David Satter's account of Russia's criminal state is savagely bleak. Did the state really kill hundreds of its own people to justify the second Chechen war?by Jeremy Putley / August 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
Book: Darkness at Dawn Author: David Satter Price: Yale University Press, ?22.50 Foreign criticism of Russia tends to produce a charge of anti-Russian bias. This did not apply, of course, when Solzhenitsyn wrote over ten years ago of Russia’s “ugly new ulcers”-the “nascent capitalism, fraught with unproductive, savage and repulsive forms of behaviour, the plunder of the nation’s wealth, the likes of which the west has not known.” It is the savage aspects of Russia’s deformed capitalism that constitute a large part of David Satter’s gloomy indictment. Satter paints his picture using personal testimonies of selected victims to illustrate the case that Russia has degenerated into a criminal state, and the result is so compellingly bleak that you wonder if he has overdone it. If you ask most Russians about their lives, they will say that the picture of criminal anomie is one they do not recognise, since their daily life is happy and normal, like life in other countries, and moreover Russia is a great country with a currently booming economy. They, no doubt, would accuse Satter of anti-Russian bias. But they have escaped dealings with the civil authorities, had not many savings to lose, and have so far escaped the depredations of organised crime. The victims of criminality, a minority but a substantial one, are witnesses to the other side of the picture, and their experiences are now on the record. There is another story in the book and its implications have yet to be fully realised. It is darker and more sinister than all of the others: the 1999 apartment bombings. Satter narrates the story with great skill. In brief, after a plot to blow up a residential apartment building in Ryazan, south of Moscow, the perpetrators were traced and found to be operatives of the Moscow FSB (successor to the KGB). The head of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, himself confirmed their identities. Subsequently, he claimed that the Ryazan bomb was “a training exercise.” The operation in Ryazan was identical to four previous bombings which had killed 300 people. Satter arrives at the appalling conclusion that the Russian leadership itself was responsible for the bombings of the apartment buildings. The Ryazan bomb was intended to be the last and worst in a series of atrocities to be attributed to Chechen separatists. The purpose was to provide an impetus for the start of the second Chechen war, which was announced by Putin on the day in 1999 when the Ryazan explosion was due to have occurred. No one who reads Satter’s account of the events will find it possible to believe the training exercise explanation. The only serious question is whether Putin, who was the prime minister at the time, knew of the intended explosions beforehand; there can be little doubt that Patrushev knew. There are omissions from Satter’s catalogue of crimes, including the murders of liberal politicians such as Galina Starovoitova, assassinated in 1998. The most recent political murder, of Sergei Yushenkov, co-chairman of the Liberal Russia party, on 17th April 2003 (too late for inclusion in the book), was especially significant. Yushenkov was not tainted by financial or other connections, and was a member of the unofficial commission investigating the 1999 bombings. Also omitted from the accounting are the war crimes in Chechnya, documented by the Crimes of War project, Human Rights Watch, and the other human rights organisations that have reported from Chechnya. So is the ludicrous failure of the judicial system in the notorious Budanov murder trial, in which a senior Russian military officer was given psychiatric treatment instead of a jail sentence for strangling a teenage Chechen girl to death. Satter concludes with a brief consideration of the three dangers that Russia faces-dictatorship, economic collapse, and depopulation. These three horsemen are already in the saddle. For the sake of the honest people of Russia-to whom the book is dedicated-we must hope for a different, better future.