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It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past Hardcover – December 13, 2011
Russia today is haunted by deeds that have not been examined and words that have been left unsaid. A serious attempt to understand the meaning of the Communist experience has not been undertaken, and millions of victims of Soviet Communism are all but forgotten. In this book David Satter, a former Moscow correspondent and longtime writer on Russia and the Soviet Union, presents a striking new interpretation of Russia's great historical tragedy, locating its source in Russia's failure fully to appreciate the value of the individual in comparison with the objectives of the state.
Satter explores the moral and spiritual crisis of Russian society. He shows how it is possible for a government to deny the inherent value of its citizens and for the population to agree, and why so many Russians actually mourn the passing of the Soviet regime that denied them fundamental rights. Through a wide-ranging consideration of attitudes toward the living and the dead, the past and the present, the state and the individual, Satter arrives at a distinctive and important new way of understanding the Russian experience.
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“A fascinating, deeply thoughtful and researched study that contributes mightily to the ongoing humanist debate.”—Kirkus Reviews (Kirkus Reviews)
“Satter’s reflective, expert analysis of a Russian society in moral and cultural flux after the end of communism provides great food for thought beyond today’s headlines.”—Publishers Weekly (Publishers Weekly)
"David Satter delivers one of the most harrowing stories of all time. . . This is a rare book by many measures, not least of which is the way in which Satter captures the magnitude of Russian atrocities and the frightening realities that people accept as part of their daily lives. By no means is Russia unique in being a nation that must grapple with the question of national cruelty and corruption. . . but its rich history makes it story all the more fascinating—and tragic."—Jedd Beaudoin, PopMatters (Jedd Beaudoin PopMatters)
"A meticulous, sweeping and wrenching history of Russia's burial of Soviet crimes. It is also a sensitive, compelling and convincing exploration of the importance of memory. But it makes a broader contention - that forgetting is a symptom of an illness that Russia contracted before the Soviet era. . . a humane, measured, first-hand, historically and philosophically rooted argument that is hard to refute."—Andrew Gardner, European Voice (Andrew Gardner European Voice)
"David Satter has written a book full of vivid and well chosen anecdotes. . . . The use of nostalgia is Satter's field. Russia is not, he believes, able to give itself a chance; in love with their chains, its people cannot face up to the horrors of a past they wish to ignore or romanticize."—John Lloyd, Financial Times (John Llyod Financial Times)
"Impeccably argued. . . Satter is a man whom no Russian leader would wish to meet, let alone shake by the hand, but he has their measure."—Donald Rayfield, Literary Review (Donald Rayfield Literary Review)
"[Satter] does a brilliant job of chronicling the human consequences of Communism."—The National Review (National Review)
"David Satter has really captured the role of the past in the present in Russia. . . . He feels that the Soviet Union hollowed out both public and private morality and left people without a moral compass when it collapsed. . . . The title of his book is the quintessence of the Putinist attitude to the past."—Edward Lucas, The Browser (Edward Lucas Browser)
“Satter grapples with an elemental failing of Russia’s leaders and people. . . . Russia, he argues, refuses to face the fundamental moral depravity of its Soviet past. . . . Expansive and brilliantly explored . . . compelling.”—Foreign Affairs (Foreign Affairs)
“Truly illuminating….Satter is both a gifted journalist and a chronicler of intellectual and political currents….Splendidly researched and engagingly written, this book offers invaluable vignettes of various reactions to the still unprocessed remembrance of totalitarian times.”—Vladimir Tismaneanu, International Affairs (Vladimir Tismaneanu International Affairs)
“David Satter has written a classic of its kind, investigating the psychological reactions that modern Russians feel towards the crimes of their Communist forebears.”—Andrew Roberts, The American Spectator (Andrew Roberts The American Spectator)
“Compelling, a journalist’s book.”—Choice (Choice)
About the Author
- Publisher : Yale University Press (December 13, 2011)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 400 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0300111452
- ISBN-13 : 978-0300111453
- Item Weight : 1.55 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.13 x 1.06 x 9.25 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,626,160 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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Of course, since times of Ivan the Terrible the enslaving of Russian minds was carried on mainly by brutal force, while modern Western rulers prefer much softer instruments: generous welfare, exquisite politcorrectness, multicultural diversity, ecological care etc. Nevertheless, in spite of so different instruments, the resulting "profound change" of citizenry's views is quite similar. The book's sad title can be as deservedly applied now to many episodes of the Western history too, be it US bureaucracy's cold-blooded betrayal of some 12.500 American servicemen in Stalin's captivity, or shiploads of anti-Soviet DPs, who were transported from the British ports straight to GULAG, or the shameful part of German 1990 unification, when dreadful carcinoma of the huge STASI apparatus (much worse than any Gestapo!) was carelessly implanted into healthy free society, - to tell nothing about the Western leftists' eternal love story with Red/Islam terror… Today lots of citizens in these (and many other) countries would be as full of righteous anger at the very mention of such a past, as Russians are in Mr. Satter's book, giving all kinds of similar remarks – "It never happened", "It was historical necessity", "Everybody had to behave in the same way", and so on.
Yes, many honest Western authors are as alarmed today by their ever-growing bureaucracy's enslaving experiments as the Russian dissident authors are in ours, but – is the reaction of the Western media to their warnings any different from our "patriotic" propaganda? I can't but remember Hillary's famous verdict on Bill's affair with Monica: "The vast right wing conspiracy". Sounds great – at least, no worse than any Russian justifications of our shameful past in this excellent book… Please, read it most attentively, because, like John Donne's bell, it's already not about Russia only. Unfortunately, it's about all of us! Rostislav, Saint-Petersburg, Russia.
