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Russia Moves Toward a Reckoning

by David Pryce-Jones

The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin, by David Satter (Yale, 240 pp., $30)

The accursed power which stands on Privilege
(And goes with Women, and Champagne and Bridge)
Broke — and Democracy resumed her reign:
(Which goes with Bridge, and Women and Champagne).

This cheerfully snide verse of Hilaire Belloc’s makes the point that the good things of life are constant, and politics is about ways of getting hold of them. (Incidentally, this undoubtedly clever man bought, in 1917, Russian state bonds that became worthless once the Bolsheviks were in power; as a result, he was forced to pay his way as a hack for the rest of his days.) When the accursed power of Soviet Communism broke, democracy made a shy initial attempt to reign in Russia. Transition to the new order was bound to be a journey toward an unknown destination. More Russians than ever before are in a position to enjoy the good things of life, but the democratic experiment has come to a dead end.

All the leaders of the old Communist Party were self-selected; they did whatever they saw fit and were able to fall back on the ideology of Marxism to justify what was realistically an outrageous stand on privilege. Post-Communist Russia is also in the hands of self-selected leaders who do whatever they see fit; they too stand on privilege maintained by force and corruption so crude and open that they feel free to dispense with supportive ideology. What’s in place today in Russia is a sort of secondhand Communism, a cast-off, almost a parody except that it is tragic.

In the 1970s, when Leonid Brezhnev was in charge of the Soviet Union, David Satter became Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times. He then observed from close up how the country moved from the gloom of hide-bound Communism into the present era of hope denied, and he holds that Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin between them are responsible for what he doesn’t hesitate to call moral degeneration. Thoroughly documented and written with an elegance that just manages to keep anger in check, the indictment is unsparing. Fellow-feeling for Russians and their national character runs through Satter’s book. Down the centuries right up to the present, Russians have had to be resigned to injustice and hardship. To understand what they endure, he likes to emphasize, you have to be able to believe the unbelievable. He has, in the course of his career, been charged with “hooliganism,” blacklisted, refused visas, and finally, in 2013, expelled, for the simple reason that he was too familiar with the disappointments and crimes of secondhand Communism.

The world at large admired Boris Yeltsin as the hero who liberated Russians from the past. To Satter, Yeltsin on the contrary had the instincts of an unreconstructed Bolshevik. Accumulation of power was his main aim, and violence the natural means for his ends. He manipulated the armed forces to put down the counterrevolution in 1991, and ended the political monopoly of the Communists only in order to take the place of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Party’s last general secretary to occupy the Kremlin. Then, in 1993, Ruslan Khasbulatov, speaker of the Supreme Soviet, or parliament, led the almost unanimous opposition of the deputies to economic measures and constitutional changes that would remove checks and balances on the president. Yeltsin called the army in, and by the time he had won the test of strength, tanks had shelled and shattered the parliament. Satter quotes one horrified deputy: “I’ve never seen so many corpses in my life.”

Once installed in the Kremlin, Yeltsin became more and more unpredictable and power-mad, and less and less sober. Nikolay Karamzin, the great Russian historian in the 19th century, thought that the country’s whole history could be summed up in the single word “thieving.” Communism had been a higher form of thieving; Yeltsin, his daughter Tatyana, and her future husband went in for a lower form that Satter nevertheless describes as “pillaging the country.” A coterie of friends profited, and one of them, Boris Berezovsky, became the richest man in the country. Quite how Vladimir Putin, hitherto a creature of the shadows, was able to attach himself to the Yeltsin “family” even Satter can’t really elucidate. “Of all the dangers that hang over Russia,” he writes, “none is more menacing than the failure to demand answers to the mystery of how Putin came to power.” A devil’s bargain was struck. Yeltsin appointed Putin prime minister in 1999, and Putin’s very first act in office was to give Yeltsin and his extensive “family” immunity from the law.

