David Satter: Accept the Unacceptable, Believe the Unbelievable
A new book ‘The Less You Know the Better You Sleep’ by David Satter, a well-known political writer and specialist on Russia was released in the U.S. In his book, he recounts the history of post-communist Russia through the prism of provocations and terror against its own people perpetrated by the government under both Yeltsin and Putin. The editor of RuFabula met David Satter in Washington and talked to him about the new book and the fate of Russia.
Mr Satter, you became the first American journalist to be expelled from Russia since the end of the Cold War. Do Russian media outlets fear to talk to you? How could you characterize the regime in Russia: a hybrid one, dictatorship, anything else?
The Russian media is willing to talk to me, even representatives of Russian television call me and request interviews, but they request that I speak to them from the United States at a time when I am not allowed to travel to Russia. I explain to them that I will not give any interviews until I am able to give them in Moscow. Of course, even in Moscow, it is not wise to give interviews to Russian state television. Their intention is to give an impression of a difference of opinion. But once an interview is in their hands there is no guarantee that they would use it ethically and objectively and present the thoughts as they are expressed. But in return for a complete lifting of the ban on traveling to Russia, I am willing to take that chance.
‘Hybrid’, as applied to a regime or armed conflict, is one of those words that enter into use and instead of facilitating thought, actually confuse it. I would prefer to say that the Russian regime is a dictatorship based on manipulation and the use of selective terror. There is no mass terror at the moment but that is a possibility for a future. Those in Russia who go beyond certain ill-defined limits in Russia can suffer the fate of Boris Nemtsov or Anna Politkovskaya. The examples of these political murders definitely have an intimidating effect on everyone else.
Your new book ‘The Less You Know the Better You Sleep’ is full of facts about the Putin regime’s crimes against its own citizens. It contains a ready list of charges for a trial. The facts mostly are well-known by the Russian opposition activists and many journalists. Who is the main recipient of this book? What reaction do you expect from the audience?
First of all, I can’t agree that the facts in the book are well-known to the Russian public and to the Russian liberal opposition. The Russian opposition has a lot of work to do in terms of recognizing the truth about Russia’s post-communist history beginning with 1991-1992. The fact that 1993 dispersal of the Parliament was a criminal act and Yeltsin was responsible for the massacre at the Ostankino television tower is not well understood. But this, as I argue in my book, is demonstrated by the evidence. It is not understood by the Russian liberal opposition that Yeltsin was basically as bad as Putin. The crimes committed by Yeltsin are on same level as the crimes committed by Putin. The 1995 carpet bombing of Grozny is believed to have cost lives of 20,000 people. And it was Yeltsin who was responsible for the apartment bombings, even if he was unaware and incapacitated, which is far from certain. This message has not really been assimilated by the opposition which idealizes Yeltsin.
The apartment bombings themselves were a calculated provocation carried out by FSB. This is another point that is not yet understood by the opposition. For the opposition all the horrors began in 2000 after the elevation of Putin but no one can explain how it happened that a ‘wonderful’ leader like Yeltsin picked a horror like Putin to succeed him. Was it just a terrible mistake? Or was it something deliberate? I think the evidence shows it was absolutely deliberate. Putin was the fifth prime minister in 18 months and Yeltsin was clearly searching for someone he could trust to protect him and his family if they ever left office.
So, the issue of the Russian public cannot be overlooked. The book is directed to the Russian public and also to the American public. The Russian public of course knows much more about what’s going on in the country. But the fact is that the Russian public and the Russian liberal opposition are in thrall to misconceptions and their own unwillingness to know the truth, particularly about the Yeltsin period. Yeltsin created the foundations for this regime by presiding over the criminalization of the country. I would like Americans to understand the same things I would like Russians to understand. Americans don’t have a vested interest in avoiding the truth in the way that many Russians do. Many are willing to face the truth if it’s explained to them with the exception of those people in government and the establishment who justify the policies and personality of Yeltsin to justify themselves and for career reasons. But ordinary Americans are ready and willing to face the truth if it is accompanied by convincing explanations.
In your book post-Soviet Russia is represented not just as a corrupt state but as a brutal mafia structure based on lies and violence. How should the West treat this murderous power that has a nuclear weapon?
The first rule always is to base international relations on an accurate understanding of the country with which you are having dealings. The problem with American policy is that our picture of Russia does not conform with the reality of Russia. When we look at Russia we see only ourselves: we see they have McDonald’s, nice cars and they like to travel, dress well and do the things that we consider ordinary people do. Of course, they speak a foreign language, but we take it for granted that if they have anything important to say they learn English. It’s not really the custom of Americans to try to understand a different psychology and to recognize that Russians have a different set of values and that their society is very different.
As a result, I’m afraid that the book I have written will strike many Americans as a report from outer space because when we talk about vices during an election campaign we talk about Donald Trump exposing the infidelities of Bill Clinton, we don’t talk about Donald Trump or of Hillary planting a bomb in a building full of innocent civilians in order to blame the explosion on their political opponents. But once you accept the unacceptable, once you believe the unbelievable, you are taking the first step to understanding Russia and you will then have a sense of what needs to be done in order to bring Russia under control.
