Russia's Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin

According to a recently published Heritage Foundation report, the 2017 Index of U.S. Military Strength, Russia poses a “formidable” and “aggressive” threat to the vital interests of the United States. The report states, “Russia seeks to maximize its strategic position in the world at the expense of the United States. It also seeks to undermine U.S. influence and moral standing, harasses U.S. and NATO forces, and is working to sabotage U.S. and Western policy in Syria.”

The international machinations of the current Russian government are not all that different from domestic strategies pursued within Russia, according to David Satter, former Moscow correspondent for the London Financial Times and longtime observer of Russia and the former Soviet Union. Author of three previous books on Russia and the Soviet Union and an advisor to Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, Satter has written a new, eye-opening account of recent internal, Russian intrigues in his book, The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship Under Yeltsin and Putin (Yale University Press, 2016, pp. 240, $20.07)

He begins with the disturbing revelation that Yeltsin, a man who came to power through peaceful means and popular support, murdered hundreds of his own people to hold onto power. Satter asserts that the so-called “rebirth” of post-Soviet Russia, interpreted as the death of Communism, was a sham with a phony window-dressing of perestroika and a fake overhaul of the Soviet economic and political system.  

With the advent of perestroika, Russia ostensibly changed its interactions with the West from confrontation to “cooperation.” Yet, the so-called transformation was actually a massive disinformation campaign that included government manufactured and deployed “controlled political opposition,” Satter says. The country appeared transformed, but retained its former Communist Party, centralized government policies, as well as the clandestine role of the KGB remade as the FSB (federal security service).

The trappings of a modern democracy and free enterprise system were seemingly in place for the world to see. However, beneath the surface, the nomenklatura took advantage of financial investments and the transfer of economic skills and technology from the West, while the Communist Party retained control of state financial resources, as well as billions of dollars in property and investments. The much-touted policy to restructure the Soviet economic and political system and permit private ownership of businesses and property failed to meet the stated objective of placing state assets into private hands, Satter writes. Instead of ushering in the end of central planning with a free market system, Russia, under Yeltsin, continued as an essentially Communist regime.

During his time in power, Yeltsin adroitly maneuvered to dissolve the Supreme Soviet and created a super-presidency, nullifying the move to a government based on real separation and balance of powers. He did not establish the rule of law and respect for individual rights necessary for the existence of a free society. Instead, under his rule, property was transferred unlawfully and the economy dominated by a criminal oligarchy and authoritarian political system, Satter says.   

When economic conditions in Russia became desperate following the removal of government price controls and the absence of a true market economy in its place, hyperinflation and massive poverty resulted. The currency collapsed, the GDP plummeted and many Russians became homeless. Additionally, amidst the chaos and uncertainty, unsuspecting Russians were lured by bogus get-rich-quick pyramid schemes and suffered significant financial losses. The country’s economic situation went from bad to worse.  

Satter’s book then examines the horrifying moves Russia’s rulers made to deflect attention from an economy in tatters. Near the close of 1999, as Russians became increasingly angry about massive government corruption and lawlessness and the popularity of Yeltsin and his heir apparent, Putin, dropped into single digits, four apartment buildings were bombed. The violence was orchestrated by the FSB to turn the attention of the populace away from domestic concerns and redirect it toward Chechen terrorism. Satter, who has the distinction of expulsion from Russia in 2014 as an “undesirable,” explains how the Russian government rigged explosions of civilian housing. More than 300 Russian citizens died and the bombings were conveniently blamed on Chechen separatists.

With the perceived Chechen threat and the fear kindled within the Russian population, Putin had an excuse to start the second Chechen war. This action instantly transformed him into a popular hero, easily able to assume control of the country. With the terrorist threat upfront, the miserable conditions in Russia and Yeltsin’s criminal government took a back seat, Satter says. Russians unified behind Putin and shifted their concerns to homeland security. Once elected, Putin, perceived now as a tough leader avenging Chechen aggression, exonerated Yeltsin, who had resigned as president, amid outrage over his government corruption.

Despite the success in shifting public attention elsewhere, suspicions arose about the bombings, Satter writes. Mysteriously, innocent civilians were targeted rather than the Russian military and government buildings. Military detonators were used to trigger the explosives, which were caused by hexogen, a government-controlled compound. Government cleanup squads were rapidly deployed to the bombed-out sites to remove debris, thereby compromising criminal investigations.

