David Satter grew up in Chicago as the oldest of five children. He has one brother and three sisters. He is a journalist/author and a well-known Russia scholar. After his time at Oxford on the Rhodes Scholarship, he worked as a police reporter for the Chicago Tribune and in 1976 became the Moscow correspondent of the London Financial Times. He has written two books, Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union and Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State. His numerous articles and essays have been published in the Los Angeles Times, National Review, New Republic, and the Wall Street Journal. His first book, Age of Delirium, is also being made into a documentary film to be finished this year. In addition, he has made appearances on Russian television networks, CNN, C-Span, and the Charlie Rose Show. He is currently a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
What did your parents do for work?
My father was a lawyer. My mother was a housewife while I was growing up. In the later years after my father died, she taught music in a religious school.
What sort of values did your parents instill in you?
Obviously, they tried to instill decent values like a lot of parents. My father was very active in race relations and civil rights in Chicago in the 1960s. He defended a lot of black people who were economically exploited. He was quite well known in Chicago for that. His example was important. He was certainly politically engaged and he didn’t believe in people being exploited or treated unfairly, so that had its influence. And my mother supported him in that. Playing an active role in your society was something I was taught by example and it was certainly held up as something desirable. My father was also what one was called in those days a “progressive,” but in reality it meant someone who sympathized with the Soviet Union and various left-wing causes. He was very passionate about that. It was only at the end of his life that information began to reach the world on what was really going on in the Soviet Union. He was very disturbed by it, because it meant that he had been misled or misinformed about certain things. He died in 1965. The 22nd Party Congress, in which a great deal of information was made public about the crimes of the Stalin period, took place in 1961. Then he became ill, so there wasn’t a lot of time for discussing it for his evolution. I remember I talked to him about it and he said it appears it was much worse than we realized.
Is that why you became a Russian expert?
Not a hundred percent. His interest was in the Soviet Union, left-wing ideas and socialism. It’s hard for me to know exactly in what form, since he did operate within a normal capitalist society. He made a living. He was a lawyer. He did everything American citizens do. It was a combination of factors. The origin of it was my interest in Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, because I’m Jewish. I grew up as part of the generation of Jewish kids who were born immediately after the war and under the influence of what happened to the European Jews during the war. Now, of course, there’s the discussion of the Holocaust everywhere, but in those years up until the Six Day War in 1967, people didn’t talk about the Holocaust that much. In fact, they tried not to talk about it. It was so horrible that people didn’t want to think about it, or discuss it. That changed, but when I was growing up it was like that. I was interested in how it was possible for such a thing to happen.
Well, there are two things here. I went to a high school that offered Russian as a language. Very unusual. After Sputnik was launched in 1956, there was a lot of publicity in the United States. A lot of articles said 10 million Russians are learning English, 500 Americans are learning Russian, and this is why we’re behind in science. In our school, a little old émigré lady was offering Russian. My father said to me, “You should take Russian. It might be useful someday.” I couldn’t imagine how that could be possible. I knew to go to Russia and spend time there was impossible for all but a certain select number of people under very special circumstances. It never occurred to me that I would be one of those people.
I did study it for four years in high school. I didn’t do very well in Russian. I didn’t learn very much, but at least I learned a little so when I went to the University of Chicago I enrolled in Russian, whereas other people who took Russian gave up on it and studied Spanish or something else that they considered easier. It is the only language I ever tried to develop and learn. The result was when I was interviewed by the Financial Times for a job, I was able to say I knew Russian, but this is jumping ahead a little.
When I got to Oxford and the question arose of doing a thesis, under the recommendation of my tutor I decided to do it about Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher who wrote about totalitarianism. I was considering traveling during the long vacation. All of us wanted to travel. I thought of perhaps learning German and writing some sort of thesis about Nazism, but I didn’t even have a foothold in the German language and also Nazi Germany had been defeated. It no longer existed, so it was purely a historical question, but the Soviet Union existed. It was there and accessible from Oxford. You could just take a train and go there. Since I knew a little bit of Russian, it occurred to me that I should and go see something that really exists.
