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Book Review June 26, 2003
Satter The Almost Just
By John Dolan Browse author Email
"Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State", by David Satter<br> Yale University Press 2003  $29.95

"Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State", by David Satter<br> Yale University Press 2003 $29.95

You have to give David Satter credit. He tells a good story, explains complex financial machinations clearly, and doesn't pretend that Russia is doing well under the Free Market. Those are three accomplishments not found in most books about contemporary Russia by American journalists.

Satter's stories stay with you, and burn. A good two-thirds of this book consists of accounts of Russian lives destroyed by the "Young Reformers." Some are familiar, as when he describes the long series of contradictory lies told by Russian officials to relatives of the sailors on the Kursk. But others are new and memorable for me and probably most of you, such as the tale of father and son who fell into a sinkhole full of boiling water created by broken water pipes, about which residents had been warning Moscow city officials for weeks. It's just another Moscow-corruption story until Satter makes you watch the consequences:

"Artyem dropped his father's hand and started to run across a grassy lot.... At that moment, the earth gave way, and as his father watched helplessly, Artyem disappeared into a pit of boiling water. Vladimir leapt into the pit to rescue his son, but clouds of steam blinded him. Hot water was pouring out of the pipe and, submerged to his waist, Vladimir could not find the edge of the constantly expanding pit. It took fifteen minutes for him to lift Artyem out of the pit and then climb out himself...The rescuers cut slits in Artyem's trousers and removed them. His skin came off with his trousers. The boy began screaming in agony and calling for his mother...."

Satter's book manages to smack you awake with these stories, often by the simple method of showing some respect for the victims by devoting more than a sentence or two to their lives and fates. He covers a wide range of Russian cities, and Russian fates. The sinkhole story ends typically: both father and son die, after weeks of unbearable pain. The cumulative effect of all this death porn is powerful. Even if you think you've heard all the Russian horror stories already, you'll remember some of these -- whether you want to or not.

In some cases, you get the feeling Satter wants to grab his Western readers by the lapels and shake the vague cynicism out of them by forcing them to look closely at notorious scandals they'd rather shrug off. His account of the 1999 apartment-house bombings is the best example. We all heard rumors that the FSB was behind the bombings, but most expats dismissed the idea as Russian paranoia or accepted the mainstream media's explanation that Berezovskii was behind the rumors. It wasn't until I read Satter's chapter on the bombings that I realized how strong the case against the FSB really is -- that Ryazan police found and defused a fully-functioning bomb in the basement of a working-class apartment house, caught the FSB agents who had placed it, tested it and found it was hexogen, a military explosive manufactured in only one factory which happens to be guarded by the FSB.

Satter is also a talented technical writer when it comes to explaining the actual workings of grand con schemes like MMM and Loans-for-Shares. My eyes usually glaze over when I try to read explanations of fiscal games, but Satter's accounts stuck with me.

Only Violent Entrepreneurs, Vadim Volkov's more sympathetic account of the rise of the Russian criminal elite, does a better job of explaining how the Mafia economy really works. It's interesting that Satter never cites Volkov's book--doesn't even mention it in the index. He must have read it; perhaps the ideological implications of Volkov's account of Russia's economic development under Yeltsin upset Satter. The difference in approach between the two books gets at the one great weakness of Darkness at Dawn: the fact that Satter, for all his courage and compassion in reporting the consequences of Russian Capitalism, just can't bring himself to blame them on the ideology itself.

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