Wednesday, September 14, 2016

"The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep"

This is the title of David Satter's most recent book, a translation of the Russian saying: Меньше знаешь, крепче спишь. Some might argue that this is a saying that sums up a good deal of Russian history and, alas, the Russian people's attitude. The book is about the transition from the Yeltsin era to the Putin one and deals, particularly, with the infamous apartment block explosions in 1999, which launched the second Chechnyan war and brought an unknown politician and former KGB and FSB officer, Vladimir Putin into prominence.

I shall be writing about the book at a later stage but now I shall concentrate on David's talk given yesterday to the Henry Jackson Society. (Full declaration of interest: David Satter is a good friend.) To anyone who has looked at that terrifying story and at the extraordinarily high death rate among people who tried to investigate what happened when those four apartment blocks blew up and when the fifth one did not, the answer seems obvious: it was a provocation organized by the FSB in order to get Yeltsin off the hook (his popularity had sunk to about 2 per cent), get a "reliable" person into the presidential seat and divert attention from all Russia's problems to just one, Chechnya, where the first war had been a costly and vicious disaster. (The second one is no better only with greater levels of cruelty.) While 9/11 truthers are coming up with ever more bizarre stories, this remains the reality but the breathtaking cynicism behind it and the readiness on the part of the Russian political elite to kill their own people in order to achieve their particular nasty aims makes it difficult for many to accept that this is what happened. In fact, I have heard at least one person who is well in with officialdom proclaim that he knew nobody, nobody at all who believed that it was the FSB. My reply was that I knew nobody, either Russian and British who did not believe that it was the FSB and that happens to be true.

David Satter started with the Yeltsin years and the catastrophe they turned out to be. This, I think, is a tremendous shame as the beginning of the period did seem quite hopeful. Indeed, looking back on those years from where we are now, they still seem quite hopeful. I agree with David that Yeltsin was not a democrat in any real sense and was, in many ways, an inadequate leader and wrote so when he died.

The problem, David Satter said, is the strong misunderstanding of what was required to extirpate the Marxist/Communist system, which grew out of a misunderstanding of the system itself. When the Soviet Union collapsed the assumption was in the successor states as well as the myriads of Western advisers and, let us face it, people who were hoping to benefit personally, that the main problem was economic and privatization of state property, which was practically everything, will solve it all. Of course, some of us said even at the time that privatization without an understanding of the rule of law will not work.

Communism first and foremost was a system of morality that had led to complete immorality and criminality. There is no place here to discuss all that but it is clear and was even in the early nineties that to overcome its noxious effects, another system of morality had to be established. Sadly, there were very few people who could produce this (the Russian Orthodox Church being notoriously deficient in ideas that oppose the state) and even fewer who could put them into practice. The great academician Sakharov died far too early.

So privatization proceeded with little regard as to who benefited and far too many people lost out economically and intellectually in that what they had been supposed to believe disappeared almost overnight with nothing in its place. To some extent people gave up and that explains Putin's early popularity: he was going to hand something back to Russia and Russians. For various reasons, not unconnected with the rise in oil and gas prices he also presided over a period when more people had a materially better life than anyone in Russia could recall.

Putin's present popularity, which, inevitably was raised in discussion is based on the various lies and distortions that the now almost completely state controlled media pours out but it is also questionable. The recent news that the only independent polling organization, Levada, has been named "a foreign agent" by the Ministry of Justice thus making its work well-nigh impossible indicates a fear in the Kremlin that their polling results will not be the ones that are wanted.

One could say that they are lucky. The infamous census of 1937, which showed a far lower population in the USSR than expected (after collectivization and the attendant famine as well as the early purge arrests) the results were destroyed and those who conducted it arrested and sent to the Gulag. A new census was conducted in 1939 after two more years of frenzied arrests, deaths and executions with the figures coming out considerably more favourably than in 1937. Go figure.

David Satter's view is that Russia is now in a grip of a mass psychosis and he speculated what would have happened if the explanations for the explosions (it was the Chechnyans though there was a complete denial on their part and the explosions did not bring about a favourable situation for them) and, especially, the fifth would-be explosion (it was just a test to see whether people are aware of the danger) had been met with the sort of open scepticism in Russia and abroad that they deserved.

Would Russia have avoided the Nord-Ost siege of 2002 and the Beslan school siege of 2004, both started by Chechnyan terrorists but both witnessing a far higher number of hostages killed by the OMON personnel? Would we have seen the invasion of Georgia, the occupation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine that has already claimed something like 100,000 victims? Impossible to tell. But as Putin has started so he has gone on and the ending of the story is not going to be good for anyone.

It is, as David Satter said, and I entirely agree with him, the duty of Western politicians, writers, journalists, analysts and intellectuals (whoever they may be) to tell the truth about the regime and about its origins. That includes not "forgetting" about those apartment blocks as too many people seem to.

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