Adding to mistrust of the authorities was an implausible explanation given for a failed bomb attack on an apartment building in Ryazan. In that instance, a local resident noticed two suspicious men carrying sacks into the basement and alerted the police. Upon law enforcement investigation, a bomb was found and the detonator disconnected by the local bomb squad, which identified the explosive substance as hexogen. Roadblocks were set up and residents evacuated from the vicinity.

The next day, Putin praised the vigilance of Ryazan citizens in thwarting a terrorist attack and promptly called for the bombing of the Chechen capital, Grozny, in response. However, an alert telephone company employee managed to overhear a conversation traced to FSB offices by alleged perpetrators trying to exit the area. When arrested by local police, the detainees produced FSB identification cards and were ordered released by Moscow.

At that point, the FSB director announced to the public that the government had actually staged the attack to test public reaction and provide security training to the FSB. This was odd because the customary preparation of emergency supplies and services was not in evidence. Also, the fact that the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, rejected two motions to investigate the incident aroused the public suspicion. Any skeptical reporting about government involvement in the apartment bombings was subsequently suppressed with false charges brought against investigators and the banishment of media outlets that made critical reports. Over time, witnesses, investigators and journalists, many friends and colleagues of Satter, were either intimidated or eliminated, as Satter outlines in his book.

When Putin took over as prime minister in 1999 around the time of the apartment bombings, he filled government posts with those with whom he had worked previously in the KGB and the government in St. Petersburg. With his loyalists in tow, he took control of the media, commerce, parliament, and the judicial system. By appointing the court chairman who controls the judges by deciding housing assignment and vacations schedules and monitoring judicial conduct, Putin communicated the government’s interests in specific cases and directed judicial outcomes. Freedom of expression became nonexistent and no real means existed for individuals to defend their rights.

Under Putin’s governance, bribery skyrocketed, Satter says. Profitable businesses not loyal to the Putin regime or which failed to pay bribes were raided under false charges and their assets seized. By starving opponents of funds and raising the threshold for popular representation, Putin eliminated political opposition. Votes were falsified and workers forced to vote under the watchful eye of bosses. Those in rural areas who opposed authority risked losing access to water or having their houses burned down.

In The Less You Know, Satter explains that evidence exists that two later terrorist attacks mirroring the 1999 apartment bombings – the Dubrovka theater hostage crisis of 2002 and the Beslan school siege of 2004 -- were government-instigated operations. He points out that all the terrorists believed to be involved in these two incidents were executed, thus precluding any public trial that would have led to the release of inconvenient details. The government bureaucracy harassed families of victims who sought information about the death of loved ones, denied requests by human rights groups about the incidents and voted down parliamentary investigations. When the commissioner who investigated the apartment bombings promised to look into the theater attack and was assassinated, a clear message was sent by the Kremlin.

Like the apartment bombings, the Dubrovka and Beslan incidents sought to achieve unfettered political control over Russia. The theater attack legitimized a renewed assault on the Chechens and was instrumental in quelling dissent from Russians tired of war and international pressure to approve a Chechen constitution for self-governance.

The Beslan attack enabled the Russian authorities to show that the war was continuing and that Chechen resistance, especially among radical Islamists, was strengthening. Curiously, the day after the siege, all the Beslan school debris, including books and body parts, were removed to a garbage dump outside of town. According to police documents, prior warnings of terrorist attacks on schools in the area had been received, but no roadblocks were set up and no action taken. Also, most of the terrorists who were later identified as having participated in the attack were supposed to have been locked up and in prison at the time of the attack.
Conveniently, the perceived seizure of the school by Chechen Muslims helped reinforce the fear that Chechens were formidable terrorists and aided Putin's image as a indomitable fighter and staunch foe of terrorism. It justified the war in Chechnya that enabled him to destroy the separatist movement and eliminate opposition.

Satter's book does much to bolster the conviction that the supremacy of state interests in Russia overwhelmingly overrides any value placed on human life and individual freedom. The reality exposed in this riveting book is that despite the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia continues in its long tradition of being a rogue state under yet another autocratic regime determined to hold onto power by any means possible, including murder. 

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