KREMLIN RISING: VLADIMIR PUTIN'S RUSSIA AND THE END OF REVOLUTION, by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, Scribner, 453 pages, $27.50.
Based on their four-year tenure as Washington Post correspondents heading the newspaper's Moscow bureau, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser have written an informative and disturbing narrative describing the Russia they have seen since Vladimir Putin became president in 1999.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia started moving sporadically toward a Western-style democracy. But changes in leadership from Gorbachev to Yeltsin to Putin were accompanied by serious political changes.
According to the authors, Putin sometimes gives lip service to the word democracy — but he really intends to build a strong autocracy with himself holding all the power.
Closely following the changes in the bureaucracy and culture, Baker and Glasser have convincingly written about "a secret plot" to reconsolidate power in the Kremlin. The revolution, they assert, is over, and almost everything that happens in government now is an effort to re-build authoritarianism. Under the auspices of "Project Putin," the government has already brought the media and the business world under its control.
Boris Berezovsky, a millionaire who could often influence Yeltsin, has now escaped the country for England just to keep out of prison. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former oil magnate and Yeltsin supporter, now sits in prison in Moscow facing trumped-up fraud charges.
In the meantime, Putin and his generals continue to wage a ghastly war, now 10 years old, against separatist rebels in the province of Chechnya. Previously, Chechnyan terrorists had bombed trains, planes and subways — and taken over a Moscow theater, sent a truck bomb into a hospital and surrounded a rock concert. But the most disturbing result of that war was a terrorist attack against the children of Beslan School Number One.
Beslan is a small, rural town of 30,000 residents. Its red brick school house had stood since 1899, known also as a community center. It had a recently rebuilt gymnasium that was considered the best in the region.
On the day of school opening, Sept. 1, 2004, the principal personally vacuumed the floors in preparation for the students. Then she welcomed them to its opening ceremony — soon interrupted by panic at the sound of machine-gun fire.
Men wearing camouflage uniforms and black masks jumped out of a military truck and ran to the school carrying assault weapons. Soon the gym was filled with hostages. Finally, the guerrillas announced they were doing it to get Putin to withdraw troops from Chechnya.
After awhile, more than a thousand people filled the sweltering gym, crammed against each other, uncomfortable and terrified. Putin was notified, left his vacation retreat on the Black Sea and returned to the Kremlin. But he was slow and indecisive. He sent no high-level officials to the scene.
In fact, Putin said nothing for 24 hours. On the second day, the terrorists stopped giving the hostages water. On the third day Russian soldiers fired shots into the gym, and then explosions from within generated a blood bath. Approximately 300 hostages were killed.
The authors have painted a sordid picture of a diseased regime led by a cold dictator without humanity — while the United States pays no attention.