Fear, Loathing, and Surrealism in Russia

The conception of the Soviet Union in the Western mind is often tinged with images of espionage, long bread lines, poverty, gulags, dissidence, propaganda, and other extreme forms of totalitarianism. While all of these are true, people generally don’t think about such matters on a deeper level. Instead, Western thinking about the Soviet Union was and remains an exercise in clear-cut dichotomies that included no nuance of human conditions. It’s “us versus them,” “truth versus lies,” “democracy versus Communism.” And on the other hand, there were those who actually believed the Soviet Union’s lies.

David Satter’s collection of writings about the Soviet Union and Russia, Never Speak to Strangers, brings a necessary depth to the Soviet and Russian experience. The collection features articles that Satter wrote as a correspondent for the Financial Times of London and for other newspapers and magazines, such as The Wall Street Journal and National Review. Satter arrived in the Soviet Union in 1976 and delivered commentary on the political situation until 1982, after which he was banned from being in the country. He was allowed to go back in 1990, only to be again forbidden from entering Russia in 2013.

These are not typical journalistic articles. Satter is a very intelligent observer of the culture, and the reader not only gets a sense of the practical matters that plagued Soviet citizens but also an in-depth understanding of ideology and the chaos it has caused for decades. Practically every piece in the collection either implies or explicitly asks philosophical questions that call on the reader to think deeply about the notion of ideology and the conditions a totalitarian regime brings. As Satter writes in the Introduction, he “observed four different Russias which managed to differ radically from each other while remaining essentially the same.” The key word here is “essentially,” because the essence of Russia is Satter’s underlying theme, brilliantly presented with real knowledge and understanding of the Russian character and the horrific impact Marxist-Leninist ideology has had on it.

Stalin’s Long Shadow

The darkness of the Soviet totalitarian regime that Satter describes is a direct legacy of Joseph Stalin, for it was Stalin—“literally ‘man of steel’ [who] created the modern Soviet state.” During the 1970s and 1980s, when Satter was writing, the Soviet leadership was unsure how to deal with Stalin’s legacy. Much as they would rather forget him, “they continue to exercise absolute power through the structure he created.” Every aspect of the late Soviet state can be linked to Stalin’s acts of terror. He “put his imprint on the Soviet State by effectively gathering all power into his own hands and then, through mass indiscriminate terror, putting an end to diversity Lenin had tolerated.” Stalin also “both realised Marxist ideology and discarded it, and this pattern too has become characteristic of the Soviet State.”

In addition, and most importantly, “Stalin’s rule left behind political passivity, because Soviet citizens came to take it for granted that all major decisions would be taken without their participation. It also left behind an abiding fear of the state machine on which the present Government freely draws.” What is fascinating about Satter’s observations and analysis is that the regime was always changing. The grip of totalitarianism still remained, but time passes, and generations change (even in some small, seemingly insignificant way), and so totalitarianism itself began to take a different form in order to suit the self-interest of the so-called leadership. Satter notes that in the post-Stalin Soviet Union, “foreign radio broadcasts” became somewhat available; “some previously banned poets” became “published in limited form.” The change was not meant to mechanically program people, “but simply to make it impossible for the average citizen to form a coherent view of the outside world.”

The initial thrust of Marxism was abandoned because Stalin was more interested in the preservation of his own absolute power. There seems to be a shift in the post-Stalin era that not only ideologically negated workers’ rights (one wonders whether such a cause really mattered to any leaders) but also became strangely lazy in catching and punishing dissidents. Being a dissident became a way of life for some people, and strangely, the Soviet totalitarian machine adapted to it. The Soviet authorities “tried to keep well known dissidents alive. They also spaced out the arrests of prominent dissidents, allowing many of them to continue their activities…”

The Daily Grind of Communism

This shift is most visible in the everyday lives of Soviet citizens. Satter has done an invaluable service to historians, philosophers, sociologists, and other thinkers by choosing to go below the surface of the Soviet experience. He immersed himself in the culture completely, especially by perfecting the Russian language. He notes that many other Western correspondents relied on translators to conduct interviews, but these were always provided by the KGB. Naturally, the information they gave was full of lies.

