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Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State

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Anticipating a new dawn of freedom after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russians could hardly have foreseen the reality of their future a decade later: a country impoverished and controlled at every level by organized crime. This riveting book views the 1990s reform period through the experiences of individual citizens, revealing the changes that have swept Russia and their effect on Russia’s age-old ways of thinking.

“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.”—Christian Caryl, Newsweek

“Satter must be commended for saying what a great many people only dare to think.”—Matthew Brzezinski, Toronto Globe and Mail

“Humane and articulate.”—Raymond Asquith, Spectator

“Vivid, impeccably researched and truly frightening. . . . Western policy-makers, especially in Washington, would do well to study these pages.”—Martin Sieff, United Press International

326 pages, Paperback

First published April 10, 2003

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About the author

David Satter

17 books41 followers
David Satter is senior fellow, Hudson Institute, and fellow, Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He was Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times from 1976 to 1982, then a special correspondent on Soviet affairs for the Wall Street Journal.

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Displaying 1 - 23 of 23 reviews
Profile Image for Antigone.
500 reviews741 followers
May 18, 2016
It's difficult to know what happened to Russia. It's difficult to fully follow her path from past to present, as she shook off the reins of an arcane and oppressive system of government in trade for ostensible transparency and a free-market economy. The shift was too cataclysmic: too big, too fast, too destructive and, most of all, too high-handed for any external eye to track. What information we possess is largely journalistic, and is limited to the period of time in which journalism was still welcome in that country. The eras of Gorbachev, Yeltsin; the initial stages of Putin's ascendency. The door creaked wide, and then it slammed shut - often late at night, in an alcove, with a weapon. It is no longer important to anyone in the current Russian regime that the world understand what it's going through. You mind your business, we'll mind ours. (Crimea: Ours) And if that sounds familiar? Then you're beginning to get a fix on the world's concern.

David Satter is one of a number of Western journalists to produce a book on his time in Russia. As a former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times of London, he's uniquely situated to report on the economic tsunami that passed for Russian market reform. And while he will take you through the pillage of assets, the plunder of services, and the rise of a complicated fraternity between politics, big business and organized crime - the truth is you can get that story from half a dozen other equally solid sources on the region. What sets Darkness at Dawn apart, and merits the attention of anyone interested in the catastrophic pitch of a nation from first-world to third in a mere tick of decades, is Satter's focus on the Russian psyche. What is it about the Russian mind that made these dangerously thoughtless choices acceptable and implementable? What is it about the Russian soul that acquiesces so dutifully to the flex of a muscle? That respects beyond measure the Russian boot, even as it crushes the Russian throat? It's more than the question of how this could happen. It's "How could this possibly still be going on??"

Satter supplies a critical piece of the puzzle with his approach, and goes a long way toward making the matter alarmingly comprehensible. While I might suggest other, more general reportage to start with, there will come a time (and a need) to begin a synthesis of this sort. Glad am I to have found this book midway through the teeter of a stack.
Profile Image for E.A. Amant.
Author 26 books4 followers
September 26, 2016
A manager at work—we were doing some idiotic back and forth trash talk—shushed me in public. Teasing him, I had said that the island of Malta had been first settled by English retards. He was Maltese. These days, no one likes to hear the word ‘retard’. It was lame, I know, but I retorted with a shout, “Shut up, this ain't Russia!” And standing directly behind me was a Russian emigrant, new to the country, who took offence at my reckless cliché. However, whether naive or not, he knew exactly to what I referred, that by worldwide reputation alone, even from the old USSR days, you couldn't any more voice your opinion in Russia than get a fresh loaf of bread from a government grocery store. I immediately apologized for my deleterious remark and offered my hand. Which he took. He seemed placated, if not bemused; no, I'm not saying he was an idiot, but the truth is, in Russia today, it is as dangerous to speak your mind as it was back in the USSR, maybe even more so, certainly more tricky. Where did he get the idea that I was misrepresenting the reputation of Russia’s culture? Freedom of the press, the right to assembly, the liberty to political free speech and individual property rights are all gone. And my very own angry Russian emigrant was too dumb or illiterate to know it, or he had unfounded and inexcusable nationalistic pride in his unsuccessful society. Nationalism does that. It makes you think in racist requisites: Russian better than Georgian, straight better than gay, male better than female, Christian better than Muslim. This is what you are morally permitted to say about your genetic heritage, “I am proud that I am Somali, Syrian or whoever. We’re the best people in the world!” Sure, and everybody has the greatest doctor. What is unacceptable to say as person from a failed country, is, “We’re the best nation in the world!” That’s like a Moslem or a Christian saying they’re the only true religion. And BTW, Americans should stop saying it as well. Like England, France, Ghana, Costa Rica, or Japan, they can say something like, “We are one of the greatest nations in the world and have proof with verifiable statistical facts; the bonafides!” And they could even explain why, but stop bragging that you’re the best; it’s annoying, Any nation who has to keep saying that they’re the best are not the best. American politicians actually mean, “We rule an empire and you don’t. So shut up!”

