David Satter, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003), 314 pages, $29.95
December 15, 2003
by Sherman W Garnett
In Darkness at Dawn, veteran journalist David Satter attempts “to describe the rise of the business criminal elite and its takeover of the machinery of the Russian state, leading to the impoverishment and demoralization of the great majority of the population.” In pursuing this end, Satter provides arguments and analyses very different from those proffered by most of the analysts who so often attempt to explain Russia to us or prescribe policies for Western and Russian leaders.
Satter’s book contains no tables or charts, few statistics, and no models to help explain Russian politics and economics. Instead, the author offers what he calls “narrative histories and personal stories,” and lots of them. In fact, the bulk of the text is a compelling series of these histories and stories, making it in the end something more akin to an old-fashioned chronicle than a work of contemporary political science. These narratives are compellingly written and impossible to ignore. They unabashedly aim to put the last decade or more of Russia’s political and economic transition into human terms. They take the reader from the tragic sinking of the submarine Kursk, through portraits of the new politicians (and the oligarchs and criminals that surround them), to a series of stories that show the difficulty, if not impossibility, of achieving a normal life in Russia under current conditions.
From time to time, Satter steps back from these stories to offer his own reflections, culminating in a brief conclusion in which he attempts to explain the failures to date and outline the disasters he fears are to come. In these passages, Satter offers a moral analysis of Russian politics. “The reform process took place without benefit of higher values,” he argues, “and it bequeathed to Russia a moral vacuum.” According to Satter, this vacuum has been filled largely by corrupt and venal officials and criminals who prey in turn upon largely innocent and ignorant victims. In the end, Satter fears for the long-term stability of Russia and sees the way out not in a set of specific political or economic policies, but in state and societal acceptance of “universal, transcendent values.”
These two strands—storytelling and moral reflection—make this an odd yet compelling book. Satter’s reflections and moral prescriptions may not be everybody’s cup of tea—they often are not mine—but it is difficult to come away from serious study of Russia, and indeed of much of the former USSR, without being convinced that genuine reform requires not only good laws, markets, and institutions, but also moral and social norms and behaviors. Even for those put off by Satter’s blunt and bleak moralizing, the book performs an important service. His skill in portraying the impact on countless ordinary Russians of corruption, of declining health care and other crucial social infrastructure, and, yes, of deliberate political and economic reform choices, makes this necessary reading.
The opening chapter, which deals with the doomed submarine Kursk, provides an illustration of Satter’s skill as a storyteller with a purpose. His account of the aftermath of the explosion aboard the sub on Saturday, August 12, 2000, weaves together the ineptness and duplicity of the Russian Navy and government and the anguish of the families and loved ones of the 118 sailors who died. The Russian Navy lacked the capacity to mount an effective rescue effort, yet it delayed calling in foreign assistance (it did not even inform President Vladimir Putin until the day after the explosion). Instead, the navy spent the bulk of the crucial hours and even days after the accident giving out false information, such as speculation that the breakdown had been caused by an underwater collision with a Western submarine. The navy even reassured the public that it was in contact with the sub and was mounting a rescue operation. It did not mention the likelihood of fatalities until Tuesday evening. It will never be known whether the full truth and an immediate request for assistance from better-equipped Britain or Norway would have saved the few sailors in the rear compartments who survived the initial explosion (notes were found on the body of one officer that showed almost two dozen were still alive for at least a few hours after the explosion). It is clear, however, that the thought of doing so never occurred to those in charge. The families, by contrast, wanted what every loved one wants in a tragedy of this sort: truth, support, and the best lifesaving efforts the government can provide. Satter is at his best in depicting the emotional rollercoaster the families experienced, from grief to courage to righteous anger, the latter boiling over in a face-to-face meeting with Putin.
