WASHINGTON, May 23 (UPI) -- Washington policy-makers and pundits have shared the comfortable assumption in recent years that Russia Does Not Matter Anymore and that simultaneously it has been Saved for Democracy. They should read "Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State," David Satter's vivid, impeccably researched and truly frightening new book published by Yale University Press (314 pages, $29.95, 2003), and think again.
To anyone who has covered Russia or visited often over the past decade, most of the case studies, scandals and problems examined in "Darkness at Dawn" will not come as any surprise. But what Satter has done is to re-examine these individual cases and show their interconnections with each other, like putting together the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. He does so in such a way that both the expert on Russia and the casual reader wishing to be informed can be left with only one conclusion: One of the two major thermonuclear superpowers in the world, and the only one left with Multiple-Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicles on its nuclear missiles remains unstable, unpredictable, and is dangerously close to becoming a ruthless, predatory and unpredictable criminal state.
Something -- in fact, a lots of things -- went terribly wrong during the early 1990s transition of Russia from State Communism to a supposed free market economy. Many others detailed the problems of transition in detail as they were happening, but Satter maps the contours of the debris that was left.
Without any stable legal structure governing the owning and trading of property and wealth or the regulation of business transactions in the decade after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russian society became totally criminalized, not merely in its day-to-day dealings but in the widespread existential consciousness of its people. Russia's newly emergent oligarchs have often been nicknamed "Robber Barons" after the Gilded Age plutocrats of late 19th-century industrial America, but the term is a misnomer in all too many ways. Industrial titans like John D. Rockefeller in oil and Andrew Carnegie in steel built huge business empires and acquired enormous power. But they did so within an ordered society, built tremendous industrial infrastructures that generated wealth for generations after them, and felt obligations towards it. Rockefeller and Carnegie, like the Ford family after them donated hundreds of millions of dollars to enormous, organized philanthropies that immeasurably boosted education, health and culture, first across the United States and then across the wider world. The Robber Barons of President Boris Yeltsin's Russia really were that. They created an industrial and socio-economic desolation and called it peace.
Satter takes his readers through the seven circles of this modern, all too physically real hell. He explores the alleged role of Russia's Federal Security Service, the FSB, in the terror bombings of apartment buildings that killed hundreds of ordinary Russians in their sleep and provided the main pretext for the 1999 Chechnya war. He documents how the worst old Soviet-era traditions of excessive secrecy and xenophobic paranoia in the Russian Navy's high command doomed the surviving sailors of the mighty Oscar II class nuclear killer submarine Kursk when a faulty torpedo detonated during a test firing, sending its 118 crew members to their deaths at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean in August 2000.
He shows how an innocent young Russian beauty queen made the biggest -- and last -- mistake of her life in getting romantically involved with a respected hired killer and what happened to both of them. He traces the gangster struggles for control of cities, banks, industrial complexes, even entire provinces each of which is larger than any other major European nation. And he vividly documents the casual violence that the protagonists in these -- literal --wars take for granted, making Al Capone and his colleagues look like disciples of Mother Teresa by contrast.
Things have stabilized, and somewhat improved since President Vladimir Putin succeeded Yeltsin. But the criminalized, rapacious super-oligarchs, those billionaire modern barons, retain control of the Commanding Heights of the Russian economy.
Beneath them, a society of 145 million people stretching across almost one-seventh of the land surface of the planet remain mired in poverty, despair and a moral squalor even more devastating than their physical one. Russia's population continues to implode with soaring death rates and plummeting birth rates. The underlying reason for this, far more than the collapse of living standards in the 1990s was, Satter concludes, that most of those people had lost all hope. They now despaired of things ever getting better.
Satter plays Dante, taking his readers on a comprehensive tour of this thermonuclear-armed Inferno. Reading his relentlessly grim, implacably documented accounts is to be reminded of D.H. Lawrence's prescient vision on observing the crazed gaiety and brilliance of Weimar Germany in the 1920s. Beneath the surface dazzle, the great British writer noted, a huge chasm had opened up -- moral and spiritual even more than economic and social. Superficial politics alone could not bridge it. From that gaping abyss emerged: Adolf Hitler.
There is still time for Russia to stabilize and for those who wish her well to support the constructive forces for good within her. But most of the promise has been squandered, and the Hobbesian nightmare of a society of chaos, red in tooth and claw, remains the dominant reality today.
Western policy-makers, especially in Washington, would do well to study these pages and to ponder the teachings of the great Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev with which Satter closes this important, troubling book: "In the soul of the Russian people there should appear ... a transfiguring and creative beginning." Only then, "the creative instincts will defeat the rapacious ones."