Top reviews from other countries
Confining his calculations solely to victims who died as a direct consequence of the regime's actions, David Satter still estimates twenty million for the Soviet era. Add the victims of the early 1920s famine and those military personnel who perished unnecessarily in WWII, through the leadership's bloody-mindedness and incompetence, and the total soars still higher.
Not all of the communist leadership was Russian. Dzerzhinsky himself was Polish and Stalin, of course, was Georgian, although he set out to be more Russian than the Russians, but the Soviet Union was always, in truth, Russia's empire, as can be seen from the way in which the Bolsheviks granted independence to non-Russian countries during the Civil War, but immediately re-conquered them (apart from Finland and Poland), once the emergency had passed. It is, however, important to distinguish between Russia's empire and Russia itself.
The initial determination to be open about the crimes of the Soviet Union did not last long. As Satter shows, the motivation among the politicians was nearly always solely political; there was no general sense that a true account of the Soviet past was itself a moral imperative in its own right. Once a policy of silence and obstruction became more useful, that was the one that was adopted. That policy has gradually morphed into a practice of justifying and even glorifying the Soviet tyranny. ("Stalin won the war!" Without Stalin's pact with Hitler, it wouldn't have happened in the first place.) There was even a campaign to put Dzerzhinsky's statue back on its pedestal; it's interesting to note that it had been carefully preserved, presumably with just such an eventuality in mind
Another reviewer has expressed the view that it's up to the Russians if they want to be open about the past. The trouble is that that viewpoint is hopelessly wrong-headed. Firstly, the "Soviet Union" is not Russia; why should Russia alone get to decide matters that concern Estonia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan etc. just as much?
Secondly, although numerous polls suggest that Russians do now favour sweeping Soviet history under the carpet, they don't, in fact, have any say in the matter. If the polls went the other way, the FSB's files would still remain closed, sine die.
Thirdly, there is the fact that the Soviet Union had a disastrous impact on near neighbours. North Koreans continue to suffer the direct effects of Stalinism and every country from the Baltic to the Black Sea has been held back by the Soviet occupation. Ethnic Poles were among Stalin's most numerous victims. Russia finally came clean on the Katyn massacres, during that brief window of opportunistic honesty in 1991. Russians have not been able to squeeze that genie back into the bottle, but they have now resorted to the classic Soviet tactic of pretending moral equivalence.
Fourthly, Satter shows how this arrogant, sometimes murderous, attitude towards neighbouring countries is characteristic of a society which is convinced, against all the evidence, that it is special. Only the Russians could inhabit an area of six million square miles (into which the island of Great Britain would fit more than seventy times over) and breed a paranoid notion that they are surrounded. Only the Russians, too, could look back on their catastrophic history and imagine that Russia is somehow "holy". Yet the paranoia and the belief in Russia's uniqueness are both used to excuse a failure to address the past.
Fifthly, since the true history of the Soviet Union is being deliberately sidelined, it follows that an untrue version of that history holds sway, to the extent of forming the basis of school textbooks and television documentaries. Historians should always allow for differences of opinion and interpretation, but what we see in Russia is a wilful denial of solid fact.
Sixthly, because Russia has now usurped the mantle of the Soviet Union, criticism of the departed regime now is held to equate to criticism of Russia. That's not very healthy, for Russians, or for her neighbours.
Satter also shows how Russia's traditional subordination of the individual to the state has contributed to this willingness to conceal the past. No Russian regime has ever felt the slightest shame over sacrificing vast numbers of people, whatever the objective and regardless of whether or not the objective has even been achieved. Think of the Battle of Kiev, 1941. Soviet soldiers were sent to face a German offensive despite having no weapons, which would make them civilians, by most people's definition. The result: huge losses, including two-thirds of a million men sent pointlessly into brutal German captivity. The few who survived random murder and German slave labour were immediately sent into Soviet slave labour in 1945.
This concept of responsibilities without rights has had a predictable effect on the Russian psyche. The state has all the rights, including the right to demand that people outside the nomenklatura lay down their lives, however pointlessly, when ordered to do so. When the state arrogates this kind of power to itself, there seems no particularly compelling reason to assume that the relative freedoms of today's Russians couldn't quickly evaporate, at the whim of the state. Naturally, when you think that Stalin 2.0 could be just around the corner, you're not going to be too voluble in your criticism of the leadership.
Then there is the way, as Satter documents, in which the Russian authorities refuse to rehabilitate, posthumously, victims of Soviet terror who, we can plainly see, were guilty of no crime (e.g. people who were shot simply in order to fulfil NKVD quotas). Again, this attitude shows the assumption that the Soviet Union and Russia are one and the same, since many of these victims were not Russian. Satter quotes the son of a victim who acidly suggests that the good people of Russia all died under Soviet repression; the Russians of today are the children and grandchildren of the informants and of the executioners. It's an exaggeration, of course, but the stigma of being a descendant of an "enemy of the people" still adheres.
This is a very good book and well-written. On the Kindle (Kindle HD, in my case), there are a few oddities about the presentation. Some words contain superfluous hyphens. Elsewhere, there is a repeated problem with the reproduction of the letter "F". For instance, "official", "office" and "difficult" are rendered as "oicial", "oice" and "diicult", respectively. This is irritating, but it doesn't detract from the quality of the writing and, especially, the strength of the argument.