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Never Speak to Strangers:
And Other Writing from Russia and the Soviet Unio

by david satter
ibidem, 692 pages, $34

In this unexpectedly timely collection of essays, the journalist David Satter recalls an adventure that informed all his subsequent writing about Russia and the ­Soviet Union. In 1977, having met some Lithuanian dissidents, Satter set off to visit their Estonian counterparts. Eluding the police agents who were following him, Satter eventually made contact with the Estonian dissidents—or so he thought, until the real Estonian dissidents reported to his ­Lithuanian friends that he had never shown up! Satter had been talking to KGB agents in disguise. “You mean the whole thing, the meetings, the arguments, the discussion of KGB tactics, the small army they had following me, all that was a performance?” he asked incredulously. “But what was the point of it? Just to prevent me from meeting a group of Estonian dissidents?” “Not ­only that,” his ­Lithuanian friend explained. “The Soviet Union is a land of miracles and from time to time the KGB likes to create reality.”

Satter became convinced that his Lithuanian friends were right: “the whole point of the Soviet system was to create reality and then impose this world of illusions on a helpless population by force.” Everything official was fake: Trade unions represented management; free elections offered a choice among one candidate; to receive a secret ballot you had to ask for it; you could appeal to the courts when rights were violated, but courts invariably supported the violators; the parliament (Supreme Soviet) unanimously supported the government 100 percent of the time. Everything Western visitors to the 1980 Olympics were shown was fabricated, including the discotheques, where KGB agents masqueraded as clientele. It followed for Satter that, as he testified before Congress, “the most effective weapon against communism was not arms but the truth.”

Most Western journalists and academics have offered a misleading picture of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia because they have failed to probe beneath the surface. Almost all Soviet-era journalistic reports, Satter observes, either paraphrased official positions or conveyed information provided by “independent” sources who were, in fact, KGB plants. Academics refrained from challenging official accounts because they feared losing their visas and finding themselves unable to complete the research on which their careers depended. Satter was different, and he was, in fact, expelled from the Soviet Union in 1982. Allowed back to the new Russia in 1990, he became in 2013 the first Western journalist to be (once again) expelled from it.

One of Satter’s themes is that Westerners have rarely grasped Soviet (or post-Soviet) Russian reality. Imagining that Russians are “just like us” (is there any other way to be?), leaders formulate naive policies. In 1980, when the leaders of France and Germany traveled to hold talks with Soviet leaders, Satter noted the flaw: These attempts were “based on the assumption that the tension over the invasion of Afghanistan exists because the Soviets do not understand the West’s position and consultation will help them understand it better.” Western leaders unaware of ­Lenin’s doctrine that truth is whatever serves the Party’s interests readily believed Soviet “solemn assurances.” Many imagined that “if we reduce our military strength, the Soviets will reduce theirs; if we do not press our ­influence in the world, they will cease to expand theirs.” For American presidents, Satter calculates, the learning curve for understanding Soviet leaders usually took an entire term. Most presidents presumed that good personal relations with the Soviet leader would bear fruit. In fact, the system’s dynamic ensured that the leader’s personality made little difference. Strategy was determined by the Marxist–Leninist playbook, which all leaders took for granted. If the other side is naïve enough to assume bourgeois honesty and goodwill, take advantage of it.

Today, as Western leaders once again puzzle over how to engage with the Kremlin, Satter’s insights throughout four decades—the essays collected here were written between 1976 and 2019—suggest that Russia can be expected to continue Soviet practices, because even though they no longer accept Leninist ideology, they retain the premise that anything that works may—indeed, should—be done.

Satter first visited the Soviet Union as the Financial Times’ Moscow correspondent. He was apparently well-prepared for the task, having written his Oxford dissertation on the great theorist of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt. But on arrival he discovered a world unlike anything he had imagined. For Satter, as for Solzhenitsyn, Russia’s key problem was not economic, as American and Russian reformers imagined, but spiritual and moral. Leninism taught that there is no objective truth, only class truth, and no human morality, only class morality. When people appeal to facts outside the context of class interests, they engage in mystification. Whatever serves the interests of the working class, whose representative is the Communist Party, is true and moral. The Party is infallible not because it is especially insightful but because anything it says is true and moral by definition. This idea was not only accepted by trained Leninist philosophers, but was taught to schoolchildren.

