation and including a committee to investigate crimes committed by said agencies . Not surprisingly, the decree has not been put into effect.
The most pervasive criticism of the book lies in its overt simplicity in argumentation and the aforementioned lack of footnotes/endnotes. This doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyment unless one is looking for a mind-bending coverage with distinctively subtle themes and a nuanced approach to contemporary Russian politics. If the reader is looking for a straight-forward, highly-detailed, and comprehensive account of events where the authors dictate their conclusion in an unsubtle manner then you should thoroughly enjoy Blowing Up Russia.
I’d like to conclude my review of Litvinenko and Felshtinsky’s book by trying to analyze their objectives in writing this piece. Surely there lies a sense of duty to report the truth to world about what happened so that the FSB and all involved could be held accountable for their actions. But the political implications of this book are concrete as well. The authors’ are clear in their statements towards the end of the book detailing their desire to see the “clenched fist” of the Russian security services removed from society, and I do believe their work is out of genuine concern for those affected. But in reviewing such material its important to be objective. Objectivity requires a keen sense of cynicism in that we have to look further into the motivations of the authors and why they wrote this piece. At this time the answers are not clear, particularly since Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned and is now deceased. This leaves the reader questioning what was to be gained from exposing this truth, something at which cost one of the author’s his very life? Was it political ambitions at the expense of exposing the truth about the actions of the FSB and Putin’s involvement? As of now we cannot tell – and we may never tell, but these are certainly pertinent questions left in the reader’s mind.
In conclusion Blowing Up Russia compiles a vast amount of facts, individual actors, dates, and events to summarize the conclusion that the FSB utilized terrorist and criminal tactics in order to ascend to the Kremlin. At the head of this are certain individuals who remain in power and have yet been held accountable. The argument put forth is simply that; however, do not underestimate the argument itself at its prima facie simplicity. The detail covers many of the bases and seals many of the suspected loopholes one might find in the authors’ argument. In the context of modern literature on post-Soviet Russian politics Blowing Up Russia certainly has a place amongst the most detailed and most insightful in regards to events leading up to the current political climate. It situates itself at the authors’ insistence between an “analytical memoir and historical monograph.” The conclusions put forth are certainly provocative but well structured and well-presented. To best understand what lies at stake in Russian politics – and most importantly for the Russian people, the authors remind us at the end of book with this memorable quote, “Russia, however, is an unpredictable country – this is the only thing which we know for certain about it. And it may prove to be a source of strength more powerful than the clenched fist of the secret service” .