Never Speak to Strangers: Russia and the Soviet Union
(David Satter, April 4, 2021)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
David Satter, a former Moscow correspondent, is a long time observer of Russia and the former Soviet Union. He is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow of the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Satter was born in Chicago in 1947 and graduated from the University of Chicago and Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar and earned a B.Litt degree in political philosophy. He worked for four years as a police reporter for the Chicago Tribune and, in 1976, he was named Moscow correspondent of the London Financial Times. He worked in Moscow for six years, from 1976 to 1982, during which time he sought out Soviet citizens with the intention of preserving their accounts of the Soviet totalitarian system for posterity.
After completing his term in Moscow, Satter became a special correspondent on Soviet affairs for The Wall Street Journal, contributing to the paper’s editorial page. In 1990, he was named a Thornton Hooper fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and then a senior fellow at the Institute. From 2003 to 2008, he was a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. In 2008, he was also a visiting professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He teaches a course on contemporary Russian history at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced Academic Programs.
Satter has written three books about Russia: Russia: It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past (Yale, 2011); Age of Delirium: the Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union (Knopf, 1996; paperback, Yale 2001); and Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State (Yale 2003). His books have been translated into Russian, Estonian, Latvian, Czech, Portuguese and Vietnamese. His first book, Age of Delirium, has been made into a documentary film in a U.S. – Latvian – Russian joint production.
Satter has testified frequently on Russian affairs before Congressional committees. He has written extensively for the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. His articles and op-ed pieces have also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The National Interest, National Review, National Review Online, Forbes.com, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, The New York Sun, The New York Review of Books, Reader’s Digest and The Washington Times. He is frequently interviewed in both Russian and English by Radio Liberty, the Voice of America and the BBC Russian Service and has appeared on CNN, CNN International, BBC World, the Charlie Rose Show, Al Jazeera, France 24, Fox News, C-Span and ORT and RTR, the state run Russian television networks.
The views of the speaker are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Westminster Institute.
Robert R. Reilly:
Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Bob Reilly, your host. Today we are going to do something different. I am privileged to have a conversation with an expert on the Soviet Union and on contemporary Russia. I speak of David Satter, who is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. I began reading David Satter forty years ago when his brilliant pieces were appearing as op-eds in The Wall Street Journal. His writings in the Financial Times, National Review, and many other magazines, many of them written from the Soviet Union or Russia, from both of which he was expelled because of the kind of things he was reporting on which made things uncomfortable for the Soviet Union and then for the authoritarian Russian government.
Now, David has written five spellbinding books on the Soviet Union and Russia. I am just going to mention them very quickly. The first was Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union, on which he also made a prize-winning documentary film. Next, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State. Then, It was a Long Time Ago and it Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past, which is an absolutely riveting look at how Russians cope or refuse to cope with the communist legacy, and since David was there and had this on the ground experience and got some dirt in his hands as he went to some of the former killing grounds of the gulag, it is an indispensable book for anyone who wants to both understand the Soviet Union and why it has morphed into, in some respects, modern Russia today. The next book David wrote was, The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship Under Yeltsin and Putin.
Now, most recently David has put out a collection of his writings over a span of forty years from some of the journals I mentioned. It includes interviews and other kinds of writing he has done. It is called, Never Speak to Strangers and other writing from Russia and the Soviet Union: 1976 to 2019. I want to emphasize that you know all of these writings show a depth of understanding but are never academic dry as dry. They are really dramas, they are dramas of investigation and discovery. And David is a brilliant writer and these books are riveting. As I have been reading through his new book, I am so happy to have the gems that I remember from so many years ago collected in one place that shows how present his understanding was at the time and how accurately he foretold what most likely was coming next. So much of what he wrote in this is still relevant today and that is why David, I am so happy to have you with the Westminster Institute. Thank you for coming.
