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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Self-Deception in the USSR

"In Russia the past is unpredictable," goes the old joke. Changes in perception about history come as fast as government reshuffles.


The Brezhnev era, once seen as a period of monolithic stability, is now being actively reappraised. Can the Soviet Union really have been so powerful, people are asking, if it came apart so quickly in the late 1980s?


This is the focus David Satter takes in The Age of Delirium the latest end-of-the-Soviet-Union book by a Western journalist. It is soon obvious that Satter was a dedicated reporter who succeeded in investigating some of the darkest corners of the Soviet Union, despite the inevitable restrictions of the time. A former Rhodes scholar who was the Moscow correspondent for The Financial Times from 1976 to 1982, Satter has continued to cover first Soviet and then Russian politics for a number of publications.


One telling story dates back to June 1980, when the author and a colleague travelled by train to the town of Shadrinsk, east of the Urals. They wanted to test the public mood regarding the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which had happened six months earlier. But during a 39-hour train ride amid a wide cross-section of people, not one person they questioned expressed any doubts about the intervention. A schoolteacher quoted Literaturnaya Gazeta at them to the effect that Andrei Sakharov received money from abroad to write his "anti-Soviet propaganda." This man believed what he read in Soviet newspapers and had no interest in tuning in to foreign radio stations.


In Shadrinsk the mood was the same. Wandering about the city, Satter encountered the party line again and again, and he is careful to stress that people appeared to genuinely believe it. Back in his hotel room he got a clear signal of the BBC Russian Service and wondered why people did not give credence to what it said. He concludes that the alternative -- that the authorities were lying to them -- was too awful: "It therefore may actually have reinforced the official line by forcing the residents of cities like Shadrinsk to affirm their faith in the system simply to assure themselves that the world they lived in was not absurd."


In the Soviet Union of the Brezhnev era the official monopoly on information and ideology was total and dissenters were a tiny minority. That is why glasnost was so devastating. When the official media started diverging from the official line about what constituted official reality, the whole fabric of the state started to come apart.


This is what Satter dissects: how reality was peeled away from the lies and how shabby that reality was. Factory workers got drunk and spent their energy devising sly ways of "fulfilling the plan," irrespective of the quality of the product they were making. Journalists fretted to fit every item of news into a system that stipulated that everything in the East was good and everything in the West was bad. People who objected to the way they were treated by corrupt officials could be consigned at the stroke of a pen to state psychiatric institutions. And it is the portraits of sane dissenters trying to remain cogent and psychologically intact while being force-fed elephantine doses of mind-bending drugs in Soviet psychiatric hospitals which forms the most arresting section of the book.


In the late 1980s, when the media started pushing back the boundaries of the possible, ideology proved naked against pure information. In September 1988, when the makers of the Leningrad documentary program "Fifth Wheel," which had started to expose party corruption, refused to put out an edition because it had been censored, 3,000 people demonstrated outside the Leningrad telecenter and the film was eventually shown uncut.


Satter's narrative technique is to lay one individual's life story on top of the other, without comment or analysis. Yet, while the stories are interesting in themselves, and the thoroughness of the research and attention to detail is impressive, in the end, "Age of Delirium" leaves the reader dissatisfied. This is a collection of fascinating episodes without much of a unifying principle. Many of the tales of brave individuals, incarcerated dissidents and protestors, end abruptly in the pre-perestroika era and we are not told what happened to the protagonists later. The political narrative in the background is only sketched out in abbreviated form.


The emphasis on Soviet society leaves us suspended in 1991 with the Soviet Union collapsing. The state had proved to be much more brittle and vulnerable than almost anyone had predicted and one year of all-out power struggle was enough to finish it off altogether. But no reader living in Russia in 1996 needs reminding that this was not the end of the story. The key point that Satter fails to make is that almost everyone was happy at the overthrow of Communism, even a great many of the 30 million people who voted for Gennady Zyuganov last month. But there is still a wide spectrum of opinion about what should fill the vacuum.


Satter, in the tradition of books about the collapse of the Soviet Union, has a chapter devoted to the failed August putsch. Many of those in the crowd were pro-Western Moscow students and intellectuals committed to a democratic future for Russia. As were many people inside the parliament building. But the White House defenders were a varied bunch. They included Ruslan Khasbulatov, Alexander Rutskoi and Pavel Grachev, none of them good advertisements for Russian democracy.


Perhaps it is just a matter of timing. Even three years ago the insights in this book would have seemed fresh and stimulating. But Satter lingered just a little too long with his end-of-the-empire chronicle.





"Age of Delirium: The Decline & Fall of the Soviet Union" by David Satter, Alfred A. Knopf, 424 pages, $30.