On 14 January 2014 David Satter – a distinguished US journalist and author of several books – was expelled from Russia, becoming the first American journalist to be banned from the country since the end of the Cold War.
The Sochi Winter Olympics has drawn the gaze of the world’s media towards Russia and increased tensions between the authorities in Moscow and those they find ‘undesirable’. Despite recent concessions made by President Vladimir Putin, which included the release of some political opponents from prison, longtime critic of the Kremlin David Satter finds himself expelled from the country which has been the major subject of his 38 year career. The Russian foreign ministry stated that the decision to expel the journalist was due to a violation of visa regulations, a claim that Satter dismisses as ‘bureaucratic tricky’.
In this article by David Satter, the author explains the reality of being barred from a country and describes how he intends to manage this shocking affair.
My Expulsion from Russia
The run up to the Christmas holidays was not going well. I was in Kiev to renew my Russian visa. (This has to be done from outside the country.) But I was having bureaucratic problems.
On December 23, the Foreign Ministry sent me a number for my visa approval letter. In theory, all I had to do was present the number with a completed application and photograph in order to pick up my visa. On Christmas Eve, however, the consul in the Russian embassy who accepted my application said he found a number but no approval letter. He searched two more times without success. Finally, I asked him: “Has there ever been a case in your experience where the Foreign Ministry issued an approval number without an accompanying letter.” “No,” he said, “never.”
I called the Foreign Ministry in Moscow and explained the situation to Lev Lvovich, a diplomat in the press department. He seemed surprised and said he would consult with his superior. A half hour later, I called him back and he told me to call the embassy the following day and ask for Alexei Gruby, a first secretary. He said Gruby would make sure that I received my visa.
That night, my documentary film, “Age of Delirium,” about the fall of the Soviet Union was shown to a crowd in the Maiden (“Independence Square”) in Kiev. About a hundred persons stood in subzero cold until midnight watching the story of ordinary people and the Soviet collapse. The next morning, I was interviewed by Kiev’s Espreso TV, an internet television network that covers the Maiden, and, after the interview, I called the embassy and was connected to Gruby.
Ukraine celebrates the Orthodox Christmas. On December 25, all offices were open. Gruby said he was expecting my call. He then told me he had a statement to read. “The competent organs,” he said, “have determined that your presence on the territory of the Russian Federation is undesirable.” My visa to Russia was refused. The phrase “competent organs” is used in Russia to refer to the Federal Security Service (FSB).
After nearly four decades of writing and reporting about Russia and the Soviet Union, Russia for me was now officially closed. Many persons told me they were amazed that this had not happened to me earlier.
I first went to Russia in 1976 as a correspondent for the “Financial Times.” There was an attempt to expel me in 1979 when I was accused of “hooliganism.” I survived that attempt because both the British and the American governments threatened to expel Soviet correspondents in retaliation. I eventually stayed in the Soviet Union until 1982 and only left to write my first book, Age of Delirium: the Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union. It was this book that was made into the film that was shown on Christmas Eve in the Maidan.
During the 1980s, I was refused visas to the Soviet Union and was only able to enter the country on reporting trips on two occasions when the U.S. State Department threatened retaliation against Soviet correspondents if I was not allowed in. In 1990, with perestroika well under way, I was still blacklisted by the Soviets, apparently the last journalist still banned during a period of dramatic liberalization. “Reader’s Digest,” for whom I was writing pieces about Russia, however, threatened to cancel plans for a Russian language edition of the magazine. The Soviet authorities were encouraging Western institutions to set up in Moscow and the faced with the Digest ultimatum, decided to allow me in.
For the next 24 years, I traveled freely to Moscow, writing many articles and two books, Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State and It Was a Long Time Ago and it Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past.
As the Putin regime became steadily more authoritarian, I was aware that time might be running out. In Darkness at Dawn, I argued that the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia that led to the second Chechen War and brought Putin to power were carried out by the FSB and not by Chechen rebels. I later argued that the decision by Russian forces to open fire with flame throwers on a school gymnasium filled with hostages during the 2004 terrorist incident in Beslan, killing 338 hostages constituted a crime against humanity.
In September, 2013, I moved to Russia to take up a position as an adviser to Radio Liberty. I hoped that the Russian authorities, after nearly four decades, had reconciled themselves to my writing whose accuracy has never been questioned. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
I now will have to write about Russia from outside its territory. This is an inconvenience but not a fatal problem. In any case, it is better to write about Russia from outside and write freely than to report only 90 per cent of the truth, which is what the Russian authorities want from foreign correspondents. Ninety per cent of the truth looks to the uninformed like the whole truth. But part of the truth is missing and, unfortunately, more often than not, that part is the important part.