Russian President Vladimir Putin has been one of the most consequential world figures of the past two decades, and yet it wasn’t until last year that an English-language writer delivered a definitive account of his rise. Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West, by Reuters correspondent Catherine Belton, detailed Putin’s transformation from democratic reformer to dictatorial revanchist, painting him and his cronies as a sordid cabal motivated by greed and grievance alike. The book was widely praised but has also made Belton a target: Several Russian oligarchs filed lawsuits earlier this year against her and her publisher, HarperCollins, alleging defamation and libel, with hearings beginning this week.
The most prominent of the angry oligarchs is Roman Abramovich, a billionaire investor perhaps best known as the owner of the Chelsea soccer team. (Belton’s publisher recently settled with two other Russian oligarchs who filed similar suits, agreeing to change a handful of paragraphs in the book.) As Putin’s People details, citing several sources, Abramovich’s 2003 decision to buy the storied football club didn’t come because of any love of the game, or any desire to improve Chelsea’s strategy. Rather, Putin allegedly directed Abramovich to purchase the football club. Abramovich is just one of many post-Soviet oligarchs who have purchased significant assets in the West—especially in the United Kingdom—to ingratiate themselves into the highest rungs of cultural and political power.
Now Abramovich, who has denied Belton’s claims, has turned to the British court system in the apparent hope of stifling further investigation into his past or the provenance of his funds. He has hired a top-flight British law firm, launching what The Telegraph said “may prove to be the most lucrative libel case in British legal history,” both for the size of the legal teams involved and the rates they charge. It’s also one that “is being seen as a test of England’s libel laws and their impact on investigative journalism,” added The Guardian. Abramovich’s lawyer even admitted as much, saying that the case could be viewed as “an attack on free speech and public interest journalism” (though he naturally disagreed). Still, while British law is especially favorable to powerful interests who want to silence journalists, it’s certainly not the only Western nation where oligarchs have sought to do so. Look no further than the United States, as you’ll see below.