Galina clearly felt motherly toward me—I was the same age as her son, who had moved to England with his father just as his mother was becoming a major politician—but the scene with the sandwiches was part of something else too: in a country where political role models ran from leather-jacketed commissar to decrepit apparatchik, Galina was trying to be an entirely new creature, a politician who was also a human. At a Russian feminist conference, she shocked the audience by lifting her skirt to display her legs: she was trying to prove that a male politician who had accused her of being bowlegged was wrong. She spoke to one of the first Russian glossy magazines about the difficulty someone who is seriously overweight, as she was, has choosing clothes. At the same time, she pursued her legislative agenda furiously, stubbornly. In late 1997, for example, she again tried to push through her lustration bill—and failed again. In 1998 she immersed herself in an investigation of campaign financing of some of her most powerful political enemies, including the Communist speaker of the Duma, the lower house of parliament. (The Communist Party was legal again, and popular.)

I had asked her why she had decided to return to politics, when she knew full well she would never again have the kind of influence that had once been hers. She had tried to answer me several times, always stumbling over her own motivation. Finally, she called me from a hospital where she was going to have surgery; about to go under anesthesia, she had been trying to fix her view of her life and had finally found an image she liked. “There is an ancient Greek legend about harpies,” she told me. “They are shadows that can come to life only if they drink human blood. The life of a scholar is the life of a shadow. When one participates in making the future happen, even a small part of the future—and this is what politics is about—that is when one who was a shadow can come to life. But for that, one has to drink blood, including one’s own.”

I FOLLOWED KATE’S STARE to the boom box, which crackled slightly, as though the words emerging from its speakers were causing it strain. The newscaster was saying Galina had been shot dead several hours earlier, in the stairway of her apartment building in St. Petersburg. She had flown in from Moscow in the evening. She and her legislative aide, Ruslan Linkov, had stopped by Galina’s parents’ house for a short visit before continuing to her apartment building on the Griboyedov Embankment, one of the city’s most beautiful streets. When they entered the building, the stairway was dark: the gunmen waiting on the stairs had removed the lightbulbs. They continued up the steps nonetheless, speaking about a court case recently filed against Galina by a nationalist political party. Then there was a clapping sound, and a flash of light; Galina’s speech halted. Ruslan screamed, “What are you doing?” and ran at the source of light and sound. He took the next two bullets.

Ruslan had apparently lost consciousness briefly and then regained it long enough to call a journalist from his cell phone. It was the journalist who called the police. And now, the voice from the boom box was telling me, Galina was dead and Ruslan, whom I also knew and liked, was in the hospital, in critical condition.

IF THIS BOOK WERE A NOVEL, my character probably would have dropped everything upon hearing the news of her friend’s death and, already knowing that life had changed forever, would have rushed off to do something— anything to give the moment its due. In real life, we rarely know when our lives are changed irrevocably or how to act when tragedy strikes. I went shopping for bathroom fixtures for my new apartment. It was when the construction crew leader who went with me said, “Have you heard about Starovoitova?” that I stopped in my tracks. I remember staring down at my boots and the snow, gray and packed hard under the feet of thousands of aspiring homeowners. “We were under contract to build a garage for her,” he said. Somehow, it was then, when I thought how my friend would never need that garage, that I knew just how helpless, scared, and angry I felt. I hopped in my car, drove to the train station, and went to St. Petersburg to try to write the story of what happened to Galina Starovoitova.

Over the following couple of years, I would spend weeks on end in St. Petersburg. Here was another story no one had told before—but it was a much bigger story than any I had written, a much bigger story even than that of the murder, in cold blood, of one of the country’s best-known politicians. What I found in St. Petersburg was a city —Russia’s second-largest city—that was a state within a state. It was a place where the KGB—the organization against which Starovoitova had waged her most important and most hopeless battle—was all-powerful. Local politicians and journalists believed their phones and offices were tapped, and it seemed they were right. It was a place where the murder of major political and business players was a regular occurrence. And it was a place where business deals gone sour could easily land someone behind bars. In other words, it was very much like what Russia itself would become in a few years, once it came to be ruled by the people who ruled St. Petersburg in the 1990s.

I never found out who ordered the killing of Galina Starovoitova (the two men who were convicted of the murders years later were merely hired hands). Nor did I ever find out why. What I did find was that throughout the 1990s, while young people like me were constructing new lives in a new country, a parallel world had existed alongside ours. St. Petersburg had preserved and perfected many of the key features of the Soviet state: it was a system of government that worked to annihilate its enemies—a paranoid, closed system that strove to control everything and to wipe out anything that it could not control. It was impossible to determine what had gotten Starovoitova killed, precisely because her standing as an enemy of the system had made her a marked woman, a doomed one. I had been to many war zones, I had worked under shrapnel fire, but this was the most frightening story I ever had to write: never before had I been forced to describe a reality so emotionless and cruel, so clear and so merciless, so corrupt and so utterly void of remorse.

Within a few years, all of Russia would be living inside this reality. How that came to be is the story I will tell in this book.



Imagine you have a country and no one to run it. This was the predicament that Boris Yeltsin and his inner circle thought they faced in 1999.

Yeltsin had been very ill for a long time. He had suffered several heart attacks and had undergone open-heart surgery soon after he was elected for a second term in 1996. Most people believed he drank heavily—a common and easily recognizable Russian affliction, though some of those close to him insisted that Yeltsin’s occasional bouts of disorientation and withdrawal stemmed from his persistent physical ailments and not from drinking. Whatever the reason, Yeltsin had become incoherent or gone missing during several state visits, devastating his supporters and disappointing his voters.

By 1999, Yeltsin, his popularity rating dipping into the single digits, was not half the politician he had been. He still used many of the tools that had once made him great, making unexpected political appointments, alternating periods of hands-on and laissez-faire governance, strategically applying his larger-than-life persona—but by now he most resembled a boxer gone blind, flailing in the ring, striking imaginary targets and missing real ones.

In the second half of his second term, Yeltsin reshuffled his administration repeatedly and frantically. He fired a prime minister who had been in office for six years, replacing him with a thirty-six-year-old unknown, only to bring the old prime minister back six months later—to replace him again in three weeks. Yeltsin anointed one successor after another, only to grow disenchanted with each of them in a very public manner that had a way of embarrassing both the object of Yeltsin’s displeasure and anyone who witnessed the display of disaffection.

The more erratic the president became, the more enemies he made—and the more his enemies banded together. A year before his second and final term was to expire, Yeltsin found himself at the top of a very fragile pyramid. His many reshufflings had forced out several political generations’ worth of professionals; many ministry and federal agency heads were now young mediocrities who had been sucked into the vacuum at the top. Yeltsin’s trusted allies were now so few and so cloistered that the press called them the “Family”; they included Yeltsin’s daughter, Tatyana; his chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin; his former chief of staff, Valentin Yumashev, whom Tatyana would later marry; another former chief of staff, the economist and architect of Russian privatization Anatoly Chubais; and the entrepreneur Boris Berezovsky. Of the half-dozen so-called oligarchs—the businessmen who had grown superrich under Yeltsin and had repaid him by orchestrating his reelection campaign—Berezovsky

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