So I began traveling there. My housemate, or close friend at that point was Strobe Talbott. He had gone ahead [to the Soviet Union] and his interest actually had an influence on mine. It seemed like a very exciting thing to do. He was working on a thesis about a Russian poet. He went there to do research. In the meantime, he met people and he passed those people onto me. A lot of things pointed me in that direction and I went back to the U.S. without finishing my thesis and went to work as a police reporter in Chicago. Obviously, a path to promotion was becoming a foreign correspondent. The logical place to go would have been Moscow, where I had some experience and at least a little bit of a language background. And my thesis was ideal preparation, because Hannah Arendt had a deep understanding of the totalitarian system.
I spent the four years in Chicago covering murder and mayhem at night and working on my thesis during the day. It was the perfect preparation for becoming a Moscow correspondent. On the one hand, I learned the nuts and bolts of journalism–how to write a new story and that kind of thing–and on the other I learned about the nature of totalitarianism. When I got there, it was not difficult for me to understand the essence of what was going on, whereas most Americans arriving there were totally bewildered and never really understood what they were seeing and being exposed to. So that’s how it all happened. Once I was there, I ended up staying for six years as a Financial Times correspondent and I’ve been writing about Russia ever since.
Let’s go back to your childhood. What were you like growing up? What sort of things piqued your interest as a teenager?
I was very interested as a teenager in world affairs. I read all of the left-wing publications that came into our house including the National Guardian. My father read widely and subscribed to a wide variety of publications including British publications which were not so usual at that time. We used to get the Manchester Guardian, Punch, and the New Statesman at one time. I was, of course, very interested in the Holocaust and how it was possible. I was perceptive as a teenager at least in one respect. I understood the fact that one group of people putting another group of people into gas chambers and trying to wipe them off the face of the earth shows something very, very fundamental about modern society. It indicated very deep causes and they had to be understood. That I grasped, even as a teenager.
Did you standapart as a teenager?
Oh, very much, but not necessarily for being the best at everything. I was certainly good at some things. I was very far from being the best at everything, the best adjusted, the most popular, or the best liked. The former warden of Rhodes House, E.T. Williams, used to say that some Rhodes Scholars were nature’s head prefect. That means the number one boy at a private school in British schools. I was not that, but I did have a very high opinion of myself, probably too high.
Where did that come from?
Fostered by the whole environment and that’s not unusual for certain type of bright Jewish kids.
Especially the firstborn.
Absolutely. Looking back on it now I sometimes feel a little embarrassed about it, but as I get older I realize that, in fact, it was a great source of future strength and strength at the time, too. I didn’t care that much about what other kids thought. What was important was what I felt. On the one hand, that could be rightly be seen as an unpleasant character trait. On the other hand, it’s sometimes good to think for yourself and I developed that habit very, very early.
Did you care what adults thought?
Yes. More so. Much more so.
And did you have any other adult role models besides your father?
Well, yes, because after my father died, I was seventeen. I actually wrote an article, which launched my journalistic career, about slum conditions on the west side of Chicago that appeared in the New Republic. That’s the reason I won the Rhodes Scholarship really. I was contacted by Joseph Alsop who was a famous journalist and I became friends with him. When I was in my late teens and twenties, he served as a kind of role model. In general, I had great respect for people who truly knew something and were real intellectuals. Those intellectual thoughts were definitely fostered by my parents and my environment.
What sort of lessons did you learn from Joesph Alsop?
It just shows you how life is. He was also one who didn’t care much about what other people thought. He cared more about what he thought. He was a marvelous example of an intellectual, a quite well read and cultivated intellectual who nonetheless was active in political life and in the world of society. He didn’t live an ivory tower existence any more than I do now, although now as you catch me, I’m here at the University of Illinois teaching for five weeks. For me, this isn’t typical. I do teach at Johns Hopkins, but the most I ever did was two classes for one term. Usually, it’s one class and it’s not every term. It’s either fall or spring. That’s not the same thing as being a full-time academic.
