David Satter delivers one of the most harrowing stories of all time with It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway, an examination of Russia’s Communist past, its perpetration of atrocities against its own people and others, and its frequent denial of such actions. 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 which ordinary people accept as part of their daily lives. By no means is Russia unique in being a nation that must grapple with questions of national cruelty and corruption, and its fate in a world that increasingly declares itself intolerant of such behavior, but its rich history makes its story all the more fascinating––and tragic.
Satter notes, very early in the volume, that the current Russian disregard for life is “grim” and “extreme”, as exemplified by the story of Taras Shugaev, a 25-year-old Moscow billiard player who lost consciousness on a city street and was placed in a dumpster that was then emptied into a garbage truck. It was there that he placed a terrifying call to the Moscow Rescue Service that handled his predicament so coldly, so incompetently, that reading the transcript of the call, you can’t help but feel enraged.
Whether Shugaev or the countless other Russians who have died under either mysterious or wholly unnecessary circumstances, there are tragedies in great abundance among the Russian people. Satter recalls the November 1917 coup d’état in which Bolsheviks unleashed a terror that the author views as “the attempt of political actors… to liquidate truth”. This was not the beginning of the cruelty, but it was one of the more remarkable measures. Later, Satter notes, Stalin would call for a quota on executions and arrests during the Great Terror. In one short year well over a half million people had been shot, while a nearly equal number had been shipped to labor camps where they met their demise.
In all, he notes, the Russian desire to remember these events or grapple with the magnitude of their cruelty, has not been a major Russian concern. In forests all over the former Soviet Union there are a multitude of ghosts, some of them known, some unknown, and to begin to meet them all would only be an invitation, it seems, to a lifetime of remembering and mourning, mourning and remembering––or, perhaps worse, attempting to reconcile these events with a nation that is often stubbornly––and detrimentally––proud.
Satter describes, in detail, the appeal that Communism held for the Russian people––it provided security, he writes, as well as a universal ideal, and, he adds, appealed to the chauvinistic qualities of men who identified with a powerful government in order to compensate for their personal impotence. There was a guarantee of work and a guarantee that the old would be cared for, unlike, some might argue, in the Capitalist world where even the hardest-working and highest-achieving people could inexplicably find themselves in financial ruins. The collapse of Communism left the individual incapable of finding his own voice and thus he remained reliant on the collective and intent on keeping the collective intact, damn the cost.
In Russia, history itself has been up for grabs; some say that what’s most unpredictable there is not the country’s future, but its past. Satter writes that nearly a decade ago a widely used textbook, A History of the Homeland in the Twentieth Century, lost a long-held endorsement from the Ministry of Education. Written by Igor Dolutsky, the text shed an unfavorable light on the Soviet era. It was replaced by works that reassessed the Soviet Union, considered Stalin a hero of the nation, who was rational in his measures, while Gorbachev was portrayed as harmful to the nation, opening it up to Western deceit.
As for Putin, he acknowledged that Russia had engaged in atrocities but that those committed by other nations were far worse, far more extreme. In a television poll aimed at determining the greatest Russian of all time, Stalin came close to being named at the top; the poll showed clear favoritism to Lenin and Stalin while considering Khrushchev and Gorbachev in a less favorable light. Satter writes that “Ivan the Terrible, who used to boil his victims alive”, finished tenth in the poll. A recount was demanded as some cried out that the results had been rigged. On the second round, Stalin placed third.
It’s not that historical revisionism exists in Russia, but that the revisionism––and sometimes the downright denial of the historical record––swings to extremes. One such case is the Katyn Forest massacre, a cover-up of extreme proportions in which, by some estimates, more than 20,000 Poles were slaughtered. Never the best of friends, Katyn has been a sticking point in Polish-Russian relations for decades, especially given that the Soviets attempted to blame the Germans for the massacre and, according to one account, Stalin suggested that the thousands of missing Poles had probably migrated to Manchuria after their time as POWs came to an end.
Although some settlement of the issue––tenuous though it may have been––appeared within reach, the 2010 death of Polish president Lech Kaczynksi as well as dozens of the country’s top political and military in a plane crash while en route to a 70th anniversary commemoration of the massacre, aggravated the tensions and deepened some denials in its wake.
These factors, along with many others chronicled in the pages of Satter’s book, highlight the confusion and tragedy that loom large in Russia’s present and future. Still, the author closes the work on a somewhat hopeful note, suggesting that Russians can, through action, dictate some portion of their future. Still, Satter writes, many Russian’s prefer “national delusions” over critical thinking and that a fear of breaking from the past and thereby breaking with tradition may be one of the overarching reasons why Russians remain stubbornly fused to this dark past.
It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway is a dark read, but it’s an important account of a wise people who have long remained embroiled in or on the constant precipice of tragedy. Satter has delivered a serious work that can only probe the most tender places in our collective heart, and bring us to such a place that we weep for history and for the Russian people.