Well, thank you, Bob. I am very glad to be here glad to be engaged with you on this subject that is so important to both of us and I am sure to many of our viewers. Perhaps I can begin by talking a little bit about this most recent book because it brings together the articles that I have written in the course of more than 40 years and those articles chronicled not just the life of Russia and the Soviet Union, but in a way my life because I was so intimately connected with that part of the world and the events that took took place there. There is a lot of personal drama in here, absolutely. In a way this book is a kind of intellectual diary or an intellectual chronicle.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I was privileged to witness four different Russias: the Russia of Brezhnev, the Russia of Gorbachev, the Russia of Yeltsin and now the Russia of Putin. And those Russias were all quite different from each other, but at the same time they are fundamentally the same. What links these very different periods is a common attitude toward the individual, a common attitude toward the role of the state, a common attitude toward the necessary balance between the dignity of the individual and the prerogatives of those who are in power.
It is in fact the challenge for the future of Russia, at least in my opinion, to develop a regime which will not be like the four Russias that have preceded it. And one of the things that I have tried to do with my work and what I am trying to do now is suggest ways in which that could happen. I have devoted a lot of time and a lot of thought to what can be done exactly about a situation in which the individual is seen not as worthy of respect in his own right but is regarded as raw material for the deranged purposes of the state.
Under the Brezhnev regime, the individual was a builder of communism. He did not have identity of his own, he realized himself through his historic mission, of course which was defined by others, which was to build communism in the Soviet Union and then to extend the blessings of communism to the whole world. And it was this deranged idea that paradoxically gave a sense of meaning to what oftentimes were very deprived lives. People in the Soviet Union had few illusions about their standard of living. In fact, it was generally understood that the people in the West lived better than they did, that they lived worse than people in the West, but they compensated for that mentally with the idea that they had a great mission, that their lives had a purpose, that their country was capable of dominating the world and in fact inspiring fear.
I was constantly impressed by the extent to which Soviet people felt it was necessary to make other people afraid. It was a rather strange refrain that for a Westerner of course is quite surprising, that Soviet citizens said, ‘Well, you know the world is afraid of us,’ and they took that to be a very good thing because they understood their country less as a nation which was organized to guarantee the welfare and freedom of its inhabitants but as an organized messianic movement in the form of a political entity which existed not so much for its own sake but for the sake of its motivating idea.
Well, when Gorbachev came to power, he attempted to modernize this system, which had calcified and stagnated and had show and showed signs of slowing down and showed signs of not being able to compete militarily with the West. They understood that it could not compete economically, but that did not bother them very much. But the signs that it could not compete militarily had them very worried. In 1981, there was an air battle over the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon in which Israeli jets using American and Israeli technology destroyed 81 Syrian MiG fighters, which of course were acquired from the Soviet Union, without losing a single plane.
Well, that resonated in the Kremlin. They realized that Western countries were on the verge of mastering the new phase of the scientific-technical revolution and that their institutions were not capable of keeping up, that if there was going to be a new broad-based arms race, the Soviet Union was going to lose. Under those circumstances they were motivated and that was one of the motivations, but there were there were others as well, to undertake reform.
Those reforms however went nowhere because they were based on the use of force, on authoritarian methods, and they encountered the resistance of the party apparatus. Gorbachev himself was not able to reform anything. He relied on the party apparatus, on party officials at all levels, and if they decided to sabotage his plans, there was not very much he could do. And it was that dilemma that gave rise to glasnost.
But glasnost was fatal for the ideology because it opened up the idea that if people were given a little bit of free information, a little bit of freedom to speak, a little bit of freedom to demonstrate, it would put pressure on that recalcitrant party apparatus, which was refusing to carry out Gorbachev’s reforms. But in fact, a little bit of information is hard to control because it inspires demands for more information, and this is what happened. The limits of glasnost continually expanded until the ideology, which was an entire false version of reality, was in tatters and the legitimacy of the regime was hopelessly undermined.
A space had been created in a world of lies for the expression and examination of the truth and under those circumstances an unresolvable tension was created between the real world and the fictitious world that had long been imposed on rightless Soviet citizens. One or the other had to prevail and all the fault lines, the hidden fault lines in the Soviet Union, the national conflicts, the economic conflicts, even the conflicts within the party because the party was a monolithic structure as long as there was no possibility of disagreement.
But it was composed of people like any other human institution and as soon as the disagreement became a practical possibility, that tensions within the party apparatus appeared, it all culminated in August 1991 with the coup attempt, which was staged by people who were trying to preserve the Soviet Union and understood that Gorbachev’s policies would inevitably lead to the country’s collapse. Their coup attempt was unsuccessful and the Soviet Union survived for four months after the coup failed, and then it too became part of history. Gorbachev was replaced or the Gorbachev regime was replaced and Gorbachev’s Russia (in effect Gorbachev’s Soviet Union) by Yeltsin and Yeltsin’s Russia.
