A Hot Mess of Innuendo: A Closer Look at Catherine Belton’s “Putin’s People”

By Natylie Baldwin, OpEd News, 10/27/20

Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West, is one of several anti-Russia books being turned out by the publishing industry in the U.S. during a presidential-election year. Given that it takes on average 18 months from submission of a completed manuscript by an author for a book to be available for sale to the public, it appears that these books are being expedited through the publishing pipeline.

Contrast that with what journalist Aaron Mate said recently on Twitter about his inquiry into the possibility of publishing a book based on his accurate Russiagate reporting:

It’s incredible to see book after book churn out the same discredited Russiagate hype. When I talked to an editor at a major publisher about doing a book — you know, based on actual facts — they told me their friends would be mad at them if they published it, so that was it.

The traditional publishing industry in the U.S. is, in many ways, an extension of the corporate mainstream media. Consequently, it suffers from many of the same problems. Due to the decades-long trend of corporate consolidation, there are now only 5 major publishing companies and their myriad subsidiaries. Most of the editors who work at these publishing houses based in New York – as well as the agents who serve the industry – tend to know each other. Moreover, these publishing-industry professionals are culturally part of the educated professional class that gives credibility to what The New York Times and CNN report, regardless of how poor and sloppy that reporting has become over the past 20 years.

This is the context in which Catherine Belton, a former journalist for the Financial Times who was based in Moscow from 2007 to 2013, has had her book published in the U.S. by a subsidiary of MacMillan. She has also had extensive coverage of Putin’s People appear in major corporate-media outlets, including the New York Times, as well as glowing reviews by the mutual-admiration society of Russia-hawk writers like Anne Applebaum, Luke Harding, Edward Lucas, Peter Pomerantsev, et al. Applebaum in particular can always be counted on to use her platform to promote books that depict Putin as evil and Russia as the hopeless armpit of the world, such as she did in 2014 when she promoted the late Karen Dawisha’s poorly substantiated claims in Putin’s Kleptocracy.

A lot of the claims made by Dawisha are recycled in Belton’s book, but with an even more diabolical twist. Belton’s prologue provides a preview of the basic storyline of Putin’s People and her thesis is summed up in its final page:

Parts of the KGB, Putin among them, have embraced capitalism as a tool for getting even with the West. It was a process that began long before, in the years before the Soviet collapse. (p. 16)

Putin’s People is an attempt to weave all the strands of the anti-Russia propaganda narrative into a coherent whole: Putin is a corrupt autocrat who has created a kleptocracy. His main purpose, however, is not just to undermine or prevent the development of democracy in Russia. His purpose, according to Belton, is to destroy western democracy in the U.S. and Europe and he has been working continuously with his circle of KGB comrades from St. Petersburg to implement this nefarious project (“the KGB plot”) since the late days of the Cold War.

Putin has apparently done this because his KGB mentality is such an overwhelming and immutable feature of his psyche. Indeed Putin is portrayed throughout the book as a sinister automaton, making virtually every move based on furtherance of “the KGB plot” and his own personal enrichment. Nothing else in Putin’s life has influenced him outside of his KGB experience. His family’s tragic experience during WWII, his study of international law, his decades-long embrace of martial arts as both a philosophy and a sport, and the post-Soviet policies followed by the US-led west toward Russia are all either dismissed or non-existent in Belton’s depiction of Russia’s president and his governance.

Needless to say, to most people who have any real knowledge or on-the-ground experience with Russia, Belton’s thesis sounds far-fetched. Such a major claim about the world’s other nuclear superpower and its leadership should require major substantiation to back it up. Unfortunately, the book does not deliver.

Read full review here.

4 thoughts on “A Hot Mess of Innuendo: A Closer Look at Catherine Belton’s “Putin’s People””

  1. Thanks very much for a persuasive, well documented review. Worthy of the New York Review of Books–if only the NYR were worthy of you! (I gagged on a review in recent years by Strobe Talbott in the NYR in which he lavished praise on Boris Yeltsin.) You could have made the case with me by simply listing the pro-Belton reviewers (Harding, Applebaum,…), but you did much more, not least, the anecdote about Aaron Mate’s attempt to put his honest reporting into book form.

    1. Thanks, Allen. Reading this book was a very unpleasant task. I figured it might be bad, but it was worse than I thought – a real assault on my brain.

  2. Opinion masquerading as fact, the MO of the majority of western anti Russia writers who serve the intelligence services.

    “His purpose, according to Belton, is to destroy western democracy in the U.S. and Europe”

    Thankfully US political incompetence and the circle jerk that is US ‘think tankdom’ have done a fine job of destroying ‘democracy’ in both America and now in the UK Although we’ve known for some time that the US is a bipartisan project with no democracy allowed (see Gilens and Pages excellent 2014 study) the cognitively dissonant bubble they all seem to live in ensures that this will continue until the final collapse of both aforementioned Countries. I thought your full review was excellent and had more about it than the actual book appears to have (certainly was a lot more accuraye) I suppose it’s fairly easy for these people recycling the same old tropes which is why it is probably much quicker to get this stuff published. America has only itself to blame and it will suffer because of this, the ultimate price will be paid as a result of the complete state of mental and moral corruption and greed present in Western elite classes not because of anything Russia has done or will do. Ditto the UK. Cutting your nose off to spite your face using a guillotine is a recipe for disaster!

    I can’t believe that anyone outside of the Washington consensus and their propaganda news outlets actually reads this stuff, who would waste their money on it?

    1. Thank you, Gerald. Yes, it is hard to believe that anyone actually read this entire book to the end. It was very long and tedious to get through, in addition to being comically inaccurate.

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