Those who survived the labor camps or the mental institutions couldn’t be touched anymore, psychologically speaking. The fear was gone, and the great totalitarian machine ceased to have its effect.

Satter comments on the deplorable conditions people were living in. In particular, we witness the plight of coal workers and their families, who lived in conditions not fit for an animal—no running water and barely enough food. Beyond such physical wants, there was also spiritual penury, which is not surprising given the fact that the entire state was proudly based on atheism. But most Soviet citizens met this religious repression with passive acquiescence. In one of the book’s opening passages, one that shockingly sounds more like a spy story than an essay, Satter encounters a woman on the train, Masha, who asked Satter whether he believed in God. After he answered affirmatively, Masha, “puzzled,” plainly said, “Here, no one believes in God.”

There is a kind of “dual consciousness” that Satter identifies in the Russian people, a sense of both helplessness and powerfulness. On the one hand, there is a great level of resignation to the events and conditions that surround them. At the same time, they feel more powerful than “naïve” Westerners who know nothing about the realities of Soviet life. In many ways, the Soviet citizens have internalized the ideology to the point of mechanical repetition, and as a result, they are unable to think critically about it, even if they may have slight recognition that they’re living in a totalitarian regime.

Yet even in the midst of this desolate, psychological wasteland, the Soviets made many attempts to live a good life. In one of the most curious pieces, Satter describes the holiday resort in Sochi as an “unofficial capital of the ‘Russian Riviera.’” Here, engineers, in particular, were allowed to go to spas and enjoy the coast but only in a way that was prescribed by the state. For the most part, the entire mission of such a resort was to give workers a place to rest together, mostly without their own families. Therefore, even a holiday became an act of collectivism, despite the appearance of freedom. The Soviets had convinced themselves that for a tiny bit of security, it was perfectly fine to accept the reality of collectivism and a lack of freedom. As Satter writes, “The Soviet Union was permeated by an ideology which, although absurd, created its own peculiar form of social consensus. Soviet citizens were provided with a minimum level of security and, in return, denied certain basic rights.” Individuality was sacrificed for the propagation of the collective and there was no end in sight.

The Fate of the Dissidents

This same principle of collectivism was applied when dealing with dissidents. These were not only intellectuals, who became political prisoners, but also any laborers who dared to ask questions about working conditions. In a piece from 1978, Satter writes that “The dissident movement has various elements—democratic dissidents, nationalists, the religious rights movement, Jews seeking to emigrate—but in general consists of people who have dedicated themselves to working for the creation of reliable political rights as the only means through which their other goals can be effectively realised.”

The dissidents were almost a “self-selected” class of their own. “They know their activities will end their careers and could mean that they go to prison.” Satter presents countless stories of specific individuals, whose fates ended either in death or slow destruction of life because of imprisonment.

The gulags were no longer reserved for political prisoners, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. At the point of Satter’s time in the Soviet Union, most prisoners in forced labor camps were what the state considered to be criminals: hooligans, disorderly alcoholics, and the like. This is not to say that political dissidents were not sent to the forced labor camps, but it appears that the totalitarian apparatus took a different approach in punishing intellectual protestors, namely by placing them in mental institutions, giving them an incredible amount of behavior-modifying drugs, and making sure that they were psychologically broken and completely mentally subjugated.

But even this couldn’t keep some people away from dissident activity. Authorities still kept the people in the perpetual state of terror Stalin had established years before, but those who survived the labor camps or the mental institutions couldn’t be touched anymore, psychologically speaking. The fear was gone, and the great totalitarian machine ceased to have its effect.

The End of Ideology?

Even as the regime began to collapse, Satter was not celebrating. Responding to Francis Fukuyama’s famous essay turned book, The End of History, Satter writes that Fukuyama’s essay “fails to appreciate the depth of totalitarianism’s challenge to the Western world.” Fukuyama’s observation that Marxism-Leninism has come to end, “assumes that the essence of Marxism-Leninism lies in specific political arrangements rather than in its overall spiritual pretensions; but what is distinctive about totalitarian regimes is their claim to be the source of morality and arbiter of truth.”