Are there any lessons that you took away from your Rhodes experience that you still utilize in your present day life?
The Oxford and Balliol experience definitely had an emphasis on civility and being well spoken. Oxford was a marvelous place, at Balliol in particular, to hone one’s rhetorical skills. I was very dedicated to that and, of course, my fellow Rhodes Scholars and Oxford students were all very articulate people. It was a good society for developing whatever powers of self-expression a person had. I became better spoken at Oxford than I was before I went.
Were you part of a debate society?
No. The Junior Common Room at Balliol was a debate society late at night, when everyone gathered there until all hours arguing about whatever was going on in the world. One of the things people argued about a lot those days was the Israeli-Arab situation and I’m sure they’re still doing it today at Oxford. You know the situation hasn’t been resolved.
Did you enjoy your time at Oxford?
I did. Those were wonderful years. I remember them as great, great fun. It was a wonderful experience. It did me a lot of good.
Let’s go back to your first time in Russia. What was that like?
I went in 1969. I was really shocked to see the conditions in the communist world, beginning with a stop in Warsaw, Poland. I found out what it was to stand in long queues to get the most basic items and where it was impossible even to get something to read. The shabbiness, the uniformity, and the oppression made an impression on me. It’s one thing to read about it. The Russians have a proverb: one time see something than a thousand times to hear about it. That was certainly was true of Russia itself and of the Communist bloc. It made a big impression.
Because of your knowledge of Russia, do you see any lessons for the U.S.?
I write about that all the time. What we can learn is we actually have a society in the United States that functions rather well, one that values human life and the rights of people. Sometimes for all the criticism we make of our society (and it’s healthy in some respects), it’s also healthy to understand that there are places a great deal worse. It gives us some perspective. As George Orwell said, “He nothing knows of England who only England knows” It’s the same thing–he nothing knows of America, who only America knows. If you want to understand America better, look at Russia.
Let’s talk about failure. How do you handle failure? What’s your perspective on it?
My first job was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times in 1972. I was fired from that job after ninety days. So that was failure, I guess, but insofar I thought the firing was unfair and I didn’t respect the people who had fired me. It didn’t damage my self-esteem. In my particular case, for me to think of something as failure, it has to be something I consider a failure not the judgment of society per se. That was an example of what some people would describe as a failure, failure to hold that job, but I didn’t look at it that way. I just packed all my things in my car and drove across the country and began looking for another job, which I eventually found, although it was a hell of a way to start a career.
Did they say why they were firing you?
They gave some stupid reasons. It’s been a long time now. To tell you the truth, I think they just didn’t care for me. [Laughs] In subsequent jobs, I learned how to get along better with people as evidenced by the fact that I wasn’t fired again.
What did you change about yourself, if anything?
I understood I had to make some adaptations to the environment. I remember when I arrived in Los Angeles everyone was crazy about the basketball team, the Los Angeles Lakers, and somebody mentioned the Lakers to me and I said, “Who are the Lakers?”
I made no effort to adapt to their norms, although the real problem was that I was hired by someone who himself had lost his job and lost influence and I was seen as connected to that person, but my own behavior didn’t help. It would have been a problem no matter what. A combination of mostly naiveté and lack of understanding of the situation. I wasn’t really aggressive, but I just succeeded in making matters worse.
What do you think has been the worse thing that has ever happened to you, or what’s the best day in your life so far?
I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had some very good days and I’ve had many vivid experiences as a journalist and traveling as I have. It’s hard to say best or worst.
How about an impressive memory?
To take one thing is hard to do when there were actually any number of things that would be just as noteworthy. One thing that does stand out in my mind is the day I completed my first book [Age of Delirium] after working on it for twelve years. There were many periods in which it appeared that I would never be able to finish it, because I wrote about the Soviet Union and the time when the Soviet Union began to disappear. Working under those conditions was a true nightmare.