Now, the ideology we have to go back to. The ideology – because this is very important for Americans to understand, that there are countries that are based on ideologies. It is possible to have a regime based on an entirely fictitious version of reality and that our appreciation of reality and our system, which is ultimately anchored in transcendent values, is not a given, that there are places that absolutely destroy the values of the West and establish their own anti-systems. That is what happened in the Soviet Union.
Well, the key aspect of that ideology was not unique, but let us say in terms of the Western tradition, a dissenting understanding of the source of values in the West. As we know, all of Western tradition is based on the assumption that values are transcendent and they derive from higher sources over and above the realm of society. The Soviet Union took the view, and communist ideology took the view, that it was society itself that was the source of values. Of course, that part of society which they felt was enlightened, so therefore it was the interests of the working class that determined values.
Right and wrong were measured exclusively by what was in the interest of the working class, supposedly. The working class, in turn, was represented not by workers, but by a group of intellectuals who claim to speak for the workers, and that group of intellectuals was organized into a structure which made it possible to rule on the basis of the will of a single person.
The notion that values come from society, that they come from human entities was, of course, taken over by Nazi Germany. In the case of the Soviet Union, values originated based on the interests of the leading class. In Nazi Germany it was the leading race, but the idea is the same, and what was important was to reassert after the fall of the Soviet Union was the primacy of universal, transcendent values, the values that Judeo-Christianity established for the Western world and which formed the basis for societies, that acknowledge the rule of law and that are based on the rule of law.
Well, unfortunately one would have thought that was an inevitable and logical next step, but it did not happen. Of course, those people who called themselves young reformers paid lip service to the importance of establishing the authority of universal values, but all of their actions demonstrated that they retained a communist frame of reference. In particular, they took the view for which is fundamental to Marx’s thought, that all spiritual institutions ultimately derive, and all political institutions as well, ultimately derive from economic relations. Marx held that socialism is the abolition of private property.
Well, they simply turned that on their heads and they were trained as Marxists, by the way. Even though they said they were free-market radicals, much of their approach continued to be Marxist. They took the view that what really mattered were under were the economic relationships and everything else would would result from those, so if Marx took the view that abolishing private property would end exploitation, they took the view that restoring private property was the key to establishing democracy. And in both cases the processes would be automatic because history was determinist.
It, of course, did not work that way. Russia needed more than anything else the establishment of the rule of law and the kind of ethical practices that are an indispensable concomitant of a law-based state and basis for it. In the absence of that, what happened was the young reformers embarked on the largest peaceful transfer of property in history as far as we know, and they did so without the guidance of law, without the guidance of ethics, and what they got was complete criminalization. The transition from communism to market capitalism took a detour and what was created was gangsterism. The consequences for the Russian people were so devastating that it seemed all but impossible that Yeltsin or anyone connected to Yeltsin could remain in power after the year 2000 when there were elections.
But as we know, apartment buildings were blown up in the middle of the night. Hundreds of innocent people were killed. The bombings were blamed on Chechen rebels. They were the excuse for the launching of a new war against Chechnya, a new invasion of Chechnya. Initial success boosted the popularity of the newly appointed prime minister, Putin, a colorless bureaucrat that no one had ever heard of, and Putin was elected president to the surprise of many. His first act in office was to pardon Yeltsin for all crimes committed while he was president, and he launched the fourth and most recent phase in Russia’s modern history, which was the period of explicit non-communist dictatorship but authoritarian rule marked by provocation, assassination, crimes such as the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, but also – we must point this out – unprecedented prosperity for Russia because of the democrat, the capitalist, the market institutions that were created during the period of gangsterism, of open gangsterism.
Now we have gangsterism as a system, but nonetheless, market institutions were created and in the 2000s the world experienced the raw materials boom, of which Russia was the leading beneficiary. The combination of those factors was of immense use to Putin and the Putin leadership because it inspired an economic boom, and to this day Russians support Putin partly because of the transformation in the economic life of the country over which he presided. The moral issue of how he came to power, how he maintains power, what he intends to do in the future and how much freedom he intends to allow Russians; those issues were pushed aside by the spectacle of the long-awaited prosperity that began to affect people in Russia.
