The frustrating reason a book detailing Putin’s murky past was blocked from publication

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses employees of the Federal Security Service ( FSB, Soviet KGB successor) in Moscow, Monday, April 7, 2014. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti Kremlin, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses employees of the Federal Security Service (the Soviet KGB successor) in Moscow on  April 7. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service/RIA Novosti Kremlin via AP)

With all eyes on Russia and Vladimir Putin at the moment, it was with some surprise that people noted last week that Russia expert Karen Dawisha's book on Putin and his St. Petersburg days had been dropped by its publishers, Cambridge University Press.

There's obviously a lot of hunger for information about Putin right now, so why wouldn't a book like this be published? The answer, according to letters published by the Economist last week, is that CUP got cold feet due to fears of a libel accusations in British courts. Whatever is in the book (which I have not read) is apparently so explosive/potentially libelous that CUP argued that it was "not convinced that there is a way to rewrite the book that would give us the necessary comfort."

The news caused quite a stir, with Breitbart News picking up the Economist story under the title "Book alleging 'Putin mob ties' rejected due to fear of British libel laws." It's certainly intriguing, highlighting not just the U.K.'s strict libel laws (often used by oligarchs for "libel tourism"), but also apparently shedding light on a fairly mysterious part of Putin's life: His unexpected, and somewhat unexplained, rise to power in the wild world of 1990s St. Petersburg.

I reached out to Dawisha, currently the Walter E. Havighurst professor of political science in the Department of Political Science at Miami University, to find out a little more. Her answers are below, lightly edited for clarity and some links added for context.

How long had you been working on the book?

Five years.

I’ve seen the book described as detailing the links between Putin and the “Mob” – Is that a fair portrayal?

No. The book seeks to answer the question: When did the Putin group decide to do what they clearly have done – create a corporatist, kleptocratic and authoritarian regime? I believe core decisions were taken in the 1990s and that the logic of their objectives – to recreate a strong state in which they controlled the commanding heights of the economy both for political power and personal profit – was clear by 2000. My book therefore ends after Putin's first 100 days. Obviously, there are many things that happened subsequently that forced them to respond ad hoc, but the basic outlines of their objectives are apparent.

As to the Russian mafia, I agree with the Spanish prosecutor Jose Grinda Gonzales's assessment as revealed in Wikileaks that those members of Russian organized crime who are willing to work with the Kremlin will not be suppressed. This pattern began I believe in the 1990s.

Putin’s rise to power in St. Petersburg during the 1990s has been scrutinized before, for example, in Masha Gessen’s “The Man Without a Face.” How does your book go further?

I'm a great admirer of her book. Her book is much broader, covering his entire life. Mine focuses on his political rise from Dresden to the Kremlin and the construction of a network of loyalists (the White House now officially calls them cronies) from this early period. It also provides very detailed information, all sourced from public documents and newspapers.

Are you able to describe any of the new evidence you found or how you found it? 

I rely on published sources, especially Russian investigative journalists in the period before press freedom was attacked. Many of these documents and reports disappeared from the Russian Internet, but I have been able to get hold of them. Interviews were used for background only, but lots of them in many countries. As to the details,  I would rather people read the book since the cases I cover provide quite a clear picture of Putin's role.

Do you feel like Putin’s St. Petersburg days are especially relevant now, what with the Crimea conflict and the U.S. sanctions against his associates that time?

Absolutely. Almost all the key players, including (Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry) Kozak, who was just named as Putin's federal representative to Crimea, started together in St. Petersburg. All the people on the sanctions list are key players in my book.

Had you any reason to suspect that Cambridge University Press would get cold feet like this?

No. I thought they would give me guidance about revisions, send it to outside academic reviewers and then  proceed after my editing to a decision (one hoped positive) by their governing Syndicate. This would have been my eighth book with Cambridge so I never imagined this process would be preempted by a legal decision not to proceed.

Had you been concerned about libel before they responded?

Yes. Britain's libel laws are notoriously friendly to claimants. But they were recently revised and I hoped this would make it easier.

How do you feel about CUP’s decision? Do you sympathize with them at all?

Obviously I do. I feel sure that the editor fought for the book, but to no avail.

What’s your plan for getting the book published now?

I will seek a U.S. publisher, although this decision has certainly cost me time. And it is a pity because this is a story that should come out sooner rather than later.

Thanks to Dawisha for her time. Here's hoping this unexpected setback could have a silver lining for what sounds like a very interesting book.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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