Well, anyway, as regards Russia, it is not like those rights were ever there—Western liberties I mean—not for the Autocrats’, Marxists’ nor Reformists’. Russia has never known any real freedom or democracy. Indeed, it may well be the least democratic place in the world. Not the ghost of freedom exists today. As I will explain in the plainest language, Russia is little more than a Mafia state with the homophobic Putin as the not so likeable Tony Soprano, ruling like both the Tsar and a don, and you’re not getting any special favours on the wedding day of his daughters; in fact, he’s divorced and you’re not invited!

Although not exactly book reviews, this article is chiefly concerned with six excellent and diverse books as sources: Darkness at Dawn, D Satter, The Putin Mystique, A Arutunyan, Strongman, A Roxburgh, The Man Without a Face, M Geesen, The New Nobility, A Soldatov and Putin’s Kleptocracy, K Dawisha. These works, and others, are all in general accord: the Putin regime runs a criminal state.

One of the first jobs of thugs is to convince people that they aren't bandits, that they’re marketers and their civil concerns are for the people—and that they’re like regular folks, only with more testosterone. It’s what philosophers say of the ethical disingenuous: “The appearance of morality is the price paid by hypocrites to look good to the ones they can fool.” So, one of the first jobs of the gangster class is to corrupt the police while appearing to the public to root out corruption from this very source. You do this by destroying the whistle-blowers. In the old gulag system, you jailed the dissidents, (i.e. the moral leaders of the country), now in present day Russia you get the free marketers for tax evasion, throw them in prison and steal their property; it’s win, win, win! Anybody who reports it, (journalists, accountants or lawyers), are going to prison for not having the paper work done for the paper-clips they claimed on their tax forms.

The World Bank publishes an annual survey in which it ranks 183 countries of the world according to ‘ease of doing business’. In 2011 Russia came in at 123 – far behind other post-Soviet states such as Georgia (at 19) and Kyrgyzstan (at 44). In terms of ‘dealing with construction permits’ Russia sits in 182nd place, ahead only of Eritrea. Dahlgren—(IKEA’s Russia manager, Lennart Dahlgren, came to Moscow in 1998 and stayed for eight years, battling with the authorities to open the first IKEA stores and ‘Mega malls’. He has since written his memoirs, Despite Absurdity)—wanted to arrange a meeting for IKEA’s owner – one of the wealthiest people in the world, and a man with great enthusiasm for doing business in Russia – with Putin. At first they palmed him off with meetings with a deputy prime minister. Then Dahlgren had an opportunity to discuss the proposal with someone from Putin’s entourage, who told him they didn't think IKEA would really want to have a meeting with Putin. Dahlgren writes: ‘I don’t know whether they meant it seriously or as a joke, but they said: “IKEA is penny-pinching, and the going rate for a meeting with Putin is 5 to 10 million dollars, which you will never pay.” (Quoted from, Strongman); see also the Corruption Index.

Today the lack of reliable contract law, unenforced and without an independent judiciary, has left Russia a complete gangster nation, and not like those American rappers sing about, but one that tens of millions of suffering Russians have to live with day in and out. (For this part see Putin’s Kleptocracy)

The Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, FSB—Federal Security Service—had grown out of the KGB, Yeltsin had broken the KGB up and pit tax, communicate and security divisions against each other to help dismantle it, or at least in part to lessen its totalitarian power, but after consolidating his control, Putin has reunited them into the general security framework under the FSB or other agencies with no independence but to the executive. (For this part, see, Darkness at Dawn and The New Nobility)

Perhaps the most obvious and reactionary of all of Putin’s draconian measures, has been shutting down any and all independent news organizations. If this proved to be ineffective to shut up journalists, internal detractors or opposition politicians, he has had his critics imprisoned or permanently silenced. They don’t really even much hide it. He is personally, but indirectly linked to the murders of Anna Politkovskaya, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Sergei Yushenkov, Anatoly Sobchak and Alexander Litvinenko. See, List of Journalists killed/murdered in Russia. Under Putin’s rule there have been 30 to 35 (apparent) politically motivated murders of journalists. (For this part of the story see, The Man Without a Face).