So today we have a country which, although not rich, is better off than it has been historically in economic terms, which is not free, but where the control of the population is mostly the result of manipulation backed up with selective terror, but not mass terror, but a country which nonetheless has a type of government that is too archaic for the educated population over which it rules and which has a mentality that is a potential and present danger for the rest of the world because whether it engages in mass killing or not, it holds to the notion that murder is an a normal part of political life, a normal way of settling quarrels and resolving disputes, and is determined to preserve itself and to undermine the West as a threat to its own existence because of the way in, because of the values on which it it operates.
So that is the story that is reflected in this book that I have compiled of my essays and articles, the kind of chronicle of my experiences, and my hope is we are now going to have a fifth chapter, but I want the fifth chapter to be different from the four preceding chapters and my view is that what Russia really needs and needs desperately is a truth commission. It needs the truth about the communist period, which has been buried, but it needs the truth about the post-communist period, including critical incidents like the blowing up of the buildings in 1999 that allowed Putin to come to power.
And then on the basis of the truth it needs a new constituent assembly. I mean students of history, of whom there are fewer and fewer these days, I am sorry to say, know that the Bolsheviks agitated for the constituent assembly and when it convened, they allowed it to meet for one day because they were a minority in the constituent assembly, which was to determine the new political system of the country.
Russia never really recovered from that. Everything that happened afterward reflected that critical event when those who had been freely elected from all parts of the country to determine the country’s future were dispersed. There needs to be a new constituent assembly capable of endowing Russia with a genuinely democratic system based on a real separation of power and with an awareness of the country’s history. Under those circumstances, the fifth chapter may well be different than the previous four. At least that is my hope for this country to which I have been connected for so many years.
Robert R. Reilly:
But David, would the culture allow for that?
I believe it would in part because of what I have seen over the years. I would have never thought that Russia could rid itself of communist ideology. It was so fundamental to the Soviet Union and to the way in which people lived and thought and yet it was discarded. And what we have now is not Marxism-Leninism, which after all was a false religion and functioned as one. I do not think that my life experience convinces me that the same person can have a radically different view of the world and of himself in a different situation.
I am presently writing a history of Russia after the fall of communism and I am recounting an incident that occurred in my life when I was approached by a person who was working as a security analyst for Gazprom, the big gas conglomerate. And he introduced himself and I in turn introduced myself. And he said, “Well, you do not have to introduce yourself. I know everything about you.” And it turned out that he was a former KGB colonel who had worked in counter-intelligence, and he had been responsible for monitoring the activities of Western correspondents, including me, and so he had been following everything I did throughout the six year period when I was a correspondent in Moscow for the Financial Times. And he began recalling the incidents and so on that he had overheard, listened to, seen.
But here is what was interesting. At that point this was the Yeltsin period and I was writing a book on the rise of the Russian criminal state, and he had become a liberal. When he was involved in counter-intelligence, he was involved in the apprehension of a man named Alexander Agarotnikov, who was a CIA agent in the Russian Foreign Ministry. And Alexander Agarotnikov after his arrest committed suicide. He took poison. This man’s name was Stanislaw Leckereff. He had a history of working on behalf of the regime, catching those who had in theory be traded or were working to undermine it in the case of Western correspondence.
You would have thought that this would be a real hardcore nationalist and communist. Nothing of the kind. He was, you know, once given the opportunity, he was a liberal and he was actually an active critic of the security services. And it was in his new role that in fact he wanted contact with me. Of course, he remembered me from the period when he was spying on me, so what I am trying to say here is that a person under one circumstances, under one set of circumstances, is one person. A person under a different set of circumstances is often a different person. It is the same a little bit within and because of my travels I have experienced this as well with the same place at a different time is a different place. And I think that the Russian people need to be liberated from a web of illusion and self-deception.
Robert R. Reilly:
But there is the truth commission you were calling for.
