The expulsion of journalist-historian David Satter from Vladimir Putin’s Russia is indeed — as Satter himself puts it in today’s Wall Street Journal – “an admission that the system under President Vladimir Putin cannot tolerate free speech, even in the case of foreign correspondents.”
Satter was in Russia as an investigative reporter for Radio Liberty’s Russian service, the successor station of the old Soviet-era Radio Free Europe.
No one is better equipped to cover today’s Russia, over which Putin presides as a tin-horn replica of Joe Stalin. Satter’s book Age of Delirium, which he subsequently made into a documentary film, reveals in poignant interviews what it was really like to live in the Soviet Union in its post-Stalin days. His most recent book, It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past, explores how Russia’s failure to understand and investigate what the decades of the Soviet experiment meant for their people’s lives permitted another authoritarian regime to develop under Putin.
So when the Russian authorities learned that David Satter was now going to reside in Moscow as the base for his reporting gig, they could not have been happy. Satter’s months there coincided with the planning of the forthcoming Sochi Olympics and the renewal of terrorism said to be from Chechen Muslims. It is also a period for investigating what Satter calls “unanswered questions from the past,” such as who was responsible for the 2004 massacre at the Beslan school, who bore responsibility for the murder in London of major Putin political opponent Alexander Litvinenko, and who murdered crusading journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estemirova.
Of course Putin’s Russia is not the old Stalinist Soviet Union, but there are great similarities. Putin and his cronies, as Satter says, hold total political power and also control the country’s most valuable economic assets. Rather than create socialism in one country, as Stalin would have it, Putin has created crony capitalism, in which one set of approved leaders gets it all for themselves. The country is on the verge of economic collapse, held aloft only by artificially high prices for oil and gas. (Satter covered all this in Darkness at Dawn:The Rise of the Russian Criminal State.)
Clearly, in this precarious time for Russia and as Putin stakes his reputation on an unsullied Olympics, his security forces do not want a man of character such as David Satter reporting. New terrorist attacks have been taking place, and Satter is the man who provided evidence that past terrorism acts, such as the 2007 apartment bombings which the Kremlin blamed on the Chechens, were really carried out by the FSB, the successor agency of the old KGB.
Satter provides more information about his expulsion on his own website. There is only one conclusion as to why he was expelled, not even given permission to gather his belongings from his Moscow apartment and to retrieve his journalistic notes: “The real reason for my refusal,” Satter writes, “was the one given by Alexei Gruby in Kiev. I was expelled from the country at the demand of the security services.”
This is indeed “an ominous precedent for all journalists,” as well as for free speech in Putin’s Russia.
How will the journalistic community respond? Will they take their credentials and just cover the Olympics — which would give much-welcome propaganda via publicity as determined by Putin’s controlled news apparatus — or will they protest Satter’s expulsion and threaten to report independently once in Russia?