A book five years in the making, Miami University’s director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies Karen Dawisha’s research on Vladimir Putin’s links to organized crime was set to take an unprecedented glance at the scrutinized Russian president. However, fear of stringent British libel law has put the book back on the shelf for now.
The Cambridge University Press (CUP), a 500-year-old company in Britain through which Dawisha sought publication, has decidedly pulled the plug on her book, saying some of her claims run a too high of a risk of libel.
Dawisha has previously published five books with the CUP. This book, however, is particularly significant, given the existing tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
“When Putin came into power in 2000, he was elected, he was chosen,” Dawisha said. “He has made choices. He could choose to go in one direction or the other. He chose to go down the authoritarian road. I believe the main reason why he has done that was because he has a group around him of what the White House calls his ‘cronies’ who have risen up with him since the 1990’s.”
Dawisha’s book analyzes how Putin and these associates systematically utilized the buffer of his presidential position to deal in illegal financial exchanges. The United States and the European Union, Dawisha argues, are now targeting the regime for this particular reason.
“This is why, when the U.S. decided to punish Russia, the state, for invading Crimea, they targeted this group,” she said. “The U.S. government and the EU have decided that this is how the [Russian] system works, and in order to make them hurt, they need to actually get their money. This is something quite new in international relations.”
Discerning the controversial nature of her work, Dawisha and CUP sent her 500-page manuscript, a quarter of which is an accumulation of evidentiary footnotes, to a team of lawyers for review in November. Five months later, she learned the approval she garnered from CUP in 2011 was no longer valid.
“Given the controversial subject matter of the book, and its basic premise that Putin’s power is founded on his links to organised crime, we are not convinced that there is a way to rewrite the book that would give us the necessary comfort,” CUP Executive Publisher John Haslam wrote to Dawisha in a March 20 email, published Thursday in the Economist.
Haslam noted the decision “[had] nothing to do with the quality of [Dawisha’s] research or [her] scholarly credibility” and was simply a matter of “risk tolerance.”
“… At the very time that the US and EU governments, obviously fully in possession of intelligence that points to precisely this conclusion, puts members of this group [Putin’s associates] on a visa ban and asset freeze list, one of the world’s most important and reputable publishers declines to proceed with a book not because of its scholarly quality …but because the subject matter itself is too hot to handle,” Dawisha wrote in an email response to Haslam.
Dawisha said CUP cut her book fairly early on in the process, that no publication agreement had been established. Yet, the book had yet to be placed under academic review by various editors and publishers, who she said would be able to determine the validity of her work and tweak it if necessary.
Dawisha stands by the credibility of her work, much of which she gathered from Russian journalism during an era of free press that has since ended in the country. The news scribed a formidable tale about Putin’s rise to power, Dawisha said, one that raised red flags about his administration before it even existed.
“This why free journalism is so important,” Dawisha said. “This is why so many Russian journalists died. What is horrible about this whole story is that people are dying to tell this story in Russia, and Cambridge just walked away from it.”
While Dawisha sees the evidence for her claims strewn across countless Russian news articles as indisputable, CUP thinks differently.
“President Putin has never been convicted for the crimes or activities which are outlined in the book, and we cannot be sure that any of the other named individuals or organisations have either,” Haslam wrote in his March 20 email. “That the allegations may have been published elsewhere is no defence; re-publication of a libellous statement is still libel if it cannot be proven to be true.”
Britain’s libel laws differ from those in the United States in that the writer or publisher of the content themselves must prove the truth of their statements, which, as Haslam contends in his email, would be difficult for Dawisha to accomplish given the amount of claims she makes in her book.
“We need also take into account the extremely onerous defamation laws in Russia itself, which criminalise what would ordinarily be a civil matter in England and the U.S. Again, we would feel obliged to take advice about criminal liability under Russian law, which would be very expensive and time-consuming,” Haslam added in the email.
Because of this, Haslam notes the United States may provide a better venue for Dawisha’s work.
“I will definitely pursue publication in America,” Dawisha said. “But let’s say one copy of my book is sold in a British bookstore. There is a certain bummer-effect about all this on an American publishing company. But I think American publishers have a sort of pride in how it works here compared to Britain.”
For now, Dawisha wishes to shed light on the corruption of British libel laws as she pursues publication elsewhere, but hopes one day her book will have a much more powerful, positive influence on Russian politics.
“I want to give people ammunition,” she said. “I fully imagine, and I hope, that at some point in the future, this book will be on shelves. Hopefully it will be translated into Russian. And I hope, at some point, Putin will not be in the position to do these terrible things, just by hiding behind his position. And that book, will be then, available.”
And in regards to the Miami community, Dawisha urged students to defend what they believe in.
“You have to stand up for yourself,” she said.
“There are three other authors I know who’s books British publisher refused to publish for these same reasons. Only one of them really stood up for their books. You need to be aware of these problems and you have to stick to your guns.”