This is what is so important and there are a large number of Russians now who are living abroad who could play an important role in this. The emotional base of the authoritarian regime is not unchallengeable, it is not invincible. For one thing I have long been convinced that the truth about the apartment bombings and how Putin came to power is critical to Russia’s future and could have an important effect. Even people are not so cynical as to dismiss a crime of that magnitude, but of course, none of this is likely to be easy and there is a role for the United States, which we have historically not been able to play.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, you know it is interesting you mentioned Russians abroad. A good friend of mine who was a neighbor was a Russian physicist. His father was the conductor of a Soviet army orchestra. Obviously, he grew up an atheist. There was no mention of god in his house. Now, he has in the past several years converted to Russian Orthodoxy. He is going back to Russia to find the graves of his relatives who disappeared in the gulag, who would describe the profoundly moving experience that was. So he is sort of a one-man truth commission. The thing is though – and that is what is so profoundly moving about your work David, is that when you are over there, and it is not a surprise you have been kicked out, you are basically forcing them to face the situation, to face the past by your own trips to those grave sites and your own interviews with the people who are still alive, when they were utilized, and asking them what they thought was going on there, and if they participated, how they rationalize this. So no wonder you were thrown out.
And the other thing, the other problem that we face here is the superficial mindset of the West. We talk about the reluctance of Russians to face the truth, but there is a reluctance in the West. There is a reluctance in the U.S. to face the truth as well. It does not derive necessarily from a fear of personal consequences so much as an unwillingness to think outside of a familiar, comfortable, and conventional framework. I am often discouraged by the reluctance of Western political figures and intellectuals to simply draw the obvious conclusions. So it is not Russians alone, but definitely we saw how important the truth can be during the glasnost period. It was powerful enough to demolish the Soviet state. It is powerful enough now to help the Russian people embark on a new direction and a better direction for their future, but there have to be people who really appreciate that and are committed to it.
Well, as you well know, Navalny is in prison and apparently in pain and not receiving adequate medical treatment. This is the latest news, yeah. So he is Exhibit A that they are not going to allow precisely what you are calling for. Yes, and my only concern as far as Navalny is concerned is that his emphasis on corruption, although uncomfortable for the regime, does not reach the fundamental level of values because what is at stake in the problem in Russia is not corruption, it is murder and it is an attitude toward human life and toward the value of the individual. Of course, corruption. Corruption is a symptom. Corruption is a symptom that arises from this mentality of the interchangeability of people, of their lack of genuine worth, one that is ultimately what has to be addressed.
Of course, Navalny’s video is his – he is a superb investigative journalist, by the way, and his videos are very effective in showing the symptoms of the underlying disease, but from where are they going to derive this value of the individual person? I think that that, of course, requires leadership. It, of course, requires the readiness to face the truth. There have been those people even in the post-Soviet period who have appeared. One of them was my my good friend Yuri Shakachikan. There was Annapolita, the investigative journalist who was murdered.
There are people. I mean not all of them are internationally famous. A lot of them are not famous even in Russia itself, but we do not know who will be the protagonists of such a movement, but it is necessary that it can exist, the conditions for its emergence exist right now. A lot of the opposition activity is directed toward exposing corruption, which is okay. It is not a fundamental challenge to the regime, but there are people and I know them, I know their names, who are capable of addressing [this]. Andrei Sakharov of course did, but addressing Russia’s problems at the level at which they are, that they are opposed by history.
Robert R. Reilly:
But, well, of course, before I ask you how Solzhenitsyn is thought of today, give me your reaction to President Biden recently agreeing to the characterization of Putin as a murderer.
Well, I think that he was right to do so. It was very hesitant. He basically responded to a question and we have to remember that when a similar question was posed to President Trump, Trump said, ‘Well, we kill a lot of people too.” It was one of one of the worst statements made by an American president, but it is meaningless without specifics and the specifics exist. In fact, Biden is not the first American political figure to make this statement. Hillary Clinton also said this, but she was not president at the time. Senator Rubio said it. Various other people have made this statement, always without specifics, always in the style of kids in a playground calling each other names.
And it is interesting that Putin, responding to Biden’s remarks, said, “Well, you know as Russian school children say, you are calling me what you are,” so it has to go beyond this. In fact, I wrote a piece in The Wall Street Journal in which I gave the specifics and the most important, the murder of Boris Nemtsov, the shooting down of the Malaysian airline or the blowing up of the buildings. Those were three outstanding examples, but there are others.
