Get David Satter: Who’s more of a threat to the Kremlin, the journalist or the terrorist?


From a long term perspective, David Satter has been a thorn in the side of the Kremlin for almost four decades. That is understandable. The two explosions that rocked Volgograd took the lives of 34 people. The perpetrators were most likely suicide bombers. Moscow immediately blamed the Chechens, who – according to the Kremlin narrative – wanted to disrupt the coming Winter Olympics in Sochi. Satter went on record saying the perpetrators were most probably “Islamists.” It is quite possible he is right. So why ban him now?

By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz | February 3, 2014

David Satter (who happens to be an acquaintance of mine) has just been expelled from the Russian Federation. David is no stranger to the masters of the Kremlin. He has accumulated a long track record of annoying them. Having been threatened with deportation as early as 1979 for “hooliganism,” Satter left the Soviet Union three years later under a cloud in 1982.

Working as a correspondent for the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, he had been detained and menaced (including drugged and robbed) numerous times by the secret police because he was one of the very few Western journalists who actually discharged his professional duty conscientiously under Communism. David refused to hang out at the ex-pat bar to listen to the Kremlin “insider” stories fed to the useful idiots of the Western press corps by the KGB’s masters of deception.

Instead, he roamed the length and breadth of the USSR. He watched the country, observed the authorities, interviewed the people, and not just the urban folk in Moscow, but also the provincials and non-Russians, including non-mainstream dissidents. He listened to their stories with compassion, recorded them with accuracy, and translated them aptly to make them crystal clear for the confused Western reader. In a word, David Satter got the Soviet Union right. Uniquely, his publisher and editors always backed him up. They refused to capitulate cravenly to the diktat of the Kremlin to muzzle their star reporter. And, therefore, the latter was able to function as an outsider in a totalitarian dictatorship for four long years.

At the end of the 1980s, David Satter began going back to the USSR. He witnessed the implosion of the empire, the transformation of its core into the Russian Federation and the peripheries into sovereign republics, and the ensuing orgy of embezzlement of state property by the post-Communist nomenclatura, as it imagined itself as “capitalists.” He recorded it faithfully and carefully.

He also watched with great trepidation the return of the KGB old guard in a new guise as the FSB national security operatives re-emerging in a soft totalitarian form. David Satter nailed the defining moment of the triumph of the secret police apparatus, as it made itself indispensible, protecting Russia from Chechen terrorism, as a series of explosions rocked Russian cities in 1999. Or was it? The journalist discovered that the alleged Chechen terrorists were most likely security men and women who planted and exploded a series of bombs in Russia proper to mobilize the population by fostering fear to support the government’s prolonged (1991-1996 and 1997-1999) military adventure in the Caucasus. The whole operation paved the way for the assumption of power by Vladimir Putin.

David Satter has continued visiting Russia and writing the truth about the continuation of the ruthless subjugation of the individual under Putin’s “sovereign democracy.” Meanwhile, the Western friend of the Russian people has penned three journalistic accounts of their recent history, including The Age of Delirium (1996), Darkness at Dawn (2003) along with It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway (2011), which I reviewed for this publication. One became a documentary movie, “The Age of Delirium.” One time, when he had returned home, David Satter said he was not afraid for himself because his international recognition gave him a measure of protection. But he was concerned about ordinary Russians, and not so ordinary ones, including his journalist friends. Some of them were intimidated, others beaten, and a few assassinated by the “unknown perpetrators,” which is an unofficial by-word for official government involvement.

In September 2013, David Satter became an adviser of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and in that capacity traveled to Russia, yet again. By the end of November, the Russian authorities notified him about his residency problems. Technically, he was tardy applying for an extension of his visa. So, at the beginning of December, Satter left for Ukraine to have it extended (no doubt to cover the Euro-Maidan rallies of Ukrainian nationalists against their post-Communist kleptocratic government, which elected to embrace Moscow instead of Brussels). After Christmas, the journalist was told by the Russian consul in Kyiv that “the official organs” judged him to be unfit to return to the Russian Federation. In other words, he was barred from Russia. Why?

