'Darkness at Dawn' -- Russia in chaos

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State, by David Satter. Yale University Press. 352 pages. $29.95.

Anyone confident that the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein will lead to a prosperous and free Iraq a decade hence might want to read David Satter's relentlessly grim portrait of Russia in the years after the fall of Communism. It is a bitter cure for optimism.

There is little here of Boris Yeltsin or Vladimir Putin. Instead, Satter recounts the darkest episodes in post-Soviet Russia from the point of view of ordinary Russians. The stories accumulate as a powerful case for the prosecution, but the nature of the crime and its perpetrator remain frustratingly unclear.

Satter, who has worked off and on since the 1970s as Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and other publications, tells engrossing tales of brazen chicanery, official greed and unbearable suffering.

In outline, the stories are familiar from the news: The submarine Kursk sinks, and officials torment the sailors' families with a series of lies. Pyramid schemes rob millions of naive working Russians of their life savings. Criminal gangs take over huge industrial enterprises.

But Satter manages to bring the events to life with excruciating accounts of real Russians whose lives were shattered.

The most disturbing chapter recounts the series of bombs that went off in 1999 in Russian cities, leveling apartment buildings and killing more than 200 people. Officials blamed terrorists, and the attacks rallied the country against the presumed Chechen enemy, setting the stage for Putin's rise to power and popularity.

In Ryazan, however, alert residents of one building reported suspicious loiterers, leading to a discovery by the police of what appeared to be a powerful bomb. A few days later, the national FSB security agency announced that the explosives were fakes and the whole incident was merely an exercise.

Following in the footsteps of numerous Russian and Western journalists, Satter lays out a persuasive case that the bomb in Ryazan was real, and was planted by the FSB itself as a provocation. If that's so, then the bombs that did explode may also have been the work of the Russian government, Satter suggests.

Here's the rub: Such a state crime is so monstrous that the reader wants an impartial, dispassionate weighing of evidence. But Satter's footnotes do not make clear how much of the reporting is his own and how much was borrowed from the not-always-reliable Russian press. In addition, he seems so eager to believe the worst that he does not come across as an objective guide.

While Satter's vivid chronicle of corruption, incompetence and gangsterism is worth reading, he fails to offer a convincing analysis of why things went wrong.

The subtitle of Darkness at Dawn -- a play on Arthur Koestler's 1941 novel of Soviet totalitarianism, Darkness at Noon -- refers to the rise of a Russian criminal state. But Stalin created a criminal state in Russia far more omnipotent and murderous than this one. The current troubles seem to me to reflect more the agonizing process of disentangling a country and people from the Soviet system than the rise of something truly new.

In too-brief comments, Satter blames the sorry state of Russia on an absence of "higher values" leaving a "moral vacuum." He declares that Russia's very "survival" is in doubt.

But those who claim "higher values" -- the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, al-Qaida -- often deliver slaughter instead of salvation. Satter's tendentious account leaves out some hopeful signs of economic progress and civil society in post-Soviet Russia. And a people that survived Stalin and the loss of 27 million people in World War II surely will weather the worst that thieving oligarchs and conniving politicians can do.

Scott Shane, a reporter for The Sun, was the newspaper's Moscow correspondent from 1988 to 1991 and is the author of Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union.

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