The Soviet Union, Satter writes, was “an unreal world where there is little connection between what [a man] is being told and what he knows to be true. . . . what is obviously black can frequently be referred to as white.”

According to Satter, Fukuyama’s theory, as admirable and intellectually sound it may be, was not grounded in real experience. He failed to understand that some form of collectivism will always emerge, and its existence depends on the willing masses. This is uncomfortable to hear because the Soviet citizens were clearly the victims of a terrible regime. However, many were beaten into submission or were simply unwilling to go beyond the unreality that was unfolding before their eyes. In fact, many believed the propaganda.

Continuing in his refutation of Fukuyama, Satter writes that “Totalitarian ideologies, no less than liberal ideas, exist as a potential prior to their realization.” They are “attractive because they claim to offer a way out of the spiritual crisis of modernity.” Once totalitarian ideologies take root, it is difficult to kill them off completely. The regime itself may collapse (which in the case of the Soviet Union clearly happened) but even at the moment of collapse, “the majority of the population” is still looking at life itself through the “prism” of ideology. Just as Stalin set up the framework of fear and terror, so later leaders set up the framework of psychological ideology.

Satter thinks that Fukuyama’s essay is significant, however, in that

it is illustrative of a worrisome tendency to assume that the West has won the battle of ideas—a battle which, in fact, it never fought. Such premature celebration distracts attention from the fact that that now, as the crisis of communism deepens, there is a pressing need to strengthen contact with the populations of communist countries and to foster those transcendent values which give Western society its moral structure.

The very reason why ideology reigns is a lack of ethical foundation.

Theater of the Absurd

Satter repeatedly writes about the lack of “moral structure” in the Soviet Union and, after its collapse, Russia. He superbly shows that this lack of universal human values and rights didn’t just appear out of nowhere, but was the result of one illusion after another that created a society entirely based on lies. It’s not surprising that Russia post-USSR is a country lost and mired in extreme corruption and organized crime. As a taxi driver so darkly and humorously observes, “Moscow was now divided into optimists, pessimists, and realists. The optimists were studying foreign languages and hoping to emigrate. The pessimists were refusing to do anything, on the grounds that all effort was pointless. The realists were buying Kalashnikovs.”

The Russian mind has been affected by ideology throughout the decades. Citing Russian satirist Vladimir Voinovich, Satter explains that “The tragedy of present-day Russia” lies in the fact that there never was a proper “transition from socialism to capitalism.” The citizens are told that fear and loathing of the West should still be the primary mode of being.

One of the most important aspects of this book, and hopefully a lesson to Americans, is the level of surrealism Satter describes. Even upon his immediate arrival in the Soviet Union, Satter writes that “ordinary Russians are cut off from outside sources of information and from foreigners, who live, shop, and work in special facilities.” This was “an unreal world where there is little connection between what [a man] is being told and what he knows to be true. Because of the control over information, what is obviously black can frequently be referred to as white.”

Today, Russian people are not passive but Satter warns that any “hope for change” depends on Russia’s ability to “establish a tradition of respect for the individual. This, however, cannot be done without facing the full truth about the past.” Satter’s ban in Russia is certainly an illustrative example of what he called the “bureaucratic trickery” of an increasingly authoritarian fist of Vladimir Putin.

As we currently engage in a battle between appearance and reality, propaganda and truth, and every other possible political absurdity, Satter’s book is highly recommended not merely because it is timely, but because it is written by an authentic journalist who is making a strenuous effort to uncover the truth, both literally and philosophically. We ought to pay close attention to Satter’s astute analysis that the Soviet Union’s, and now Russia’s, inability to function as a productive state was the result of a moral crisis. Without the moral framework, all we have left is totalitarian ideology, and one cannot build an authentic life and an authentic country on a lie.