Russophile author, journalist and documentary maker David Satter has built a reputation as one of Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critics on the back of decades of research into Russian security forces and writing on the genesis of the modern Russian state. He was expelled from Russia in 2013 – the first foreign journalist ordered out since the fall of the Soviet Union.
In an interview with WikiTribune, Satter explains why he thinks Russians need to reckon with the legacy of Stalin’s gulag and the “Great Terror” and with the modern era of what he says is state violence and kleptocracy that keeps Putin in power. The interview is part of a package on Russia 100 years after the Bolshevik revolution. (Links below this story in Sources & References.)
Satter, 70, who first moved to Moscow in the 1970s, talks passionately about his allegations published in three books, a documentary and many articles, that Putin built his rule on acts of state terror, and that a supine attitude among Western diplomats paved the way for Russia’s modern authoritarian state.
Among his most contentious allegations, Satter says his research shows a series of 1999 Moscow apartment bombings, in which 293 people were killed as they slept, was orchestrated by the FSB, the government’s principal security service.
“At some level almost everybody in Russia understands that there was something suspicious about the 1999 bombings”
Satter also contends that the 2004 Beslan school massacre, in which Chechen guerrillas took 1,100 hostages, including hundreds of children, and which ended with 385 deaths, was made more deadly by what he writes was the security services’ deliberate disregard for the lives of the hostages.
This violence is state terrorism, in Satter’s view, and he asserts it is a tool the Russian state uses systematically to justify greater repression and authoritarianism.
His 2016 book “The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin” (reviewed here in The National Review) makes compelling accusations of the involvement of state forces in what were purported to be terror attacks but which he paints as a broad conspiracy designed to cement Putin’s control.
“The proof is there,” he says. “There is a huge amount of supporting evidence.”
Satter says the evidence should be made public in a court of law, but “there’s no court where it can be presented.”
“No court that Putin controls is going to weigh the question of whether he came into power through an act of terror in 1999,” he says.
“At some level almost everybody in Russia understands that there was something suspicious about the 1999 bombings,” Satter says. “But there’s a very, very strong tendency toward denial in Russia.”
This mass denial is understandable, he says, and is reinforced by the passivity of the West.
Believe it’s possible
“People in the west are very lazy, and they don’t want to examine it,” he says. “Not only that, they don’t want to believe that it’s possible.”
“They don’t want to imagine that a world leader who’s in charge of the largest arsenal in the world of nuclear weapons came to power by organizing the blowing up of apartment buildings, killing hundreds of people as they slept.”
Many Russians are aware of the authoritarian nature of Putin’s rule, says Satter. Russia’s government therefore sees the example of Western democracy as a “subversive factor”, as it presents an alternative type of government.
Undermining the legitimacy of Western democracy is therefore the overarching motive behind Russia’s apparent attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. election, he says.
“The Russians almost certainly were not concerned about the difference between Hillary and Trump,” Satter says. “They almost certainly were convinced they could manipulate either one of them.”
Russian interference in Western elections helps to feed the Western media, leaving few resources for reporting on the Russian government’s more criminal activity, Satter says.
In another example, he says the annexation of Crimea was not, as has been suggested, part of a broader aim to reassert control over former parts of the Soviet Union. This explanation “is a kind of propaganda cover,” he says. “I think what is at stake is a determination to discredit any example that might be picked up by the Russian people.”
Putin’s corrupt system emerged when Communism as an ideology no longer unified the Soviet Union, and in the resulting vacuum the union began “tearing itself apart,” Satter says. That is not to say that Putin’s regime was the inevitable product of the end of the Soviet Union. Satter also places significant responsibility on Western diplomats and politicians, whose attitudes towards Russia, as it wrestled with the end of communism, he characterizes as “dilettantism”.
“They had enormous leverage, and they were also much respected by both the population and the government,” Satter says. “The U.S., in particular, was in a position to influence the evolution of Russia.”
Instead, the West failed to exert any influence or pressure on Russian authorities and business leaders to respect the rule of law, instead promoting “superficial” policies that “implicitly reinforced” an old-fashioned narrative that the West’s motivation was harmful for Russia.
Western diplomats “reinforced the idea in the minds of Russians that capitalism is really about theft. And that the first accumulation of capital in a capitalist system is based on massive criminality,” Satter says.
“This view, which was inherited from the communist period, became really the guiding philosophy of the reform period,” Satter says.
“The shadow of the revolution is not preordained to determine (Russians’) life for evermore”
Despite his fierce criticism of the Russian state and scepticism over contemporary accounts of how it reached this point, Satter maintains hope that Russia can achieve a democratic future. To do so, Russia must look into and acknowledge the violence of its Soviet history.
Stalin’s legacy still burns
That’s the primary contention in his 2012 book “It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past” – reviewed here by Foreign Affairs magazine. The book traces the history of the gulag and the great terrors and their impact on the Russia of today and he argues Russia needs to reckon with that horror and learn from it.
“Russia’s traditional problem is the degraded status of the individual. The idea that the individual counts for nothing in his own right. That his personality doesn’t matter and his life doesn’t matter. That his only usefulness is as raw material for the designs of the authorities,” Satter says.
“Well, the Stalin period is a testimony to how far this can go,” he says. “And by recognizing the crimes of the Stalin period, the society [could] counteract this devastatingly destructive mentality.”
A Russian government needs to appoint a truth and reconciliation commission, such as those used in post-apartheid South Africa “to examine all the crimes and to examine them honestly,” he says.
“Under those circumstances, Russia can achieve what other countries have achieved,” Satter says. “The shadow of the revolution is not preordained to determine their life forevermore.”
Full transcript: David Satter interview