I mean American journalism does not do anything that requires real penetration, real thought. I mean they will repeat crazy, unsubstantiated rumors or anonymous reports about the collusion of the Trump campaign with Russian intelligence, but when it comes to reporting on real crimes, where there is real information, and there are real sources, they are not able to do that. We get to what we were saying earlier about certain things being outside their frame of reference and basically over their heads and they do not want to make the effort to bring the truth about the Russian regime in all of its sordid detail to the American people and to people in Russia as well.
Robert R. Reilly:
But David where does that lead, one head of state calling another head of state a murderer or in laying out the specifics of what those murders have been, which you have done so well, in terms of a foreign policy? Where does that leave the United States?
You know there has been criticism for President Biden for having agreed with the remark of murderer, and some of it runs along the line of, well, you just pushed Putin and Russia further into the arms of President Xi because he has nowhere else to go, so he is deepening his strategic and military partnership with the PRC. I think that the value of raising these issues is to deter Russia from further crimes and also establishing the same thing with objecting to the seizure of Crimea, defending those international standards that are necessary for stability. I would not overestimate the extent to which speaking the truth to the Russian leaders pushes them in one direction or another. They are well aware of the truth.
The recent report – I do not know if it has been substantiated, substantiated that there is a Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s border. That may well be, but it was not because of anything that Biden said. We have to be careful about what we assume are the causal links. In Russia there is a proverb – I actually like it in some ways, but it very well expresses their attitude. It is, ‘a dog barks but the caravan continues’, and Russians are very good at distinguishing between verbal statements and concrete actions. They understand however that when those verbal statements are more than just words but reflect real knowledge, they begin to resemble concrete actions and become a factor in the power relationship between the countries.
It is to the advantage of the United States to define the relationship with Russia. Once defined they are not going to take revenge on us for [revealing] what they know themselves. They will rather adapt to our conditions and it is the same with anything else that develops in the relationship between Russia and the rest of the world. They will not turn to China because we demonstrate to them that we will not tolerate or we are not going to encourage their illegal behavior. They will moderate their illegal behavior or at the very least attempt to camouflage it. If they turn to China, it will be for completely different reasons.
If they mass troops on the Ukrainian border, the strong statements by the U.S. that indicate that we actually know the kind of regime that exists in Russia and we know the facts about their crimes will deter to the extent it is possible aggression against Ukraine just as much as the provision of military support and political support. We do not drive them into aggressive behavior by resisting it. On the contrary, we make it clear to them that they have nothing to gain.
You made the interesting remark characterizing the period under the Soviet Union when people obviously were not living very well but they took pride in this fact that we were afraid of them. The whole world was afraid of them. Even now with a better standard of living. As you know, Russia is an economy about the size of Italy’s. However, they have modernized their nuclear forces. They have some first-class military equipment. They have reformed their military and their incursions into the NATO airspace, their nuclear submarines poking through the ice cap and the arctic. There are activities in Libya, Syria, the Mediterranean. How does that resonate in Russia today? Are Russians the same way?
That still plays well, same way. When the Russians developed a supersonic missile, yeah, I got a call from a Russian newspaper. I usually do not talk to them but they have my telephone number. I mean I talk to them, but I do not give an interview. I am polite, of course, and they said, well, is this going to compel the U.S. to treat Russia with more respect? I said well, it has nothing to do with whether Russia is treated with more respect. If Russia wants to be treated with more respect, it should behave in a manner that it inspires respect.
Robert R. Reilly:
So David, you mentioned they still enjoy this prospect through the significant military power they possess of provoking fear in the West and what of the United States? And certainly you can say Putin has played his hand very well in gaining leverage in various places where the United States has neglected its traditional role or other players in the West.
Now, I wanted to ask you a larger question about Russian culture. In this book you do make reflections upon ideology and you were a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. After going to the University of Chicago, I was fascinated to learn that you wrote your thesis on the great and famous Hannah Arendt and her fabulous work on the 20th century on the origins and the nature of ideology. Without that background could you have seen so deeply as you have into the Soviet Union and how that ideology so thoroughly shaped and infected that country?
