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“The big problem is that there are no rules or protection for an individual and his property”

During his stay in Kyiv American opinion journalist and political scientist David SATTER shared his opinion concerning the tendencies towards degeneration in post-Soviet States and how the West influences these processes
15 January, 17:47

Senior research fellow at the Hudson Institute, a research fellow for Hoover Institution, a Radio Liberty journalist David SATTER in the 1970s was a Moscow correspondent in The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal. David has written three books. One of them, Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union, Yale University Press, 2001, served the basis for the eponymous documentary journalist shot jointly with Russian film director Andrei Nekrasov. It has been launched in Washington, London, and Moscow. To Western audience, interested in the topic, it can explain many things, like what was the Soviet Union like, what the Soviet person was like, and what post-Soviet person is like. However, one of the paradoxes of the countries of the former USSR is that we, living in this space, need this explanation as well. In these terms, it would be hard to find for Age of Delirium a more thankful audience than Euromaidan. Namely in the Maidan the Kyiv premiere of the film, which includes Ukrainian stories, took place. The screening on the stage of the Free University can hardly be called illogical. On the other hand, the big stage of Euromaidan (like the country on the whole) deserves something greater, more creative and intelligent than the plots about “good ex-premier and bad president,” which have for some reason been included in the program until recently.

Meanwhile, several “diary notes” written by David Satter, in which the journalist asserts that the Euromaidan is organized like a medieval town, anticipating an attack, can be read on the website of the Russian office of Radio Liberty. This is an interesting comparison which can mean, among other things, that our Renaissance will come soon.

In spite of the apparent priority of the Euromaidan topic, our conversation with the American opinion writer above all refers to more global, post-Soviet, topics.

What is your vision of the current situation in Russia and latest tendencies unfolding in the post-Soviet space? Many people find them disturbing.

“I think we can see tendencies toward degeneration everywhere in the former Soviet Union. Because those regimes don’t want to give up power, and they are trying to manipulate the country’s institutions to legitimize what is really a dictatorial rule. And under these circumstances people become more and more cynical, the ruling groups become more and more corrupt, and the system becomes more and more repressive.

“The thing is that if you don’t change the government periodically, the grievances of people build up, because there is no way of addressing those grievances. And this is what’s happening not just in Ukraine and Russia, but throughout the former USSR.”

But the change of government in Ukraine took place in 2004 – to no avail.

“The government was changed, but the structure of the society was not – the structure of the society, which was based on dishonest privatization. The reason why the dictators are able to rule behind the facade of seemingly democratic institutions, is that the power in the post-Soviet countries was seized illegally and dishonestly. And as a result people have no protection of the law. Under those circumstances property becomes a political weapon. If you oppose the authorities, your property can be taken away, if you support the authorities, you can accumulate huge amounts of property. And the economic power of those people who are supporting the regime and depend on the regime can be used to intimidate the ordinary people, who fear for their lives and for their jobs.

“The most important thing for the post-Soviet world was not the move from socialism, social ownership to private ownership, although that was important; the most important thing was to establish the rule of law. The rule of law was not established. Instead property was placed in private hands on the base of corruption and criminality.”

Whose mistake is this?

“It was the mistake of the whole world. On the one hand, it was the mistake of the so-called reformers in the post-Soviet countries, but they were also encouraged by the West, which did not really understand the nature of the problem.”

Does it now?

“Probably not, but they see the results and they understand that the results are not good. But the reasons why what happened are not clear to them, as a rule, I mean there are exceptions, of course. On the whole it is very hard for a Western person to understand post-Soviet mentality. They have different instincts and often they simply don’t understand how people here can be so cynical. Now there is considerably more information than in Soviet times, but in terms of the ability to evaluate the realities of the society, I am not sure that this ability has grown much over the past several decades. By the way, this misunderstanding is mutual.”

What do you think about non-signing of the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine? Should we expect some terrible outcomes resulting from this event for Eastern Europe, Europe on the whole, and Russia?

“It means that Ukraine is forced back into the Russian orbit. One of the greatest advantages of the Association with the EU is the possibility to put pressure on the Ukrainian government to obey the law. The big problem with Ukrainian society – and Russian society as well – is that there are no rules, there’s no law, there’s no protection for the individual, and there’s no protection for property. Under these circumstances, of course, it is impossible to have a normal democratic government. And signing of the EU agreement would have created the conditions for beginning to establish some real rules, real regulations, real laws, capable of protecting people against arbitrary political power.”


Lately the possibility of splitting is being more actively discussed in Russia, this is no more a marginal topic only some people talk about, like it was several years ago. The State Duma even approved the law which forbids discussion of this problem. Are factors that may lead to Russia’s split apparent for you?

“The so-called Russian Federation (‘so-called,’ because people in federations should be able to elect the governors) could begin to fall apart on national grounds. For example, the North Caucasus is already almost monoethnic, the Russians who live in the North Caucasus are mostly left. The Volga region is heavily Muslim. And there are other groups. There’s Kalmykia, Chuvashia. There are places that could, under certain circumstances, declare themselves to be separate countries. I think that there is a possibility that some of these regions, particularly the North Caucasus, might separate from Russia. And there are people in Russia, nationalists, who would actually welcome that kind of outcome.

