Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Five top books on Putin and Russian history

Edward Lucas is international editor for The Economist. He has written two books about Russia, The New Cold War and Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West.

With Toby Ash at The Browser, he discussed five top books on Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin and Russian history, including:
It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway
by David Satter

[Y]our first book choice ... talks about this question of Russia coming to terms with its past. Please tell us more about It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway.

I think David Satter has really captured the role of the past in the present in Russia. He’s a very experienced correspondent from the Soviet era who has maintained his interest in post-Soviet Russia. He’s a really energetic, gumption reporter – he just goes to places that foreign correspondents don’t often go to in the provinces and follows up stories he first reported in the 1970s. Also, he’s unashamedly interested in morality. He feels that the Soviet Union hollowed out both public and private morality and left people without a moral compass when it collapsed. He highlights some of the extraordinary instances of casual, amoral treatment of people by the system and by other people in the book. It’s quite a pessimistic book. He feels Russia has been poisoned by the Soviet past and until that poison is out of the system it is going to be sickened by it.

His reportage is based on real life things. He has a gripping, haunting story of this guy who’s got drunk and ended up in a rubbish bin. The bin is then emptied into a garbage truck. The man wakes up and has his mobile phone on him. He phones from the back of the garbage truck and gets through to the police and tells them that he’s about to be crushed to death by the crusher. He tells them the part of Moscow he thinks he’s in and asks them to do something. And the police react with such casual boredom to this – the whole conversation is recorded – and you can hear the man becoming more and more desperate. You just think, when you have such a vivid human tragedy here, what kind of person would be a police dispatcher answering these emergency calls who wouldn’t sympathise with this person’s plight?

The title of his book is the quintessence of the Putinist attitude to the past. On the one hand, it’s a long time ago, so it’s irrelevant. On the other, if you say it is relevant, it wasn’t like that anyway – Stalin wasn’t such a bad man and his crimes really weren’t committed. It’s a classic Russian contradiction and an excellent title. Another thing he’s touching on is the role of the secret police in Russian thinking. The current regime is a corrupt secret police state and the role of the FSB [Federal Security Service] as an enforcement agent for the Kremlin is absolutely vital and Satter touches on that too and illuminates it.

Does he give any cause for optimism?

I think what he feels is that you’ve got to have a change at the top and you’ve got to have a government that tells the truth to its citizens about the past and deals with it and until that happens you’re always going to be navigating with a wonky compass. He doesn’t really write so much about the current political situation, which I think gives an opening at the moment. Putin’s looking quite weak and it’s unclear that he will last the full six years. It’s at least possible that out of that weakness will come a change in the regime or even a change of the regime. But it could also go wrong. It could be that the regime chucks Putin overboard and survives in some other form. It’s a stealing machine based on tens of billions of dollars, which the people in charge aren’t going to give up lightly.

Satter talks about how the rights and desires of individuals were subjugated in the Soviet era. This tradition has continued under Putin, hasn’t it?

Yes, and this touches on one of the other books I have chosen, Alexander Etkind’s Internal Colonization, where he says the relationship between the rulers and the ruled in Russia has always been a colonial one ever since the first Russian state came into existence. It has really followed the same pattern since. Russian rulers treat Russia the way that other countries’ rulers treat their colonies. It’s a callous, exploitative way where the quick win based on grabbing something someone else has got, or getting something out of the ground and selling it, is far more important than the long-term development of the economy. I don’t think that’s a complete explanation of Russia, as the Soviet Union did invest heavily in education, the space race, the arms race and other things, but I think the basic model of Russia as a quasi-feudal, quasi-piratical state is a very good one.
Read about the other books Lucas discussed at The Browser.

The Page 99 Test: David Satter's It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway.

--Marshal Zeringue