That is an interesting question. I have asked myself the same question because when I was at Oxford I wrote my thesis on the work of Hannah Arendt, her theory of totalitarianism, and then I ended up in the Soviet Union and saw it all firsthand. But in fact in my personal case, my views were also the result of a kind of evolution within my own family because I came from a family of people who were absolutely sympathetic toward the Soviet Union. My father was a delegate to the 1948 convention of the Progressive Party in Philadelphia where Henry Wallace was nominated for the presidency and he subscribed to left-wing periodicals. I grew up reading them like the National Guardian, which was at one time, you know, it was actually very well done. And I was fascinated by it as a child.
We lived in a neighborhood where there were many people who were either admitted or not admitted members of the Communist Party on the west side and south side of Chicago. We attended events at Hull House in Chicago, the Jane Addams Center, which was a gathering place for left-wing groups. There was a bookstore in Chicago called The Modern Bookstore, which sold thinly disguised or not even not disguised Soviet propaganda. In 1961, the 22nd Party Congress [was held]. My own father, I asked him as a young kid, what about these reports of slave labor camps? And he said that this was just an attempt to discredit the Soviet Union, if those camps had really existed, that we would have had information, we would have had witnesses, survivors, and so on. He horribly underestimated the repressive possibilities.
In 1961, Khrushchev made his remarks about especially the 22nd party congress, that there had been millions of victims. And my father was totally shocked by this news and he did not deny it, and did not justify it, and began a process of reevaluation, but unfortunately, he died in 1965. But I continued that process in my case, continued with my reading, so already by the time I had gotten to Oxford, I was already moving in that the direction. That would, of course, be greatly amplified by the work of Hannah Arendt, then as a young graduate student in Oxford traveling to the to the communist bloc and seeing the conditions firsthand, then going there and realizing that this was exactly what Arendt said it was: a diabolical attempt to impose a false reality by force on a helpless population.
So I mean in my personal case there was a process, which in fact existed for a lot of people. And I have read Arthur Kessler, The God That Failed, which was is still one of the greatest books written by ex-communists. In fact, you know you have to be able to get into the idea to understand its evil, and as I once told someone, he said, ‘to understand the weakness of communism, you first of all have to understand its strength,’ and those who were never attracted to it in any way have a tough time penetrating that very special mental universe.
Robert R. Reilly:
You have a very illuminating discussion in here about Nazism and communism and comparing the two forms of millenarianism. Hitler, the new messiah, the class is replaced by race, the Jews and the Gypsies become the new bourgeoisie that has to be eliminated and the Slavs enslaved, etc. Now, here is a larger question, again about Russian culture before the revolution in 1917. There was an idea in Russia of it as the third Rome.
Absolutely, it had a special, providential, maybe even messianic mission to play in the world, though as you well know, during the Cold War there were analysts who simply said, look, do not pay so much attention to communism, it is just an overlay on the traditional Russian character, which has these geopolitical interests and plus is animated by this idea of itself, this messianic idea of itself. You know just deal with it in that way and do not pay attention to the ideology. And they would therefore say there is really something fundamentally wrong with the Russian character. It does not matter in which current expression it takes itself. You see maybe Richard Pipes was a bit in that direction and his analysis, yeah, but then you would have to, of course, Russians themselves, Solzhenitsyn saying no, no, it is not something fundamentally wrong with the Russian character it is this ideology that is evil. This is the great debate within Russia itself between these camps.
Was the communist regime a logical expression of Russian history or was it something different? I think both are correct. I think that the drive to combine theory and practice and to impose an idea and combine religious and political authority, this has its roots in Russian history, but the absolutely amoral and even diabolical quality of the communist ideology when it imposed on that foundation set the stage for the mass slaughter, not just in Russia and the Soviet Union but in the countries that were affected by it as well. I mean we see countries where you did not have that historical background but where nonetheless the atrocities were known, were also horrific. And this is important to bear in mind, that because the communist expression, the denial of the spiritual beginning in a person, the utter denial that set the stage for the mass atrocities that followed and made them even logical, by the way, and that we deal with that residue today.