Now as for the supreme leader with insatiable greed: “That is the biggest question. In a classical, absolutist monarchy, their chief patron would have been the sovereign, their king and country – which would have been the same thing. But Putin’s Russia, which has many of the trappings of an absolutist monarchy, refuses to see itself as such. The scholar Lilia Shevtsova has underlined the contradictions that this presents: Putin has preserved personified and undivided power, she writes. However, describing Yeltsin’s rule as ‘elected monarchy’ she applies the same metaphor to Putin’s rule, ‘accenting the contradictions between personified power and the elective method of legitimizing it.’ A maddening dissonance ensues: Putin had a theoretical option of ‘building a responsible system of governance based not [my italics] on the irrational and mystic power embodied in the leader but on the rule of law.’ But he either could not, or would not do so. Those words were written in 2004; by 2013 that dissonance has only grown, amid contradictory laws that fail to work and Putin’s constant calls to fight corruption. Why, despite yearly orders from Putin – his personal orders, harsh, determined and ominous – does corruption only grow?” (Quoted from, The Putin Mystique).

Now, I am more than happy to answer this question for everyone. It isn’t just Putin’s hidden assets, no, not the 40 to 70 billion dollars, making him one of the richest people in the world, which it is claimed he has amassed through old-fashioned brass-knuckled theft. It’s something that is hard for the North American or Western European democrat to really understand. It’s the tragic fault in the Russians themselves. To them, liberty is license, a free market is usually dangerous/entirely unfeasible, the press are myth makers/even outright liberal liars, and having sacrosanct private property rights are downright impossible in a country like Russia. Justice is with the Tsar, the motherland, the state itself: uberman, Uncle Joe or Putin, the Boss. For example, here’s some sense of how long in modern history there has been little perceived freedom: “…When it comes to this, [all men are created equal, except Negroes,] I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” - Abraham Lincoln. 1855. (Quote taken from, The Putin Mystique).

So you see, they've been without freedom for some time, and in fact, the society itself does not give it the same value as in the West. Yes Marxist terrorists hijacked a thriving modern industrialized state, but the Tsarist regime was as ridiculous on its face with serfdom as the communist one was with their countrywide gulag slave system. People went marching to their sentences at the direction of a monarch’s clerk or a Bolshevik’s commissar like the Jews at the direction of a Nazi official. What’s to say to this? Idea and Culture are intimately connected and some cultures are impeded compared to the top democracies, and many failed states call themselves democracies, but of course, this is pure piffle. Yes, you nationalists from failed or failing countries, like my very own angry Russian emigrant, it has got nothing to do with blood! It is brains alone that count; it’s how one organizes society, the proper protection of human rights, an independent judicial branch of government, the separation of powers, free elections and all those splendid creations of the democracies throughout history, despite its many intellectual enemies like Putin, the KGB and the Marxists, (of course, the Religionists are right up there at the top as bitter foes to liberty as well).

In the decade of Putin, the FSB has portrayed themselves in propaganda films like The Special Department as they wanted themselves to be seen, (see, The New Nobility), just as the CIA does in America. Behind the FSB’s rapid growth of power with the ascension of Putin, they have been just as ineffective at fighting terrorism as the CIA. And in regards to upholding an independent judiciary, curbing the mafia-state rising right underneath their feet or bringing real culprits to justice, they have utterly failed, as the KGB did before them. They are lap dogs, a whitewash to Putin’s tarnished throne. They have become another arm of the bandit state, but don’t say, “Poor pitiful Russia!” Nobody is free without effort. The Russian masses' romantic attraction to the state is deplorable and always has been. The people have quietly marched to their passing in absolutely frightening numbers, either with demise by alcoholism or death by authoritarianism. Shame on the Russian Orthodox Church, Russian Nationalists and the Russian Communists, all preaching against democracy like an Iranian Ayatollah. The Great Satan be damned! There is a person for this epithet and his name is Vladimir Putin, and never forget that germ of truth from that old Russian saw, “Half the population is behind bars and the other half are guarding them.”

For the more than 50 links to sources, see, http://eastamant.com/article.php?arti..., "This Ain't Russia".
Profile Image for Brahm.
468 reviews55 followers
December 9, 2021
Written ~12 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Darkness at Dawn captures the total failure of the Russian state to protect its people (economically, physically, spiritually, legally) in its rapid, "shock therapy" transition from a communist state to a (pseudo) democratic, capitalistic society.