From a long term perspective, David Satter has been a thorn in the side of the Kremlin for almost four decades. That is understandable. But why ban him now? This is anyone’s guess and Vlad is not answering his phone. One wild, conspiratorial possibility immediately comes to mind. The Kremlin does not want Satter around so there would be no journalistic, hence, unofficial, investigation into the recent wave of terror. Namely, a string of explosions rocked a few localities, and alleged plots have been discovered to perpetrate more mayhem. At the end of December, a bomb blew up in Pyatigorsk, killing three. Then, two explosions rocked Volgograd, taking the lives of 34 people. The perpetrators were most likely suicide bombers.

Moscow immediately blamed the Chechens, who – according to the Kremlin narrative – wanted to disrupt the coming Winter Olympics in Sochi. Western news agencies lapped up the official story eagerly and plastered it all over the front pages of the international print and broadcast media. An unprecedented outpouring of sympathy massaged Russia from all over the globe. World leaders offered condolences for the victims and condemnation for the perpetrators. No longer a gay bashing bear, Putin was cooed over like a newly born panda.

Meanwhile, the terrorist saga continued. At the beginning of January three cars laden with explosives were found in the Stavropol regions. One of them exploded, harming no one, thankfully. Inside the vehicles there were six bodies riddled with bullets. Who were the deceased? Who killed them? Was it the FSB? Were they planted in the cars? Was this all staged? We do not know. It was also announced that five terrorist suspects were nabbed in Nachilik in Daghestan and five others were killed there in the village of Karlanyurt in a firefight with Russian security forces. Three counter-terrorist troops fell as well. One of the dead terrorists was allegedly implicated in the Pyatigorsk bombings. Was he a suicide bomber who survived, or a facilitator?

It is also strange that for almost a month no one claimed responsibility for the bombings. Since terrorism is predicated on media circus, terrorists usually jump at any chance to self-promote, sometimes even claiming credit for natural disasters. Only a few days ago, two unknown Dagestani Islamists bragged at having participated in the bombing in Volgograd, and a local commander of Alsar al-Sunna of the Vilayat Dagestan (Islamist Dagestan Province), an affiliate of the Caucasus Emirate, chimed in to seize the spotlight eagerly. No word about anything else. David Satter went on the record saying the perpetrators were most probably “Islamists.” It is quite possible he is right. They have suspended their moratorium on killing civilians and have pledged to prevent the Olympic Games from taking place in Sochi. Yet, at the moment, Doku Umarov, the self-proclaimed Emir of the Caucasus and the principal al-Qaeda affiliate in the post-Soviet zone, has been strangely silent. It does not mean that he was not behind the bombings. It denotes several possibilities. First, Umarov may not have been involved in these particular acts of terror. Second, the Islamist leader keeps silent because there are other suicide squads at large laying in wait to strike and their guru has held off on the news release until they will have carried out their missions, thus making for a more awesome propaganda impact of their dastardly deeds. Third, the regional al-Qaeda boss’s mouth is mum because he wants us to think that Putin did it.

Is Putin responsible for the bombings? We do not know. It is certainly a possibility, as well. And, it would be a great story for David Satter to investigate. In fact, if the Kremlin was shrewd, it would invite precisely the famous journalist to poke around at the evidence. As it is, the best qualified outside expert of Russia (except my favorite dinosaurs from the U.S. intelligence community) is barred from the scene of the crime. In other words, in a creepy way, certain events have transpired in the Russian Federation that are eerily reminiscent of the modus operandi of the secret police unearthed by the American journalist about fifteen years ago. Putin wants him out. What would Lenin do? “Exterminate all terrorists,” the current master of the Kremlin faithfully responded. Does David Satter qualify as one?

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he also holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.