At the same time, understanding the truth, expressing the truth, and not censoring oneself is a way of deterring the violent behavior of the Russian authorities. If they know that the other side actually understands what they are they will think twice about initiating aggressive acts because they will fear that a psychologically well prepared opponent will act resolutely to resist them. If we treat Russia as something different from what it is we are encouraging them to take advantage of our naivety. We have hundreds of issues with Russia. Some of these issues are rather small, they can involve trade agreements, for example, or bilateral exchanges, some of them are major like should we station missiles in Eastern Europe as a defensive measure. As we discuss these questions, the overarching consideration is whether Russia is an outlaw or a responsible power that can be counted on to tell the truth. All of our experience shows that Russia is an outlaw. This is why it is important to show strength in relations with Russia. But the task of showing strength begins with our having the strength, in America, to make an intellectual effort to understand a culture and a nation that is very different from the U.S. If we make that effort, our decisions will be wiser.
In your opinion, if Putin had not invaded Ukraine, would the West continue to treat Russia as a normal power despite all abuses at home?
After the invasion of Georgia and in light of the things that were happening, there was a greater suspicion. But it took something like the invasion of Ukraine for a lot of people finally to wake up. There is also an army of propagandists working for Russia either officially or unofficially including Americans, helping to spread disinformation. So, people were confused about Russia’s motives. In that respect the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea taught even naïve people a lesson and it’s harder to justify Russia and Russian behavior now.
In your book you accuse Yeltsin and Putin in reproducing the system that considers an individual as raw material for the purposes of the state. Is this a tragic legacy of historic Russia?
Yes, it is. It goes back really hundreds of years. Peter the Great when he built St. Petersburg had no concern for the loss of lives. Russia is a country that is organized like a movement and in a movement individuals are interchangeable. The individual doesn’t matter, only the goal of the movement does. In czarist times it was a movement to spread a Russian version of Christianity, then in Soviet times it was to bring the benefits of the proletarian revolution to the whole world. There is no ideology any longer but insofar the country was taken over by criminals, the same attitude exists toward an individual, the individual remains raw material. There’s only the absence of an overarching goal.
You know Russia and the Soviet Union very well and you have been living there for decades. What changes has Russian society undergone since Soviet times?
There have been enormous changes. Russians discovered money and fell in love with it. At the same time, even that moral structure that existed under communism, that conception of decency that even with all its faults existed in the communist society that you don’t steal from other people that you should help others, largely disappeared. At the same time people became more capable individuals, more self-reliant, they value their freedom to a greater extent and are able to use it. They learned about the outside world, became more sophisticated, they became more middle-class in their habits. But the country is in great need of a new moral framework and people who are making progress in some respects, including the urban middle class are greatly in need of it. Everyone is faced with the pressure which is exerted by this criminal government and this criminal regime which forces people into illegal activity, denies opportunity, limits self-sufficiency, and freedom and also intimidates people.
The regime has to be replaced by something that would be more appropriate to a modern country. The people themselves have to find a kind of inner strength, moral strength to behave according to their conscience and not according to the dictates of the regime on one hand or the temptation of money, on the other. That will be very difficult for Russian society but it’s essential.
Do you think that the country is a kind an empire with a half-life and in the case of an inevitable crisis can crumble under the weight of its moral and economic degradation?
The stability of a country is measured not by the appearance of surface calm (this exists in Russia) but rather by the ability of a society to withstand external and internal shocks. Russia is not prepared for that. There is a parasitical ruling class which does not identify with the rest of the population. At the same time, there is a lot of resentment against those who have been able to acquire riches at the expense of the rest of the society through illegal means. The economy is based on raw materials, and the aggressive behavior of the regime is inspiring international sanctions. All of those factors contribute to instability. At the same time, power abuses and lawlessness are rampant. With every year that the regime holds on to power the level of the resentment in the society increases.
I liked your idea of necessity of convening a new Constituent Assembly. This idea means an establishment of a new legitimacy and a new state. What should be the basis of that new state?
What Russia needs is a separation of powers and it has to abandon its aspiration to be an empire. Those parts of the country that want to live separately and are ethnically and psychologically different from Russia should be allowed to go their own way. The conditions should be created so that the country will not have to rely on repression and has a mechanism within its own political system for preventing tyranny. The latter was destroyed in 1993 when the Parliament was abolished by Yeltsin. He created a system that was designed to enhance presidential power.
Russia needs a Truth Commission, which is capable of examining all of the crimes that were committed in the post-Soviet period. They then need to examine the Soviet period too. The country has to face the consequences of the denigration of the individual, the fact that an interpretation of the individual as raw material for the schemes of the state is a formula for the destruction of the nation. They can best understand this by examining the true history. In this respect the apartment bombings are absolutely critical because they are the quintessential expression of the attitude that the individual counts for nothing and it is perfectly acceptable to kill 300 people if what is at stake is holding on to power.
And the last question. Do you know if your book is available in Russian?
I know there are plans to translate it to Russian. I know there are plans to translate it to Russian. I am pretty sure it will be in the Internet in any case, but we want a book to be available. I expect to hear about it very soon. It’s going to be published in Ukrainian, that’s for sure.