Review: “The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin” by David Satter

June 7, 2016

David Satter would have us believe that the Kremlin is guilty of every crime in the book, but is that true?


Andrew Wilson

The aim of this book is to tie together all the obvious and alleged acts of state terror in Russia since 1991. It starts with the apartment bombings in 1999, then rewinds to the confrontations in Moscow in 1993, before fast-forwarding to the Nord-Ost theatre siege in 2002 and the school massacre at Beslan in 2004, touching on the Litvinenko, Politkovskaya and Nemtsov murders and the two Chechen wars in between. It concludes with the war in eastern Ukraine.

Satter’s argument is that all these cases fit a similar pattern: namely that Russia is run by the morally unscrupulous, and that “the political regime” they established in the 1990s, having “enshrined theft,” faced “fundamental insecurity,” and its survival was therefore only “guaranteed with the help of repeated bloody provocations” (page 164).

But each of the cases covered has a different history. Regime involvement is clearer in some cases than in others. Satter does his best with the 1999 apartment bombings; but the trail of evidence is blocked, not least by the many deaths of those who have investigated the events before him. This is arguably evidence in itself, but it leaves the story incomplete.

Satter makes a stronger case in his analysis of the civil conflict in Moscow in 1993 and the twin hostage dramas of 2002 and 2004 – because so much of what happened was out in the open. The official account of what happened Moscow in 1993 is simply contradicted by the slaughter at Ostankino, which looks like an obvious provocation. The failure to inform emergency services about the gas used in the Nord-Ost siege, and the use of flamethrowers in the storming of Beslan School Number One caused hundreds of deaths; but, again, this does not establish motives beyond simple callousness or overkill. Cui bono? is always a useful question and will usually provide some clues. Negotiations on a Chechen settlement were derailed in 2002; and the ground was cleared for controversial political reforms in 2004. But this is working backwards.

Satter could have said more about Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine, where evidence is much more abundant, but this section feels like an add-on. Nor does Satter look at accusations that Russian specialists were involved in the Maidan shootings.

The taint of guilt remains in the air, but the hard documentary evidence isn’t there

So in most cases the reader is left with the old Scottish verdict of “not proven” – the taint of guilt remains in the air, but the hard documentary evidence isn’t there (the taint on defendants is actually one reason why Scotland has recently considered abandoning the verdict).

Satter’s argument that the events in Ukraine in 2014 “brought an end to the dissimilation,” and that “the West was suddenly faced not with a masquerade but with the Russia that had existed all along” (page 163) is unconvincing. Many in the West dropped their illusions, but many did not. More importantly, the annexation of Crimea, the war in the Donbas and the Syrian misadventure can all be seen as the kind of “diversionary war” tactic abroad that is arguably a Siamese twin to the idea of staged terrorism at home – with both serving as dramaturgy to divert ordinary Russian’s attention from corruption and graft. Even in the West, ever-shorter attention spans and media cycles mean that the current intervention (Syria) distracts attention from the last (Ukraine).

As always with Satter’s writing, this is a good read

As always with Satter’s writing, this is a good read. Some of the material overlaps with his earlier books, particularly 2004’s Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State. There is also a lot of standardised narrative to link the case studies. This won’t upset the general reader, and obviously there has to be some filling of the gaps; but there is rather too much material that could be found elsewhere.

And sometimes the opposite – several key arguments are left out because they are in Satter’s other books. He does not elaborate on why Russia’s rulers have such contempt for the people. Part of the answer lies in the brutality of the Soviet regime, and the highly selective and often propagandistic treatment of that past in Putin’s Russia, as Satter describes in his 2012 book It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past. Another part of the answer may lie in the unexpected, unorganised and often-unexplained manner in which the Soviet Union collapsed – see Satter’s Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union (2001). Ordinary Russians have lost their interest in ideology, but not in ideas, and are always searching for some way of explaining the traumas of the last twenty-five years – or arguably the last one hundred and twenty five years. Conspiracy theories and scapegoats also help.

Satter does not address in detail the question of whether Russia is now locked into a cycle of “provocations;” although the implication of his argument is clearly that it is. Economic growth delivered a more prosaic but definitely safer form of social contract in the 2000s – although this was at the same time as many of the original “provocations.” But without growth, provocations might be even more necessary. And the economy shows little sign of recovery: it may have weathered sanctions surprisingly well, but the oil price looks to stay low for the foreseeable future. Putin’s popularity got a much bigger boost from “the explosion of chauvinism that followed” the annexation of Crimea (page 169) than from any previous diversion or provocation, so the temptation for another dose is clearly high.

How should the West deal with Russia if there are more provocations to come?

How should the West deal with Russia if there are more provocations to come? Obviously foreign adventurism impacts the West more directly than domestic diversion, but there is a case for frankness about domestic events too, although the degree of frankness that Satter would probably advocate may be a stretch for many Western diplomats. There is also an obvious paradox in confronting a regime that thrives on confrontation, and on myths of Western persecution and interference.

Satter concludes by saying “the regime is threatened by the moral collapse of which it itself is the principal author” (page 167); but it is not clear how much of this is a predicted exposure effect, once diversion wears off and the regime’s true nature is laid bare. A more worrying scenario might be that Russians know the nature of the regime perfectly well, but don’t care or are “determined not to face reality” (page 169) – at least not until the kind of “Truth Commission” that Satter recommends is established and forces debate out into the open.

“The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin” by David Satter (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016).

Andrew Wilson is Professor in Ukrainian Studies at University College London and a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His most recent books are Ukraine Crisis: What the West Needs to Know (2014) and The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation (new, expanded fourth edition 2015).

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