The Soviet Union rapidly developed into a series of façades behind façades. The country was a utopia, according to official ideology constantly contradicted by reality. And so the regime engineered a fictitious world in which the ideology was true. People learned to live in both worlds simultaneously, sometimes aware of the ­discrepancy, more often combining the two seamlessly. Satter describes in detail just how Orwellian “double­think” works in practice.

Even the leaders could not always reach bedrock. From the obtaining of raw materials through the ­stages leading to finished goods, managers provided fictitious statistics, making it impossible for anyone to know how the economy was doing. Leader Yuri Andropov once decided to improve discipline by forbidding workers to leave their jobs during working hours, but since there was no other time to shop for necessities, factory managers issued ­documents testifying that employees were running errands on official business.

Soviet elections were unanimous, supposedly because everyone agreed—and so defections by artists abroad proved not just an embarrassment but a challenge to the regime’s core myth. Supposedly only madmen disagreed, and so dissidents were treated in insane asylums with drugs that tortured them. But the regime’s key resource for bridging the gap between façade and reality was vodka, which, ­Satter observes, acquired “mystical significance.” For Marx religion is the ­opiate of the masses, but in the Soviet Union vodka was their religiate.

Children accordingly learned that compassion and honesty are vices, because they depend on the notion of human, rather than class, moral standards and may lead one to spare a class enemy. ­Americans find it hard to believe that anyone could think this way, but Soviet children wondered that Americans could still accept “objective” ­morality, which ultimately presupposed belief in God or transcendent ideals, which no true materialist could accept.

The fall of the Soviet Union did not change this outlook. A nation “emerging from seventy years of atheism and forced collectivism,” as Satter writes, must first develop a respect for human life, the individual, law, and other transcendent values. It must reject the heritage of atheist materialism. Here again, Satter’s views coincide with Solzhenitsyn’s.

Contradicting received opinion, Satter denies that democracy flourished under Yeltsin, only to fail when Putin took over. (In much the same way, Solzhenitsyn rejected the portrayal of Russia under the 1917 Provisional Government as a democratic interval brutally halted by the Bolshevik coup.) In the 1990s, as in 1917, democracy never had a chance and was, at best, poorly understood by the so-called democrats.

From the day Yeltsin shelled the Russian parliament in 1993 to the moment he appointed Vladimir ­Putin his successor, he retained communist ways of thinking and acting. What happened during the Yeltsin years was horrific, Satter explains. Without the rule of law, or even an understanding of legality, Russia succumbed to criminal gangs, one of which was the police. Contract killing became just another business. Nothing happened without bribery. To this day, every business must pay protection. Investment for anything but short-term gains makes no sense, since property can be summarily confiscated. That is one reason Russia remains a gas station with an army.

No less than Soviet Marxist-­Leninists, American economists believed in economic determinism. To modernize Russia, our experts presumed, one need only privatize everything as fast as possible. Competition would do the rest. But one cannot outcompete a rival when violence, not superior goods or services, is what determines outcomes. The only efficiency is the efficiency of murder. From 1992 to 1998, ­Satter reports, Russian GDP fell by 50 percent, more than under German occupation. Male life expectancy declined six years to fifty-seven, the industrial world’s lowest. There were several million “premature deaths” of one kind or another. Comparing Russia with England, one finds that

a Russian is five times more likely to die in a traffic accident . . . 25 times more likely to accidentally poison himself (usually with alcohol), three times as likely to die in an accidental fall, 31 times as likely to drown, seven times as likely to commit suicide, and 54 times as likely to be murdered.

