- - Friday, February 10, 2012

By David Satter
Yale University Press, $29.95, 383 pages

Anyone who has paid heed to Russia in the two decades since the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union has come to realize that things have not worked out all that well. Those desiring better lives, seeking the freedoms enjoyed by other peoples of the world, threw off the shackles of an authoritarian state that routinely persecuted, imprisoned and murdered its citizens by the millions. The Soviet Union fell along with the Communist Party and split into the separate states that had been pressed together as the USSR against their will. So what was the result?

As David Satter writes in his brilliantly titled book “It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway,” the “new Russia” has yet to acknowledge the barbarity and cruelty of the previous regime, much less pass any moral judgment on what a major nation did to its own people. Vladimir Putin, who seems bent on retaining power for many more years, scoffed to an interviewer, “Anyone who does not regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart.”

In 2009, Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, called for the return of the monument of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the KGB, to Lubyanskaya Square. Although protesters said restoring the monument was “the same as a monument to Himmler in Germany,” 56 percent of Russians agreed with the mayor. The idea was finally rejected “in the interest of social peace.”

Mr. Satter’s work is among a spate of books noting the 20th anniversary of the fall of the USSR. He knows the territory. He was Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times from 1976 to 1982 and then a special correspondent on Soviet affairs for the Wall Street Journal. Support from a number of foundations enabled him to travel widely in Russia, and as a good reporter, he relies upon what he saw firsthand and what he learned from interview sources ranging from schoolchildren to officers of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, successor to the KGB.

Most frightening to me was his conclusion that the rights and desires of individual citizens still do not matter to the ruling class. To be sure, Russia is relatively well-off economically (read mineral wealth), but its rulers are impervious to nascent public opinion. The argument, echoing the communist reasoning, is that Russia is such a vast state that reality demands a “strong man” as a ruler.

Immunity to laws mean that certain citizens do as they wish, in matters large and small. For example, the privileged are permitted to put flashing blue lights on their autos and ignore traffic regulations, driving on the wrong side of the road at more than 100 miles an hour. If they slam into another car, the non-offending driver is the person who is prosecuted and often jailed.

Trivial? Perhaps. But Mr. Satter contends that this mindset permits the state to commit graver offenses without fear. He cites a spate of deadly apartment bombings in the weeks before the 1999 presidential elections. Candidate Putin blamed Chechen terrorists - even though persons caught planting bombs in another apartment building turned out to be FSB agents. Mr. Satter found many Russians dubious about Mr. Putin’s claims.

Nonetheless, “Putin, posing as the savior of the nation, promised to avenge bombings in which he may have been complicit. But what was really surreal was that many Russians, fully convinced that the FSB had carried out the bombings, were ready to vote for Putin regardless.”

Mr. Satter reports that new generations of Russians are fed a heavy dose of rationalization about communism. Their history texts shy away from mentioning the abuses inflicted on the Soviet people under communism. A teachers manual covering the period 1945 to 2006, issued by the nation’s leading publisher of textbooks, gives a dramatically favorable assessment of the Soviet Union. Although the author concedes that the USSR “was not a democracy,” nonetheless “it was an example of the best and most just society for millions of people all over the world.”

Stalin was described as “the most successful leader of the Soviet Union.” Repression was necessary to “mobilize not only the rank-and-file citizens but also the ruling elite.”

Mr. Satter argues, convincingly, that the abuses of communism continue to hover over Russia: “Russia today is haunted by words that have been left unsaid, sites [of prison camps, for instance] that have not been [ac]knowledged and mass graves that have been commemorated partially or not at all. … The failure to face the moral implications of the communist suppression … has meant that real change in Russia was not possible. The psychology of state domination was left intact to influence the new post-Communist Russia.”

Further, he is dubious about any change for the better. “In the final analysis,” he writes, “a nation cannot look with confidence to the future if the proclivity of its institutions is to crush the individual. Ultimately, it is in the talents of each person in his capacity as an individual that the nation depends.”

A sobering read, especially at a time when Mr. Putin seems certain to prolong his grip on power for as long as he wishes.

Joseph C. Goulden is author of “The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English” (Dover Books, 2012).

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