A new book ‘The Less You Know the Better You Sleep’ by David Satter, a well-known political writer and specialist on Russia was released in the U.S. In his book, he recounts the history of post-communist Russia through the prism of provocations and terror against its own people perpetrated by the government under both Yeltsin and Putin. Atlas Corps Fellow Yury Terekhov met David Satter in Washington and talked to him about the new book and the fate of Russia.
Mr Satter, you became the first American journalist to be expelled from Russia since the end of the Cold War. Do Russian media outlets fear to talk to you? How could you characterize the regime in Russia: a hybrid one, dictatorship, anything else?
The Russian media is willing to talk to me, even representatives of Russian television call me and request interviews, but they request that I speak to them from the United States at a time when I am not allowed to travel to Russia. I explain to them that I will not give any interviews until I am able to give them in Moscow. Of course, even in Moscow, it is not wise to give interviews to Russian state television. Their intention is to give an impression of a difference of opinion. But once an interview is in their hands there is no guarantee that they would use it ethically and objectively and present the thoughts as they are expressed. But in return for a complete lifting of the ban on traveling to Russia, I am willing to take that chance.
‘Hybrid’, as applied to a regime or armed conflict, is one of those words that enter into use and instead of facilitating thought, actually confuse it. I would prefer to say that the Russian regime is a dictatorship based on manipulation and the use of selective terror. There is no mass terror at the moment but that is a possibility for a future. Those in Russia who go beyond certain ill-defined limits in Russia can suffer the fate of Boris Nemtsov or Anna Politkovskaya. The examples of these political murders definitely have an intimidating effect on everyone else.
Your new book ‘The Less You Know the Better You Sleep’ is full of facts about the Putin regime’s crimes against its own citizens. It contains a ready list of charges for a trial. The facts mostly are well-known by the Russian opposition activists and many journalists. Who is the main recipient of this book? What reaction do you expect from the audience?
First of all, I can’t agree that the facts in the book are well-known to the Russian public and to the Russian liberal opposition. The Russian opposition has a lot of work to do in terms of recognizing the truth about Russia’s post-communist history beginning with 1991-1992. The fact that 1993 dispersal of the Parliament was a criminal act and Yeltsin was responsible for the massacre at the Ostankino television tower is not well understood. But this, as I argue in my book, is demonstrated by the evidence. It is not understood by the Russian liberal opposition that Yeltsin was basically as bad as Putin. The crimes committed by Yeltsin are on same level as the crimes committed by Putin. The 1995 carpet bombing of Grozny is believed to have cost lives of 20,000 people. And it was Yeltsin who was responsible for the apartment bombings, even if he was unaware and incapacitated, which is far from certain. This message has not really been assimilated by the opposition which idealizes Yeltsin.
The apartment bombings themselves were a calculated provocation carried out by FSB. This is another point that is not yet understood by the opposition. For the opposition all the horrors began in 2000 after the elevation of Putin but no one can explain how it happened that a ‘wonderful’ leader like Yeltsin picked a horror like Putin to succeed him. Was it just a terrible mistake? Or was it something deliberate? I think the evidence shows it was absolutely deliberate. Putin was the fifth prime minister in 18 months and Yeltsin was clearly searching for someone he could trust to protect him and his family if they ever left office.
So, the issue of the Russian public cannot be overlooked. The book is directed to the Russian public and also to the American public. The Russian public of course knows much more about what’s going on in the country. But the fact is that the Russian public and the Russian liberal opposition are in thrall to misconceptions and their own unwillingness to know the truth, particularly about the Yeltsin period. Yeltsin created the foundations for this regime by presiding over the criminalization of the country. I would like Americans to understand the same things I would like Russians to understand. Americans don’t have a vested interest in avoiding the truth in the way that many Russians do. Many are willing to face the truth if it’s explained to them with the exception of those people in government and the establishment who justify the policies and personality of Yeltsin to justify themselves and for career reasons. But ordinary Americans are ready and willing to face the truth if it is accompanied by convincing explanations.
In your book post-Soviet Russia is represented not just as a corrupt state but as a brutal mafia structure based on lies and violence. How should the West treat this murderous power that has a nuclear weapon?
The first rule always is to base international relations on an accurate understanding of the country with which you are having dealings. The problem with American policy is that our picture of Russia does not conform with the reality of Russia. When we look at Russia we see only ourselves: we see they have McDonald’s, nice cars and they like to travel, dress well and do the things that we consider ordinary people do. Of course, they speak a foreign language, but we take it for granted that if they have anything important to say they learn English. It’s not really the custom of Americans to try to understand a different psychology and to recognize that Russians have a different set of values and that their society is very different.
As a result, I’m afraid that the book I have written will strike many Americans as a report from outer space because when we talk about vices during an election campaign we talk about Donald Trump exposing the infidelities of Bill Clinton, we don’t talk about Donald Trump or of Hillary planting a bomb in a building full of innocent civilians in order to blame the explosion on their political opponents. But once you accept the unacceptable, once you believe the unbelievable, you are taking the first step to understanding Russia and you will then have a sense of what needs to be done in order to bring Russia under control.
At the same time, understanding the truth, expressing the truth, and not censoring oneself is a way of deterring the violent behavior of the Russian authorities. If they know that the other side actually understands what they are they will think twice about initiating aggressive acts because they will fear that a psychologically well prepared opponent will act resolutely to resist them. If we treat Russia as something different from what it is we are encouraging them to take advantage of our naivety. We have hundreds of issues with Russia. Some of these issues are rather small, they can involve trade agreements, for example, or bilateral exchanges, some of them are major like should we station missiles in Eastern Europe as a defensive measure. As we discuss these questions, the overarching consideration is whether Russia is an outlaw or a responsible power that can be counted on to tell the truth. All of our experience shows that Russia is an outlaw. This is why it is important to show strength in relations with Russia. But the task of showing strength begins with our having the strength, in America, to make an intellectual effort to understand a culture and a nation that is very different from the U.S. If we make that effort, our decisions will be wiser.