Going Nowhere Fast

David Satter is profoundly disillusioned with post-Soviet Russia. Actually, that's putting it mildly; his new book, "Darkness at Dawn" (352 pages. Yale University Press), paints about as abject a picture as I've seen of the corruption, cronyism, lawlessness and incompetence that have flourished under Boris Yeltsin and his handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin. In one example, Satter, a former Financial Times correspondent in Moscow, takes us inside a police station on an ordinary workday to show how powerless Russians are against the law. He describes the case of V., a Muscovite thrown into the "monkey cage" for no other reason than to satisfy the arresting officer's desire to collect a bribe. "You resemble a wanted rapist," says the officer, "and we've got a wagonload of cooperative witnesses." V. refuses to pay the bribe and ends up spending the night, listening as other officers shake down detainees and conduct negotiations "about payoffs with the relatives of arrested persons."

Such anecdotes help Satter press his fundamental point: Russia has not found its freedom. Despite progress in setting up democratic institutions and implementing economic reform, the country remains crippled by social pathologies--in particular the lack of legal norms and the disregard for human life. Satter blames these ills on Yeltsin-era "reformers," who gave preference to privatization over establishing the legal framework for a market economy. He argues that they were explicitly tolerant of crime--an attitude that led directly to the creation of the tiny group of tycoons who, by one recent estimate, control 85 percent of Russia's private economy. The re-form process, he writes, "took place without moral values, and it bequeathed to Russia a moral vacuum." This is, needless to say, a tough case to make, since morality--unlike foreign-exchange reserves--is subjective and impossible to quantify.

But Satter offers up plenty of intriguing evidence. He tells the story of an Afghan-war veteran who dies in a fruitless hunger strike by Siberian teachers to collect their unpaid wages. We hear of a woman who dies during an operation when the electricity in the hospital is cut off for lack of payment by the local government. We learn about a man and his son who are boiled alive when they fall into a hole in a Moscow park formed by a burst heating pipe laid in violation of safety regulations; the family receives no compensation, no official apologies. One of the most gripping chapters is Satter's account of a Canadian bar owner in Moscow who somehow manages to chart his way through business partnerships with countless and sometimes competing gangs; they provide him with his protective krysha--the "roof" that is often a prerequisite to doing business in today's Russia.

Satter also carefully unpacks some of the better-known examples of Russian ineptitude, including the 2000 Kursk submarine disaster. He accuses the authorities of lying about the causes of the sinking and rejecting offers of foreign help that might have saved some of the sailors. In his analysis of the mysterious terrorist bombings that triggered the war in Chechnya--and helped catapult Putin to power--Satter expertly marshals all the evidence, arguing that the bombings, which took the lives of some 300 Russians, were the work not of Chechen terrorists but of Russia's own secret service. He cites the 1999 events in Ryazan, where residents of an apartment building thwarted a potential terrorist bombing. When the "bombers" turned out to be linked to the secret service, its director announced that the whole thing had been an "exercise" to test people's readiness, and the bomb was actually a fake despite police reports to the contrary.

But for all his criticism, Satter offers little in the way of constructive solutions. Many of the pathologies he diagnoses in this book clearly owe just as much--if not more--to the destructive amorality of the Soviet era as they do to the 1990s. The drastic decline in population and the disastrous failure to invest in modern industrial infrastructure both began in Soviet times, after all. It's a point he makes in passing, but I would have liked to see more.

To his credit, Satter quotes some of his own critics, who vehemently reject his bleak version of events. And he concedes that Russia has been enjoying an economic resurgence. But he could have rounded out his picture of unremitting gloom with a few more cases of things that have changed for the better--the success of some of Russia's small entrepreneurs, for example. Still, the Russia that Satter depicts in this brave, engaging book cannot be ignored. "Darkness at Dawn" should be required reading for anyone interested in the post-Soviet state.