The state's failures to transform are demonstrated episodically through many stories, covering: endless government corruption, takeover of industry by mobs, utter chaos in healthcare and quality of life for citizens, collapse in value of the state as Russia privatized assets at absurdly low prices, impact on workers as industries were financially and physically looted and deprived of their assets, abject failure of the rule of law at every level. "Russian criminal state" sounds dramatic in the title, but Satter goes a great job of showing how the state and industry are literally packed with criminals, with gang wars breaking out over control of Russia's biggest auto manufacturer, aluminium producer, copper producers, and more.

On the transformational failure:
[...] when the Soviet Union fell, the reformers were not guided by moral considerations but concentrated on the mechanics of capitalist transformation. The reformers assumed that once a class of private owners was created, it would manage resources rationally and, de facto, in the interests of society. What they took to be universal economic behavior , however, was only normal economic behavior within a specific legal and moral context. they failed to consider that in Russia that context had been destroyed and the country's most urgent need was its restoration. (p202)
On the impact on human life of the transformation from Soviet to modern Russian state:
In the period 1992-1995, deaths exceeded births by 2 million, a demographic catastrophe not experienced in Russia in peacetime except during the famine of 1932-33 and the Stalinist terror of 1937-38. (p203)
On root causes and conclusions:
Both in Russia and in the West, there has been a tendency to interpret success in Russia strictly in economic terms. Unfortunately, Russia's problem is that Russian society lacks moral foundations, and those in power often interpret liberty to be the freedom to do whatever they want, regardless of the welfare of others. Under these conditions, ordinary citizens are helpless to defend their dignity, and the degraded condition of the individual is the root cause of Russia's systematic malaise. (p256)
This quote sounds damning on its own, but far less so after finishing the book.

About the writing: super engaging, a page-turner, despite being hard to read (in the sense, I cannot picture what my life would be like in Russia). Stealing a line from this review: the book reads like horror-non-fiction. Makes me grateful to live in Canada (even Saskatchewan!) as our problems are real, but pale in comparison.

Not knowing much about Russia before I read this book, I have to be self-aware this book risks creating a possibly-inaccurate first impression. I'm curious to learn what's changed in the last ~18 years? Russia as a nation-state is more than twice as old as when this book has published. Has anything changed for the better?

A great read (discovered via a @balajis tweet) that Saskatoon Public Library filled via inter-library loan from Edmonton.
Profile Image for Scott.
24 reviews1 follower
March 21, 2015
This book reminded me a lot of Anna Politkovskaya's writing's on Russia, with a more detached view from the long-time American journalist of things Kremlin (and the first foreign reporter kicked out of Russia since the end of the Cold War for those writings).
The section that really caught my eye was the section on the apartment bombings in September 1999 that started the 2nd Chechnya War and greased Putin's rise to power. I've heard accusations that is was, as conspiratorists said, an inside job by the FSB. But it was always prominent enemies of Putin, like Boris Berezovsky, making those accusations. After reading this section and reading Satter's narrative of the evidence (really eyeblinking stuff, when he puts it together), I can't help but think that it is indeed the case.
Did you know that Putin's official driver killed most of a family in a head-on collision with his reckless driving (with Putin in the car, before he became president)? I didn't, and the driver never faced any kind of judicial sanction. That was one of of many examples (and not the most unbelievable, by far) of the broken state the Russian people deal with on a daily basis.
Profile Image for Rhuff.
310 reviews15 followers
December 3, 2019
A tale only half told: by this I mean that while Satter has done an excellent job of outlining the corrupt regime of modern Russia, he has left out an important player which shares equally in the moral miasma of modern Muscovy. A hint is provided in the rave review by Strobe Talbott, the man who said "the Soviet Union needed a wrecking ball."

The subtext of Satter's gripping account is full of Western moralizing. As usual, this nicely excludes the responsibility of the West, particularly the US, for the resulting mess: rather like the "de-Baathification" of Iraq, but without the groundboots. When the US was shipping out carloads of advisors, from private foundations, corporations, and the US government, not a one of them counseled moderate reform, a "social market," nor social democracy. They all - to the last yuppie graduate - advocated the most radical and sweeping privatization, heedless of the social cost, playing right into the hands of the very corruption they now profess to find so shocking.
Not only was there an overt political agenda at work, but a naivite regarding the West itself. One need only look at Enron, the SEC, Arthur Andersen, and the US mafia to see how pervasive corruption and organized crime are in US "market democracy." The nouveau riche New Russians did not operate under the deceiving pangloss of Old Money, which naive US advisers took for granted as they dispensed their agenda under the guise of said advice.