What conditions do you mean?
Conditions in the Soviet Union. Things were changing so fast that I couldn’t keep up with events. It appeared that all the work and effort I had put in would be wasted. When I succeeded in finishing it and getting published, it was a great triumph.
What year did it get published?
It was published in ’96 and I sent it in, in ’94, but there were some revisions.
In what way did it set the stage for any future steps?
It was critical, because I was out of money. I don’t mean in terms of how some people say they are down to their savings. I had no savings. I was literally down to virtually nothing.
Where were you living at the time?
In Washington, D.C. and deep in debt. As a result of finishing the book, I was given a position with Johns Hopkins and then at other institutions like the Hoover and the Hudson. I got an advance to write a new book, even though the book was not a success in terms of sales. It was a great success critically. It’s been translated into a number of languages and it’s being made into a documentary film now.
When is the documentary film supposed to be coming out?
Hopefully, we’re going to get it done within the next six months. It’s got a lot of material. The book basically saved my situation. I was really in an absolutely desperate situation. I would have had to do just anything to earn money and I’m not good at doing just anything. God knows how I would have managed. True to my youthful self, I’ve spent almost my entire life either self-employed, or working as a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times under conditions in which I might as well have been self-employed. The only contact I had with my employers was to talk to them once a day, tell them what I was doing, and receive checks from them, otherwise I was really a power onto myself in Moscow.
It was just the four years as a police reporter in Chicago that I actually worked in an organization and dealt with the things people often have to deal with like the coordination, dealing with bosses, the mentality of an organization. I never had to deal with that. Of the last thirty-six years, I only really had a recognizable job for ten of those years. And of those ten, I really worked with other people for only four. Basically, I’ve spent virtually my entire adult life enjoying conditions, or in conditions that are very rare and very fortunate. Lucky for me, but that’s the way it’s been.
What are the three things that you like about what you do?
Those are very easy. There’s self-expression, independence, and interest.
Did you always think you would be working independently?
I always hoped to. I was reading through letters that I wrote my girlfriend at the time when I was at the Tribune and my idea was to get away from that organization and to do something, whatever it was, but be on my own. I could not have imagined that it would work out as well as it did.
So you never felt any pressure because you were a Rhodes Scholar to succeed or be great?
Not because I was a Rhodes Scholar. What I do is, in effect, significant because it has influence. Every person who writes tries to be great, in the sense that they try to do the best that they can with what they’re writing. Now how good or not good all the writing that I’ve done (and it’s not just the books, there are many, many articles and essays), that’s for other people to judge. Those people who write well and write truthfully, whoever they may be, are great, because they provide guidance to others. That’s how values are formed and defended. People then perform functions in society hopefully in the light of values. At least, we hope it’s that way.
What would you say to anyone old or young about going beyond a mediocre life and living a rich, fulfilling life?
Having a rich life or a significant one depends on a person’s inner self not on their circumstances. Life sometimes dictates for no good reason that a person is trapped in a job that he or she doesn’t like. The key is to be your own person. If the job defines you, then you can talk about mediocre existence. But I don’t think that the mere fact of having such a job or having such an existence makes a person mediocre if that person doesn’t want to be. It’s who you are as a person that determines it. As a journalist, I’ve meet people from all walks of life, at all levels of society and the real quality people is often not connected to their status in society.
That’s one of the things a good writer tries to bring out. That’s one of the things I try to bring out in the books I wrote. Maybe the best advice ever given was Polonius’ advice in Hamlet:
This above all, to thine ownself be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
That’s how it seems to me anyway. A person can have mediocre circumstances through no fault of his own, but that does not mean the person himself or herself is mediocre if they don’t will it to be, or if they desire to be otherwise. What really counts is the inner person in the situation that he or she finds himself in, because life can put people in very unexpected and undeserved situations.