Lilia Shevtsova, a fellow at Moscow’s Carnegie Center, called it a "bomb, which anywhere but in Russia would cause the country to collapse." Writing in the New York Review of Books, Amy Knight called it “a devastating picture of Putin's eight years in the Kremlin.” In the Daily Mail, Jonathan Dimbleby declared that if such information was released about Britain, it “would certainly have provoked mass outrage, urgent official inquiries and a major police investigation - if not the downfall of the government.”
What, pray tell, is this devastating toppler of governments? Why, it’s Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov’s Putin -The Results: An Independent Expert Report (2008).
Russia watchers might have already heard about the liberal dynamic duo’s breakdown of Russia after eight years of Putin. If you’ve never heard of them, Boris Nemtsov is the one-time “young reformer” deputy prime minister who used to make Western journalists and IMF officials swoon, while Milov is a former deputy oil and gas minister during Putin’s first term; both Nemtsov and Milov served Putin early on, and both eventually fell out of favor.
Their book’s back story involved political infighting, intrigue, and apparently produced a “hysterical reaction” in the Kremlin. Nemtsov and Milov’s account was said to be such a political bomb that Nemtsov was compelled to suspend his membership in the liberal Union of Right Forces party. “I didn’t want people who are in our party to suffer in any way from what is written in it,” Nemtsov recently told Ivanovo Novosti. The authors even claim that we are lucky that Putin – The Results ever saw the light. “Strong pressure from the Kremlin” made finding a distributor difficult and dashed their hopes to shower the masses with 100,000 copies. When all was said and done, only 5,000 were printed and the only place willing to sell it was the publisher, Novaya Gazeta, at its kiosk in Moscow. (Thanks to the internet a copy can be downloaded at nemtsov.ru and a rather rushed and poorly edited English translation is available on the anti-Putin windbag blog La Russophobe.)
With all the radiant praise, political intrigue, and apparent efforts to squash its publication, I was really expecting this book to blow me away. I was prepared for a complete conversion to Nemtsovism. After all, here are two Russian political insiders who probably have enough dirt to really tar and feather Putin for good. Indeed, Putin – the Results tries to be that kind of brutal screed, but sadly, it falls way short. Though Nemtsov and Milov promise that the information they divulge is shocking, what you get instead is just a well-worn flip-flop of the official Putin line. All of the information they provide is an inversion of the Russian state’s propaganda.
The problem however isn’t what the book says. Explaining what they’re against is easy. The problem is when Nemtsov and Milov try to explain what they actually and concretely stand for, and more importantly, how they plan to achieve it. On this crucial point, Putin – the Results has little to say. Except, that is, to suggest turning back the clock and “breath[ing] new life into the reforms started in 1997.” Yes, 1997 was a very good year for Nemtsov, the year he went national and Boris Yeltsin hinted that Nemtsov might be his successor. 1997 was good for Nemtsov, but bad for about 145 million Russians not able to feed at the privatization trough. Given the trauma the 1990s has left on the Russia body politic, I doubt Nemtsov and Milov will find many takers.
Nevertheless, Nemtsov and Milov look to shock the politically concerned citizen out of “Putin’s winter sleep.” The biggest of these shocks is the fact that in the last eight years “friends of President Putin” have acquired de facto ownership of Russia’s commanding heights. The best example is Gazprom, the cream of Russia’s economic crop. Over the last three years, Nemtsov and Milov argue, “three important assets servicing the company’s cash flow have been transferred to third-party ownership.” From 2005 to 2006, Gazprom transferred $1 billion in assets from its insurance subsidy Sogaz, its $6 billion pension fund in Gazfond, and unloaded Gazprom Media Group for a rock bottom price of $166 million to Rossiia Bank (by 2007, Gazprom Media worth was estimated at $7.5 billion). Rossiia Bank is run by a Putin “acquaintance,” Yuri Kovalchuk. Nemtsov and Milov list other fire sales which have lined the pockets of those who have personal connections to Putin. This “velvet re-privatization,” as Oleg Shvartsman called it, shows that Putin is “even more cunning than the oligarchs and other disciples of corruption who parasited off the reforms of the 1990s.” Oligarchs, that is, whom Nemtsov once served.