As for Russia's lack of the rule of law, these same insider traders, profiteers, and mafiosi in the US are the first to buy politicians, judges, and to resist any law, rule, or regulation that interferes in their right to make money, no matter the social cost to fellow citizens.

In short, Russia showed the West its true face without the makeup. Don't break the mirror because you can't handle the image.
Profile Image for Nicki Schwenkbeck.
55 reviews17 followers
February 5, 2017
Highly recommend this book, especially considering that some in the upcoming administration favor positive relations with Putin. It seems that most Americans stopped caring much about what was happening in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union and how the shock of completely unregulated capitalism had nearly catastrophic results for most common Russian citizens. The way in which corrupt officials and criminals exploited the fears and anxieties of regular Russians in order to enrich themselves beyond comprehension raises serious red flags about how these tactics might be used in the U.S. to weaken our own democratic ideals. Great read if you're interested at all in Putin's rise to power and how Russia became what it is today.
Profile Image for Pete.
9 reviews
January 30, 2008
This book could in some ways be classified as "horror-non-fiction". To see how in, fewer than 300 pages, a world superpower has gone from an empire to a nation with a declining population, virtually non-existent public services, and organized crime syndicates that are a parallel government is down right scary.
Profile Image for AskHistorians.
918 reviews2,902 followers
September 28, 2015
Very readable and recent history of the rise of the criminal influence in Russian government following the downfall of the Soviet Union. Really uses his understanding of Russian psychology gained by years as the Moscow correspondent for the WSJ to give insight into what happened and why.
Profile Image for Rob Hocking.
226 reviews11 followers
March 18, 2023
This is a decent introduction to what Russia was like from 1992 till the early 2000s. It mostly deals with the chaos of the Yeltsin years without touching to much on Putin (it was published in 2003, only shortly after Putin came to power). Although it does mention the famous apartment bombings that are widely believed to have been orchestrated by Putin to provide a pretext for the second Chechen war and a few of Putin's other gaffs in his early years in power, mostly it is about things like the hyperinflation experienced under Yeltsin, how the transition to Capitalism resulted in a few Oligarchs with extreme wealth while the vast majority of Russians were reduced to poverty, and how both the Oligarchs and the government worked together with organized crime to eliminate their opponents (whether in business or in politics).
Profile Image for Fernanda Santos.
39 reviews2 followers
August 24, 2017
me fue imposible leer este libro si pensar en Venezuela,sorprende el parecido entre los dos países,no por las mejore razones.Corrupción,persecución a los medios de comunicación independientes,violaciones a los derechos humanos,mafias enquistadas en el gobierno,uf! asusta el parecido,bueno,por lo menos no moriremos congelados en el trópico.
4 reviews
August 16, 2022
Chilling but fascinating

The book provides a detailed factual account of man's inhumanity to man in the context of Russia after the fall of the USSR. I do wonder what was the role of Western 'advisers' in the looting of Russia's natural resources and other assets by those who became oligarchs.
Profile Image for Natalie.
118 reviews
August 8, 2017
Não gostei muito do estilo da escrita do autor, não achei muito organizado. Mas é uma excelente recoleção de histórias, histórias assustadoras que todos deveríamos ler. Recomendo.
Profile Image for Jade Clark.
49 reviews1 follower
May 5, 2020
You just fall right into this book. Given the subject it’s a very easy read.
65 reviews
March 27, 2022
Not enough cites to utterly merit a 5 star rating, but I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to look at how Russia is now and what forces sap its strength.
Profile Image for Cristobal.
625 reviews39 followers
October 21, 2022
In spite of having been written in the early years of the 2000’s this is a must read to understand modern Russia. A truly illuminating and scary book.
Profile Image for Bird.
85 reviews
January 30, 2008
Great read, the author uses narrative histories of Russians to illustrate facets of Russian life after the fall of the Soviet Union, when eager "capitalists" reformed the economy as only Russians could. Without regard for rule of law, they implemented harsh, homicidal even, reforms that lead to the current criminal oligarchy.
6 reviews
May 4, 2007
holy shit this book was good.
i had never read anything like it but it totally opened my eyes to so many levels of corruption that existed after the collapse of the Soviety Union. so much messed up stuffed was happening just a few years ago..and i had NO IDEA.
Profile Image for J.K. George.
Author 3 books15 followers
November 7, 2015
I probably should have rated this book better, as it's well written, but it's so darned depressing and repetitive that it's one I started skimming. If Russia really resembles this picture, then it's a hopeless situation.
Profile Image for Marnie.
1 review2 followers
September 4, 2014
Absolutely horrifying, frightening to see what can be done to a population with no chance of retribution.
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