Satter makes a shift in subsequent chapters to consider governmental corruption and entanglement with organized crime. He examines serious charges that the Russian government was behind terrorist bombings within Russia that had been widely attributed to Chechen terrorists, carefully sifting through evidence of an incident in Riazan that took place in April 2000. The evidence indicates that the operation was carried out by Russian intelligence, not Chechens. Satter provides largely unflattering portraits of the leading Russian reformers, especially former head of the state’s privatization effort, as well as others important positions in the Russian government, Anatoly Chubais and former Prime Minister Yegor Gaydar, tracing rumors of their personal corruption and the wealth provided them by their government jobs. He also recounts the MMM scandal, in which a largely unregulated pyramid scheme bilked thousands of ordinary Russians in the mid-1990s. He also devotes chapters to an unflattering picture of economic reform failures, police corruption, and organized crime.
In short, this is a world in which those in power have little time or concern for ordinary Russians. It is one of greed and violence, of getting the largest share of the spoils, even as the working and social conditions of the bulk of the nation deteriorate to shocking levels. Satter depicts this contrast most sharply in a chapter on a hunger strike organized by teachers in Ulyanovsk in 1998. The strikers sought months of unpaid back wages and better working conditions. The strike ended with the death of one of its organizers from conditions brought about by his long fast. Even the self-inflicted death of a teacher does little to move the authorities in Ulyanovsk.
Satter also chronicles the deteriorating quality of medical care and other crucial services, including stories of hospitals facing power cut-offs in the midst of crucial operations and a father and son who were scalded to death in hot water leaking from underground pipes that city officials never bothered to examine despite numerous complaints.
Each of Satter’s stories has a single moral, either stated or implied: that a normal and energetic government with any sort of concern for its citizens would have been able to prevent the worst, or at least minimized its impact. Russia, however, does not have that sort of government, despite more than a decade of political and economic reforms, free elections, and other changes widely trumpeted as creating a democratic, free-market, westernized Russia. Satter acknowledges these changes, but argues that they will never be enough unless grounded in a more thoroughgoing moral transformation.
For Satter, too many discussions of Russia’s reforms ignore the underlying realities depicted in his stories. He acknowledges the emergence of free elections and better economic performance, but worries that “democracy [in Russia] is a matter of convenience, not of values.” He argues that a Russia so governed (and ungoverned) faces the serious prospect of a lurch back toward dictatorship, economic collapse, and continued catastrophic demographic decline. All of Russia’s troubles—and especially the prospect of even greater failures to come—have their source in a moral vacuum that prevents the emergence of good and effective government.
In the end, however, Satter’s book makes a more effective case for the use of a broader system of accounting for the last twelve years of change in Russia than for its utter bankruptcy. Westerners with their eyes fixed solely on broad state policy options for Russian reform (while apparently averting their gaze from reports of high-level corruption and crime) deserve the scorn this book offers. Satter’s call for a return to moral and social values is also worth heeding. His diagnosis of the moral failures of the current system is rather widely shared among some Russians and Western critics of the nation’s economic and political reforms, but no one has yet figured out a way—as the Russian joke describes it—to make angels come down from heaven and carry out the needed changes. Indeed, as this same joke concludes, the truly miraculous way ahead is not for angels to do the work, but for the Russians to do it for themselves.
Even under the best of circumstances, transitions of this sort take decades. Russia needs to establish new laws, new institutions, new practices, and new moral and social codes of conduct. The nation needed a shift to private property and greater pluralism, and it was likely that under any circumstances imaginable the political, moral, economic, and other dimensions of change would be hard to coordinate and make mutually supportive. Satter’s model appears to resemble Solzhenitsyn’s, one of a state that would have gotten its moral act together before moving ahead with elections or privatization.
Satter’s book provides insight into the too-easily forgotten costs of the changes that are still underway in Russia. It provides a much-needed re-emphasis on the role of moral and social values in genuine reform. It does not, however, help any of those wanting to see a better Russia—inside or outside the country—resolve the dilemma of how to encourage the right sort of changes in the present difficult social and political circumstances. It also offers little hope for those in Russia who are waiting for the angels while forced to live in a world still governed by human beings.
Professor Sherman Garnett is Dean of the James Madison College at MSU, and a noted Soviet specialist.
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