“Russia can hold together as a country, but the question is, whether it can avoid social turmoil, if oil prices, oil and gas prices collapse, because the great profits that come in as a result of high prices for energy are not used to create the conditions for a modern economy. It all went into consumption and under those circumstances the country is very vulnerable to collapse in oil prices.

“On the other hand, Russian people have traditionally been willing to tolerate low living standards. Whether they will be still willing to do it now, after they’ve experienced a little bit of prosperity, I don’t know. That’s a big question.”

During our previous talk you said that Maidan is possible in Russia. Many people opposed you. Why do you think it is possible?

“I remember January 1991, when 500,000 people took to the streets of Moscow, to protest the killings in Lithuania in January 1991. And perestroika has shown that Russians are capable of organizing and organizing rather well actually. I think it depends on conditions and also it depends on a spark that’s capable of inspiring people to finally rise up. In Kyiv I don’t think we would have Maidan if the authorities had not beaten those students. I was thinking of the peaceful protests that led to the fall of Communism, the demonstrations that led to the cancellation of Article 6 in the Soviet Constitution. And there were also about 500,000 people in the center of Moscow, also peaceful, well-organized. I’m just saying we have to be careful with generalizing about what people are capable and what they are not capable of.”

After being released Mikhail Khodorkovsky has made a statement that Putin’s stand concerning Ukraine is beneficial for Germany. What did he mean by saying that?

“In my opinion, this is a very strange statement. I assume that he does not have complete freedom of speech. And we don’t know all the details of his liberation.

“But I think that the Western powers are going to be cautious about the way they support protests here. I think the long and short of it is that it is up to Ukrainian people themselves to find the way.

“There are many talks whether there should be Western sanctions against Yanukovych. Definitely, there should be if they can find that he’s breaking the law. But I’m not sure what they know and what they don’t know.”

Talking about the sanctions, do you think that the Magnitsky Law was effective?

“I don’t know; it’s hard for me to judge the concrete effects. But symbolically it was very important. It showed what the world thinks of this kind of murder. I believe it forced people in the Russian bureaucracy, and maybe here in Ukraine, too, to maybe think twice about participating in crimes.”

So, that’s the only thing that can make them think about it?

“Well, they certainly are not going to be influenced by any feelings of morality – that’s for sure.”

We can assume that the West has a great responsibility for what is going on here.

“The problem is that the great responsibility is on the shoulders of the people of these regions. After all, to rely on the West too much is a mistake, because first of all they all have their own concerns, but also Western people do not always understand what is going on here. This is a different era. We are living in a post-Soviet, post-Communist era. And it’s a mediocre era. Look at the US. What are people in the US talking about? They are talking about the health insurance, about the budget, economic questions, gay marriage. These issues are very narrow, they affect people in the US, but they are not world-historical issues. They are not philosophical issues.”

As a historian, do you think that post-Soviet space can make them think about global things?

“Not really. Basically, what’s going on in these countries is a threat, but it’s a threat to the people of these countries, first of all.”

What about the so-called caviar diplomacy? Does not it pose a threat to the West?

“It’s corruption, but it’s not a threat to the security of the West, because the post-Soviet countries are too weak. Russia can cause problems for the West. And it will. But causing problems is one thing. In the time of the Soviet Union that was a danger.”


In your opinion, how far are Ukrainian and Russian societies from the image of Soviet person, a type of person created by the Soviet system?

“This is a very difficult question, because in many ways there’s been change in both countries, and even in the countries of Central Asia. There’s been change. But the most important thing has not changed in Russia. And that is the failure to respect the individual. Ukraine in this sense has made more progress, and Maidan is proof of this.”

The film Age of Delirium, which is based on your book, includes several stories about Ukraine. For example, about the Donbas, a specific region, from which our president comes, as well as many people who are ruling the country. The heroes of the film are afraid of history, they don’t want to talk about it, avoid memories, like many Ukrainians in other regions. There is no doubt that this feature is to a large extent crucial for present-day Ukraine. But on the other hand, a monument to Lenin in Kyiv has been fallen down recently. There are different opinions regarding this event. As a historian, do you feel that people are ready to accept the non-Soviet interpretation of history?

“This is a very serious question. There are many things they should understand. It’s hard to say many things to people. Surprisingly, people in Ukraine don’t even want to hear about the Holodomor.

“My ancestors came from Kyiv. My grandparents on my mother’s side left Kyiv in 1913. And if they hadn’t left, they would have ended up probably in Babyn Yar. I went to Babyn Yar myself several years ago to see it, and I was so disappointed that a place where hundreds thousands of people were murdered is so little respected.

“It’s a reflection in both cases of a failure to value the individual. If those dead don’t mean anything, then what about us, living people? Do we mean anything? Are we worth of anything? If we don’t face those crimes and don’t try to memorialize those people who were killed?

“It instilled fear in people, and with the help of this fear and this terror they created a new Soviet man. And a new Soviet man is a person who does not take any moral responsibility, does not see himself as an individual, but is just a cog in the mechanism of the state. We have many of these cogs in Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries, who don’t think for themselves, who are just satisfied with low living standards, they don’t think about standing up for their rights and for their beliefs. Each person has to liberate himself, to think about, to value himself and to value others.

“The Maidan events are a huge step ahead. People try to say: we deserve a better life, we don’t accept this attitude as a normal, we demand to be respected, and we demand human individual and human dignity to be respected. That’s the key to the future.”

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