Book Review: Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State, by David Satter


Reviewed by Bruce Rhodes


August 4, 2005


Social Justice Obliterated in Today's Russia


David Satter has done a masterful job of exposing the horrifying, pervasive dark side of life in Russia today. The distinctions to be made between politicians, business executives, law enforcement officials and gangsters are often blurred, thanks to a virtual absence of rule of law. The average Russian citizen cannot even afford to trust the cop who walks past him down the street, lest he be shaken down then and there, or taken to jail and held until willing to pay a large bribe to be released.

The author explains that, as the Iron Curtain fell, the powers that be, who had a strong systems orientation (the Communist system was the Russians' diet for seven decades), maintained that systems orientation when they embraced capitalism. Leaders of the post-Gorbachev reform movement blindly assumed that all that was needed to introduce free market mechanisms was to ensure that all property and assets got into private hands. The huge weakness in this approach was the failure to understand the importance of first introducing rule of law. As a result, former Communist Party bigwigs and factory owners set up shadow "daughter" companies to acquire vast business empires for next to nothing; they then funneled profits into offshore bank accounts. Gangs then moved in and extorted protection money from businesses large and small... from large aluminum smelters, down to corner kiosks selling cigarettes. These gangs served as the "roof" to thousands of businesses. With cash flow drained off to Switzerland, employees of these enterprises then went weeks, if not months, without pay. Living conditions fell below even the grim levels experienced during the Second World War: malnutrition skyrocketed and life expectancy dwindled to Third World levels.

Each of the book's thirteen chapters can be read on its own, as if it were an essay. Most chapters relate the chilling, hard facts as Satter has been able to assemble them, while a couple of chapters present the author's opinions and theories on how this dreadful situation could have evolved. Together, the chapters represent a fast-moving, balanced portrayal of the civil chaos in Russia in the past fifteen years.

Chapter one relates the shameful story of the "Kursk" submarine disaster, in which over 100 Russian sailors lost their lives while British and Norwegian offers of help were turned down.

Other chapters relate additional stories in which Russian officials treat their own citizens with callous indifference. Chapter two, for example, lays out the compelling evidence that successful and attempted bombings of innocent civilians in their apartments in the 1990s were carried out not by Chechen rebels, as Russian government authorities suggested, but rather by the country's own Federal Security Service (FSB). The FSB allegedly did this to serve as a pretext for Russia's military actions in Chechnya, and to distract the populace from the myriad of banking and financial scandals that bilked thousands of citizens out of billions of rubles. Other chapters describe the slick, large-scale pyramid schemes perpetrated by financial institutions that wiped out the savings of countless people doing their best to survive in an economy that suffered from triple-digit inflation. Most Russian banks in the 90s were managed by criminal gangs.

A few chapters reveal the complex network of organized crime gangs that operate quite openly in Russian society. Entrepreneurs look upon setting up a relationship with a gang for "protection" as simply a cost of doing business. Scores of tycoons who did not satisfy the financial demands of gangs were tortured or, just as often, murdered in broad daylight in the presence of many witnesses. While some victims never saw their fate coming, others lived in constant fear, especially when they realized that even fleeing to another country was no escape from bandits who were willing to track them down anywhere.

The book goes into great detail on the trials of Canadian Doug Steele, who opened a popular and controversial bar ("The Duck") in Moscow. The bar's success attracted competing gangs, who wanted a piece of the action. Doug was nearly kidnapped, but was saved by his vigilant bodyguards.

For years, the citizens of Vladivostok went without electricity for up to 23 hours a day. Even the hospital was robbed of power; on some occasions, this cost patients on the operating table their lives. Why was the power cut off? In large part the electricity was diverted to heavy industry commandeered by organized crime. At one point Boris Yeltsin himself decreed that the one mayor who really did want to wipe out corruption in Vladivostok, Viktor Cherepkov, was not allowed to remain in power.

Some gangsters ran for office, to add political power to their business and criminal strengths. The public often excused the criminal behavior of such candidates, believing, as they were taught during the Communist era, that the transition to capitalism entailed a period of criminal activity.

One mobster became very popular, building a church, synagogue and mosque to show his humanitarian side.

One of the saddest and most unbelievable examples of the complete absence of justice for individuals involved pregnant women delivering babies in Russian hospitals, only to be told that their baby was dead at birth. The mothers were not allowed to see their allegedly dead babies, and were told that they were cremated. Meanwhile, there is ample evidence that their babies were healthy at birth, and were whisked away from their mothers for the purpose of being sold for adoption by criminal gangs.

I highly recommend this book. Satter deserves credit for having the courage to write it. Whereas I spent a week in Moscow as a nave teenager in 1974, today, you could not pay me to visit Russia. It's too damn scary, and an individual effectively has no rights. As described in the conclusion of "Darkness at Dawn", Russia has a daunting future: a possible political shift to dictatorship, the risk of total economic collapse, and continued depopulation. It's no wonder that Russians are emigrating in great numbers.