The Collapse of the Soviet Union: 25 Years Later

David Satter unveils the meaning of the Soviet experience for the present day.

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is David Satter, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and a fellow of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He has written four books about Russia. His most recent book, which was released in June, is The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin. His three previous books are Age of Delirium: the Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union, which has been made into a documentary film, Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State, and It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past.

FP: David Satter, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Twenty-five years ago, on December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union, yielding the dissolution of the USSR.

What are your thoughts on this anniversary? Your introduction to Age of Delirium explains Soviet communism as a phenomenon. So perhaps it is best to begin with your perspective on the meaning of the Soviet experience for the present day.

Satter: The Soviet Union was based on a radical rejection of common sense and this lent to everyday life a certain surrealism. During the years that I worked in the Soviet Union as the correspondent of the Financial Times, I often had the feeling that I had a front row seat in a giant theater of the absurd. The Soviet Union was based on an ideology and when life discredited the ideology it was the ideology that was true. Soviet citizens were told that they were building a perfect society. Reality was not allowed to interfere. As a result, Soviet people became slaves.

The ironies of absolute power were evident in Tsarist Russia. In the 19th century, the Russian philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev said that Russia existed to teach the world how not to live. He was referring to Russia’s contempt for the individual. “Alone in the world,” he wrote in his First Philosophical Letter,”we gave the world nothing and have taken nothing. We have in no way contributed to the progress of human reason and everything that came to us as a result of this progress, we distorted.”

With the official rejection of religion under the Soviets, the situation became even worse. The individual in the Soviet Union was defined explicitly as a cog in the state machine. Seven decades of Soviet rule during which crimes were committed that were previously almost unimaginable showed the price that is paid for abandoning universal values in favor of a man made political ideology.

Unfortunately, the lesson of the Soviet Union has been difficult to absorb. In Russia, the Soviet notion of the individual as disposable raw material was fully adopted by the new regime and led to the present dictatorship. In the Muslim world, the desire to use religion for political purposes has led not only to fiendish terrorism but also to widespread confusion on the part of persons who, while not terrorists, quietly support them. Perhaps most discouraging, in the countries of the West, including the U.S., the fall of the Soviet Union did not lead to an end to ideological thinking, reflected in various forms of “political correctness” and an understanding of the core values that the West needs to defend. 

 FP: In Age of Delirium, you describe how an entire state rested on a false idea and how truthful information led to its collapse. Can you talk about that?

Satter:  Soviet rule was based on lying as a substitute for truth. What mattered was not what was true but what could be made to appear to be true and the criterion for this ersatz truth was whatever was in the interest of the regime.

Against this background, the introduction of genuinely truthful information as a result of Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost could only lead to the destruction of the system. The elements of truth that were introduced as a result of glasnost became part of a delusionary system with which they were totally incompatible. The result was a confrontation over core principles and either the system or the truth had to be destroyed. Fortunately, it was the system that collapsed. In the end, massive falsification was formidable only as long as it was unchallenged. Once the truth was allowed in a limited form, the dykes holding back the reality of the outside world ruptured and the system became part of the past.

FP: Tell us a bit about Putin and his efforts to recreate a version of the Soviet Union. Does the Soviet Union, in some way, still exist under him?

Satter: Present day Russia resembles the Soviet Union in that it is based on one man rule and a propagandized population. But it lacks an ideology. Its policies are animated not by a desire to act out a deluded philosophy but rather by the need to preserve the power and property of a small corrupt group. In the service of this goal, however, present day Russia is as contemptuous of the fate of the individual as the Soviet Union was. I think that Russia today can best be understood as a vestige of the Soviet Union, much freer perhaps but with many of the same underlying murderous tendencies.

FP: In It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past you spoke of the importance for Russians of having an honest rendezvous with their past? Can true democracy ever come to Russia without it?

Satter: I think that honesty about the past is the condition sine qua non for Russia’s democratic future. This applies not only to the communist period but also to the crimes of the post-communist period. If the crimes are buried, it confirms the attitude that people are expendable. The act of commemoration and the process of seeking the truth are an affirmation of the idea that the fate of a person matters and mass slaughter is the anomaly not the norm.

FP: Your thoughts on the claims that Putin interfered in the 2016 election and helped Trump win?

Satter: Russian interference should have been taken for granted. The Russians launched a massive cyber-attack on Estonia in 2011 after the Estonians moved the Russian war memorial from the center of Tallinn and the Russians have long had close ties with Julian Assange who was even an announcer on Russia Today. I doubt, however, that the motive for any Russian interference was to defeat Hillary. As Secretary of State, Hillary advocated the “reset” policy which demonstrated her failure to understand or even to think seriously about Russia policy. Trump, at the same time, is unpredictable. He may reconsider some of his thoughtless remarks about the Russians once he has to deal with them. My guess is that there was Russian interference but that it was aimed mostly at the Russian domestic audience in order to convince them that the American elections are just as corrupt as the Russian ones. I think the controversy surrounding this issue post-election by Hillary supporters is, most of all, an attempt to discredit the election results.

FP: How did Obama deal with Putin?

Satter:  I think that the fact that Russia felt free to invade a neighboring country and annex foreign territory is a sign that Obama did not handle Putin very well. In dealing with present day Russia, the policy of the West should not be “reset” but rather deterrence. You can’t have that if you’re dealing with a country that you don’t understand.

FP: How should Trump deal with Putin?

Satter: He should avoid the temptation of superficiality. Putin’s objectives will not change because he smiles at you. Trump should also not allow himself to be drawn into the Putin’s surrealistic logic but rather base his decisions strictly on U.S. interests and the Russians’ actions. Finally, he should familiarize himself with the facts of recent Russian history beginning with the 1999 Russian apartment bombings that brought Putin to power. The bombings were the pretext for the start of the second Chechen War and were blamed on the Chechens. All evidence shows, however, that they were carried out by the Russian FSB as part of an operation to assure the succession to Yeltsin.  

FP: What should Russians be thinking ideally on this anniversary? What should Westerners be thinking?

Satter: I think Russians should be thinking about the underlying cause of their lack of liberty, the lack of respect for individual rights that the Soviet Union personified. Russian needs a truth commission like the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa in order to fully recognize the country’s Soviet and post-Soviet crimes and create a basis for a democratic future. It also needs a new Constituent Assembly to create a new Constitution based on a real separation of powers. All of this begins with reflection and an understanding of past mistakes. I think Westerners should be thinking about the blessings of a political system based on a recognition of the validity of universal values the better to rededicate themselves to its preservation.

FP: David Satter, thank you for joining us and thank you for all the truth you have contributed about the Soviet experience.

Satter: Thank you, Jamie. It’s my pleasure to be here.