- - Sunday, May 8, 2016


By David Satter

Yale University Press, $30, 210 pages

A few pages into David Satter’s truly terrifying book, one realizes that his title is smack-on accurate: modern Russia is a frightening member of the world community to an extent of which most persons are blissfully unaware.

As Mr. Satter writes, “To grasp the reality of Russia, it is necessary to accept that Russian leaders really are capable of blowing up hundreds of their own people in order to preserve their hold on power. When one accepts that the impossible is actually possible, the degradation of the Yeltsin years and Vladimir Putin’s rise to power make perfect sense.”

At hand is a detailed and well-sourced account of two decades of criminal rule that is ill-concealed beneath what Mr. Satter calls a “mask of liberalism” worn by post-Communist leaders. He writes from his viewpoint of a journalist who has covered Russia since 1976, beginning with the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal. Unsurprisingly, Moscow bureaucrats expelled him in 2013.

No matter. Mr. Satter left with enough solid reportage to write what is essentially an indictment of modern Russia. For instance, he describes a government that blows up apartment buildings, killing hundreds of its own citizens, and foists the blame on rebels from break-away Chechen — a murderous lot to be sure, but convenient scapegoats for a regime that wants to stir support for war.

Or consider the denationalization of state-owned industries that are turned over to cronies of the ruling cliques — “the largest peaceful transfer of property in history without the benefit of law.” Under the guise of “reform,” the new crowd “created the conditions for the criminalization of the entire country.”

The “private” business cooperatives created by Mikhail Gorbachev regime did not long survive. They fell victim to extortion gangs which “recruited weightlifters and boxers from sports clubs to act as enforcers and staked out territories.” By 1992, virtually every kiosk, store owner and banker in Russia was making payoffs.

Vladimir Putin’s “contribution” was the creation of a bureaucracy “that answered only to the country’s leader.” The highest positions are occupied by persons who worked with him in the St. Petersburg government or the Leningrad KGB and its successor FSB. He moved swiftly after ascending to the top. Within several years “the top ministers, half of the Security Council and 70 percent of the senior regional officials in Russia came from the security services.”

Telling testimony was given to a U.S. congressional committee in 2009 by Andrei Illarionov, formerly Mr. Putin’s top economic adviser. Until Mr. Putin, the Russian leadership operated under a code resembling that of a Mafia family, preserving “traditions, hierarchies, codes and habits of the secret police Violators of the code of conduct are subject to the harshest forms of punishment, including the highest form.”

Under Mr. Putin, the “government” methodically seized control of the three major TV networks, the primary source of information for most Russians. The NTV network did major investigations into the bombings of Moscow apartment buildings, pointing an accusing finger at security officers. Now under government control, its “programming” features foreign soap operas and a program called “Fear Factor” on which contestants are rewarded for “climbing high buildings, sitting in cells underwater or eating worms or cockroaches.”

Mr. Satter asserts that Mr. Putin benefits personally from the pillage. He quotes a one-time member of the Russian hierarchy as estimating that “Putin’s secret assets were worth $40 billion, which would make him the richest man in Europe.” Holdings in oil and other mineral companies are concealed through companies in Zug, Switzerland and Lichtenstein.

So what does the future hold for Russia? Leaders pegged economic development to the country’s vast oil and gas reserves. The economy plunged along with energy prices, with a resultant problem for Mr. Putin et al. As Mr. Satter writes, “The authorities would be free to steal as long as average incomes and living standards continued to rise.” Such is no longer the case, and social tensions mount.

Another great fear facing Putin is that his countrymen will follow the example of Ukraine and throw out a corrupt president and his crowd. One sign of insider nervousness is the exodus of the oligarchy to shelters in Britain and elsewhere.

Even with the amount of corruption, and the sinking standards of living, Mr. Satter estimates that Russia’s pro-democratic sector amounts to only 10 io 15 percent of the population. What is needed, he argues, is for people to “face the truth about Russia’s experience of post-Soviet “democracy.”

Will such an awakening occur? Russian history dating to the Czars says “no.” But perhaps the same forces that propelled perestroika will prevail again. Perhaps. A big word.

• Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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