In a time when nuanced and intelligent reflection is in short supply, journalist David Satter is an indispensable voice of historical, political, and cultural analysis. University of Chicago and Oxford University educated, Satter became a correspondent for the Financial Times of London. From 1976 to 1982, he lived and worked in the Soviet Union, reporting on the political and social situation.
Satter is unlike any other journalist. Along with delivering the facts about Russia and Communism, Satter’s work is imbued by philosophical and existential analysis of the events. He eschews a simplistic take on Communism that usually involves an “us versus them” mode of thought, and reports the daily reality of people who lived under the totalitarian regime for more than 70 years.
This is not to say that Satter is a distant observer for whom morality doesn’t exist. On the contrary, in all of his work he clearly defines ideology and its inherent evil. By looking at personal stories of real people who were going through the horrors of Communism, Satter illuminates not only the history of the Soviet Union, but also the meaning and impact of ideology on people’s humanity.
It is precisely this emphasis on specific, human stories that is the focus of Satter’s documentary film, “Age of Delirium” (2011). Based on his 2001 book, Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union, Satter weaves together many stories of those who survived Communism’s brutal treatment and dehumanization. Tracing his steps through his many trips around the Soviet Union in search for the truth, Satter revisits places he wrote about as a correspondent.
David Satter’s vision is different, partly because he is American. He is an outsider with an intent to show the truth of the Soviet regime, yet his immersion in Russian language and culture has made him, paradoxically, one of the dissidents and truth seekers. When you live in something, it is difficult to have sufficient intellectual distance to evaluate the issues. The events are unfolding before your eyes, and the only thing that matters is survival. In addition, if you grow up in a culture that is strengthened on a daily basis by fear, anxiety, suspicion, and poverty, you are unable to see reality clearly at the time. Satter is joined by Andrei Nekrasov, a Russian film director, who is attempting to understand and define what exactly happened during the years of this totalitarian regime.
Singling out a few aspects of totalitarianism, Satter and Nekrasov encounter survivors of the regime as well as those who remember the perished victims. A woman describes what it was like to smuggle adventure novels and recycle books by Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Even just three pages of Marx will choke you, she says, as she laughs at the secrecy of her acts.
We hear a tragically funny story of a man who had a stroke and died while repeatedly watching smuggled pornographic movies, while the Politburo had its own special cinemas that constantly screened pornography, which was officially illegal under the regime.
Censorship became so embedded in people’s consciousness that they willingly engaged in self-censorship. Ideology was jammed down people’s throats while the bureaucratic ideologues greatly feared religion. One such case was of a young girl who became miraculously cured after she was visited by a priest. The authorities were so obsessed with proving that it wasn’t God who saved her that they engaged in persecution of this poor girl. Satter rightly points out the funny irony: the very obsession with proving that God doesn’t exist acknowledges that God is present in people’s lives.
No matter how long ago persecutions happened, the memories make the sorrow new every time we engage in an act of remembrance. In one of the most poignant stories, we meet a woman who survived the 1933 famine. She painfully reflects how she watched her brother and mother starve to death. Haunted by the survivor’s guilt, tears stream down her old and wrinkled face, as if she is just a little girl, reliving the same moments of suffering.
We also learn about a man and his brother who tried to escape to Finland by crossing the border. They were caught and sent to a psychiatric hospital where they were subjected to inhuman treatments, mainly involving psychotropic drugs that, in some cases, permanently altered their bodies and minds. Often, people spent years if not decades in such hospitals as well as the labor camps. After many years, this man confronts one of the nurses who participated in administering such “cures” and it yields nothing but emptiness. She denies the reality of the situation.
Denial of reality and creation of surrealism was one of the hallmarks of Communism. On the surface, we may speak about political propaganda, but Satter goes further than that. The people were accustomed to the constant stream of lies, unaware of the truth about the Soviet system, as well as the world outside this “hermetically sealed” atmosphere. It affected their interior lives to the point that the entire culture began to morph into a static dream. Most people were willing players in this theater of the absurd, and courage to challenge the system was woefully lacking. The mental exhaustion also led to acquiescence to the system, and people became mere cogs in the powerful machine.
Satter concludes that at the center of it all was (and perhaps always is when it comes to totalitarian regimes) a moral crisis. Although it started with the promise of “brotherhood and unity,” Soviet Communism quickly devolved into a political nightmare. Nekrasov, too, admits that unless there is an acknowledgement that a country suffers from indifference to morality, then other totalitarian systems will emerge under the guise of freedom.
“Age of Delirium” is not just about the totalitarian surrealism of the Soviet Union but about the factors that contribute to building a totalitarian system and regime. Man ceases to be human once he accepts a metaphysical takeover by ideology, cleanses himself of moral responsibility, and quietly and indifferently accepts that he has allowed himself to turn into a beast, all in an effort to be God.