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  • E.G. Maladroit

‘The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep’

David Satter’s ‘The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep’ is a concise introduction to the period of descent into terror that followed the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent accessions of Yeltsin and Putin. The book is somewhat pompous and not entirely upfront with the extent of its basis in conspiracy, as well as unsurprising in content, but is nonetheless convincing and an encapsulating read. Satter’s journalistic experience as a ‘Moscow correspondent’ and ‘Special Correspondent for Soviet Affairs’ (for the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal respectively) shines through, allowing an interesting and seemingly competent coverage of the topic.

Somewhat off-putting from the very beginning was the sense of self-importance the book expels. The copious moralising about the Russian Government’s actions, which are described in gradually more exaggerated terms, highlight this: Satter introduces the first terrorist incidents by compelling the reader to understand that (as a government bombing its own citizens should be incomprehensible to all civilised western readers) ‘the impossible is really possible’ when it comes to Russia. This is somewhat entertaining with Satter being from America, a country whose government has numerous times bombed its own citizens (the Philadelphia MOVE bombing, as well as the Tulsa Race Massacre (where firebombs were used as part of the destructions) come to mind). This culminates in his declaration that:

‘murdering hundreds of randomly chosen civilians in order to hold onto power shows a cynicism that cannot be comprehended in a normal human context. But it is fully consistent with the kind of country that is Russia’

– a statement laden with presumption and unnecessary dramatization, as well as borderline Russophobia. This tendency is entirely unnecessary, as one can safely assume most people are competent enough to realise for themselves that terrorism is bad, even without the author’s diligent assistance. Though this is mostly done at the beginning of the book, it is compounded by Satter’s strange obsession with Russia being a country innately lacking morality – declaring it to have had ‘no moral revolution’, something repeatedly mentioned throughout the book. Though he seemingly substantiates this with crime statistics, it seems strange to assert this could be the only reason behind a rise in crime, when one could far less spuriously view criminal activity as being due to the lawlessness and chaos (as well as general desperation) that followed a dramatic shift in government. Though perhaps I give it too much thought, it struck me as reminiscent of the tendency to portray people from previous time periods (especially with medieval scholars) as somehow morally primitive simply because they lived differently and had different circumstances to us. Overall, this added slightly bothersome undertones to the book – and ones that should be noted with caution – but did not render it wholly unreadable.

Elsewhere I found Satter’s tone and descriptions to be mostly respectful and compelling – particularly when describing the 2002 and 2004 hostage situations, where his unverbose manner allows the horrors of the respective events to speak for themselves. This is where the book excels, as, even to someone already aware of the violence of Putin’s regime, the incidents are deeply disturbing and shocking, especially when undiluted by moralising (one should also note that often the evidence Satter uses to link these terrorist events (as well as the 1999 apartment bombings) to Putin is circumstantial, though on a whole seemingly convincing).

A main critique I saw in most reviews was that the book fails to ‘tell us something new’. This is accurate to an extent – it is pretty brief, only around 248 pages (or 5 hours 23 minutes in the audiobook form, which is what I chose), and therefore limited in the detail it could go into. I found a lot (particularly that on the 1999 bombings) was information that had been circulating and widely discussed for years, by both its predecessors (such as ‘Blowing Up Russia’ – an old favourite) and the media. However, it still provides interesting insight – I particularly enjoyed how it highlighted that the path to terror was not inevitable, something I had not really considered previously due to the often-pessimistic tone in which Russian politics is discussed, and it is far less sensationalistic (despite its aforementioned sometimes self-impressed tone) than many of the other books covering the same topics, which make it’s Russophobia seem remote. On top of this, though one review I saw critiqued its rather dense coverage of the Ukrainian ‘Maiden Revolution’ this highlighted the author’s opinion on a possible future of Russian opposition to Putin, and an optimistic way forwards for country.

Overall, I found the book benefited from its brevity, and provides an entertaining and disturbing coverage of the descent into Putin’s rise and terror. It seems better suited to readers less familiar to the topic, as it would understandably be slightly repetitive to those who have followed Putin’s career closely. However, it should also be taken at times with a pinch of salt – especially when encountering Satter’s more moral assertions, though these can be somewhat ignored. The first chapter or so is the worst for the self-importance, and after that the annoying asides mostly fade away, making it on the whole a good read.


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