The outset of Putin’s rule in the Kremlin was marked by a spate of deadly explosions across the nation. Unidentified persons had laid bombs under high-rise apartment buildings in Moscow, Ryazan, and other cities, destroying them and killing large numbers of innocent people. Terrifying everyone, this was Russia’s 9/11. Putin put the blame on Chechens, the most rebellious of Muslim minorities, and went to war, killing tens of thousands of them, laying waste to Chechnya, and installing a puppet as their president. To the Russians on the street, Putin was (and still is) the providential strongman of these dire times, popular for saving the nation from Islamist terror. The self-serving aspect of Putin’s campaigning was enough to arouse Satter’s suspicions. The perpetrators had left clues; official pronouncements were inconsistent. Investigating, he found enough evidence to conclude that the Russian secret service rather than Chechens had blown up the buildings. Here was a provocation, a measure of deception that is a tried and tested Russian specialty designed to provide a credible pretext for attacking the enemy, and so shrouded in secrecy and conspiracy that the truth of it never comes out.

Satter has previously written up his conclusion that the Russian secret service carried out these multiple atrocities, and the first part of his new book goes over the ground with even more absolute conviction. In similar instances, Chechen terrorists took hostages in the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow and a school in Beslan. After drawn-out sieges, Russian special forces indiscriminately killed all the terrorists and hundreds of the hostages, either by gunfire or by poison gas. To sum up, the head of the Russian state has so little consideration for human life that he consents to the murder of his own people in order to hold on to power.

In this secondhand Communism, the results of elections once again are known several days before the voting has taken place. The length of prison sentences is known before the judge of the case has pronounced a verdict. Unconstitutional schemes to keep Putin in power pass into law. Many and perhaps most Russians mistakenly assume that Putin is resisting corruption, when actually he is directing it. The prime determinant of any venture, Satter writes, is corrupt ties with the authorities. A telling statistic has it that 110 individuals control a little over a third of the country’s wealth. “Oligarch” is a euphemism for “thief.” Privatization, an untried experiment with property, opened ways for unscrupulous businessmen, crafty officials, and gangsters to acquire and control a criminalized economy, and hundreds of them have been victims of contract murders. To give just one of Satter’s tell-tale statistics, “35 bankers were murdered in Russia in 1993 alone.” A German newspaper in 2007 printed the estimate of a Russian analyst, likely to be accurate, that Putin then held secret funds worth $40 billion, making him the richest man in Europe. Some estimates of his private fortune are even higher.

As in the old days, examples are made of the victims of state crimes: False but much publicized accusations of tax evasion or insider dealing on the part of an oligarch or a critic are so many classic provocations that help Putin destroy a potential enemy but cannot be traced directly to him. Inexplicable fates are a prominent feature of the Putin reign. Boris Berezovsky rose with Putin to wealth and power, only to fall out for some reason, escaping to England, where he was one of a good many exiles who have died from causes that may or may not have been natural. Vladimir Gusinsky was made an offer he could not refuse, to hand over his media empire, which had been critical of Putin, and leave the country. Anna Politkovskaya was one of dozens of journalists shot dead by unknown persons, presumably because she opposed Putin’s waging war with the Chechens. Alexander Litvinenko, a secret-service officer turned investigative journalist, had fled to London, where he was gathering material against Putin. Two former colleagues poisoned him with a radioactive substance obtainable only from a nuclear plant of the Russian state. The British judge in charge of the official inquiry found that Putin was “most probably” responsible for this murder. In a crassly Stalinist manner, Putin invented evidently bogus charges to ruin Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the most prominent of oligarchs, and condemn him to 18 years in the gulag.

In Russia, the individual has always been treated as raw material for the state, and that is still the case. Bad men have engineered the continuation of injustice and hardship, and one day the country will have to pay for it. “Tension,” “instability,” “havoc,” “revolt,” “revolution” are words that leap off the page in a final chapter anticipating the future. You won’t be able to say you weren’t warned.

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