Thoroughly misunderstanding what was happening, American leaders gave Yeltsin “the democrat” unconditional support.

Some observers hoped the revived Russian Orthodox Church would restore the spiritual heart of Russian society, but church leaders, who were actually KGB agents, often proved as corrupt as other politicians. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the church received the highly lucrative right to import duty-­free alcohol and tobacco, with the proceeds enriching the hierarchy. In 2006, Satter reports, the Moscow News estimated Patriarch Kirill’s personal worth at four billion dollars.

When Satter ­addresses more recent events, his writings seem remarkably prescient. He repeatedly warned of the situation we see unfolding in Ukraine today. The main challenge an independent Ukraine poses for Russian leaders, he explains, is not so much the threat of its joining the European Union or even ­NATO, as its contagious example of democratic freedoms. If a people speaking a closely related language and with a very similar culture can sustain democracy, then the whole argument that such forms are unsuitable for Russians disappears. And the more successful Ukrainian democracy becomes, the greater the threat, no matter what its foreign policy may be.

Satter’s essays also offer a warning to the United States about the consequences of its misunderstanding of Vladimir Putin’s intentions during the “Russiagate” affair. With remarkable perceptiveness, ­Satter recognized from the start that documents supposedly depicting Trump as a “Russian asset” were a typical Russian fake. As early as January 12, 2017, Satter observed that “the recently released report that asserts that Russian president Vladimir Putin has been ‘cultivating, assisting and supporting Trump’ for years and that the Russians have compromising information (kompromat) on him is, I believe, a deliberate Russian provocation.” For one thing, the specific charges, the supposed evidence, and the way both were revealed typified Russian operations. For another, Russians would have found no great difference between Trump and Clinton. In the U.S. as elsewhere, the Russian goal was not to elect a particular candidate but “to set Americans against each other” and undermine their faith in democratic processes, while turning intelligence services against elected officials. “Americans must understand that the Putin regime wants to paralyze the U.S.,” Satter argued, “but would rather have Americans do it with their own hands.” As we did. The years-long congressional investigations of Trump, along with the media’s repeated claims to have proof of the president’s guilt, could not have satisfied Putin more.

Looking back on these events in 2019, Satter observes that “the Trump–Russia affair did lasting damage to the U.S. For the first time, it became acceptable, even common, to accuse political opponents of treason. The media, Congress and the intelligence services have all undermined themselves by repeating wild and unsubstan­tiated charges provided for them by Russian intelligence.” Satter, who is highly critical of Trump’s judgment and asserts that during the 2016 campaign “there was legitimate concern about the competence of Mr. Trump” and his policies, still concludes that Russian disinformation had nothing to do with Trump’s election. “The ultimate target was American society,” and ­Putin’s ­devious tactics achieved, with the help of naive and self-righteous Americans, “the greatest triumph of disinformation in the history of Soviet and Russian active measures.”

If we are not careful, our polity will come to resemble Russia’s, wherein the only legitimate elections are those our side wins and the only permitted speech is the truth as our side perceives it. Satter cites Andrei Sakharov: “The history of our country should serve as a warning.”

Perhaps we, too, need to reaffirm our faith in democratic values, including the legitimacy of opposing views and the importance of shifting power from one party to another. If America is to avoid resembling Russia’s “managed democracy,” its citizens must reject unsubstan­tiated, exaggerated accusations and cease justifying any means of defeating their opponents. Academics and journalists must not feel entitled to deem false anything that might help the other side. Partisan “fact checking” recalls the Soviet assumption that a fact is whatever suits our interests.

For such an improvement to happen, we must rediscover our faith in our founding principles and rededicate ourselves to ultimate values. In the West, that means overcoming the idea that the highest goal of life is individual happiness, and that the search for transcendent meaning can be set aside. “If a personality is not directed at values higher than the self,” Solzhenitsyn observed, “corruption and decay inevitably take hold. . . . There can be only one true Progress: the sum total of the spiritual progress of individuals.”

Gary Saul Morson is Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University.

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