Growing up in Chicago, if we want to go back to sort of family history and the past, I have memory as a child of being absolutely irritated and angered by religious broadcasts on Sunday morning, which got in the way with of the cartoons that they used to show. The people who I considered totally uneducated, prattling on and on about dialectical materialism and the evils of dialectical materialism. And if there was anything that made me sympathize with the Soviet Union as a young kid, it was listening to these sermons Sunday morning on Chicago television about the evils of dialectical materialism, how it was reflected in communism in the Soviet Union. And my early impression was that these were the biggest idiots that ever existed, the people who were conveying these ideas.
So what happens? I go to Oxford, I study Hannah and write a thesis and go to the Soviet Union, understand that the essence of the Soviet system is the ideology. I study the ideology, start reading everything I can and what do I come up with? That the source of the evil is dialectical materialism, and I thought, well, they were right after all. And this goes back to question you posed, Bob, is can people change? Can the Russian people change, can they look at things in a different way and I have seen even in my own life that the same person with information, with experience, can change his views and in fact, we are, let us face it, we are all products of our information environment, I mean even the most informed among us.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, that raises an interesting question. What is the information environment in Russia now? What are they getting, they are not getting, what they should be getting?
The Putin regime is clever. They want to give the impression of vigorous opposition activity and so they tolerate a certain amount, but there are taboo subjects that you cannot really touch, and if somebody tries, I mean they can they can pay with their lives. It is not the manufacture of an entire false version of reality has existed during the Soviet period. Of course, there is on the other side there is massive pro-government manipulation and propaganda, the use of television and, of course, they know their own people very well.
They know the fact is when the Soviet Union fell, a psychological vacuum was created in the lives of many people. They lost the ideology that had given meaning to their lives and more important they lost the sense that they were part of something great and anyone. One of the reasons that Putin is popular is that he has been adept at playing on that feeling of loss, loss of empire, loss of status, and even if it is only in a very limited way, restoring to people some of the sense that they are part of a great power. And that is something that we need to bear in mind.
We need, you know, if we want to influence them, we have to show them that they are getting something in return for what they lose. They may lose that sense of being part of a great power, of threatening the rest of the world, but they gain a sense of individual dignity and that is the message that the West needs to convey. That is a message that the U.S. needs to convey to Russia. It is what we do not often succeed in doing.
Robert R. Reilly:
Russia had a great culture.
It has a great culture. I mean at the late 19th century, earliest 20th century. You can speak of a great cultural renaissance in Russia. It was an astonishing period of creativity in literature, in music, in philosophy. I can remember even having conversations with senior Soviet people, including a member of the politburo, and if I would delve into Russian literature, Russian music, they would light up and that is all they wanted to talk about. Well, this is a country with so much to be proud of and it is there. There is so much talent and potential there if they can be re-grounded in exactly what that made that possible. And I do not know today if in Russia’s education that it instills any pride in that.
You know, Bob, I just want to point out a paradox to you that even during the Soviet period there were tremendous cultural achievements. Oh, yes, and the paradox is the following that it is exactly that sense of danger, of oppression, of uncertainty about fundamental values that generates creativity. I mean I think that one of the problems we have in the United States today, why we see really kind of diminishing level, you know, of culture in our universities and in our newspapers, in our public life, even our political life. I mean I thought it was not particularly high before, but what we are seeing now is just shocking.
And partially it is because it is a product of a world at peace, by and large. The fact that the sense of danger has receded, the possibility of war, I mean a country wants to be at peace, but you always want in a society to be aware that the country could face a danger and therefore, you know, standards count. I think we may be returning to that sense of danger today. Many people see the danger coming from Russia. Many more see it coming principally from the PRC. Well, that may be the case. I mean whether it will generate the kind of reaction you are pointing to in which we recollect ourselves and return to those transcendent principles that made this place possible remains to be seen.
Robert R. Reilly:
David, I am afraid that we have run out of time, and I would like to thank you very much for this, for your remarks and this conversation and I cannot recommend more highly all of David’s writings and especially this this extraordinary tour through 40 years of his experiences in the Soviet Union and then in Russia, Never Speak to Strangers and Other Writings from Russia and the Soviet Union. David, thank you again. Thank you for joining us at the Westminster Institute. Please Google us. Go to the Westminster Institute website and you will see offerings of lectures and publications and I hope you will join us again in the future. Thank you.