on New Non-Fiction: Russia’s Criminalization, Female Delinquents at Samarkand Manor & a Diary of the Nazi Occupation of France
The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship Under Yeltsin and Putin by David Satter (Yale)
Bad Girls at Samarcand: Sexuality and Sterilization in a Southern Juvenile Reformatory by Karin L. Zipf (Louisiana State University Press)
Season of Infamy: A Diary of War and Occupation 1939-1945 by Charles Rist, tr. by Michele McKay Aynesworth (Indiana University Press)
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In Darkness At Dawn (Yale, 2004), David Satter plumbed the rampant and shocking immorality in Russian politics in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union. His narrative focused on ordinary citizens such as the surgeon who operated frantically in the dark because the local utility had shut down his hospital’s electricity, and the mother whose son was doomed on the Kursk submarine disaster. With The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep, David Satter returns to his previous book’s most damning accusation: the intentional killing of hundreds of innocent Russian citizens by Putin and Yeltsin to tighten their grip on power.
In “The 1999 Apartment Bombings,” Satter describes the coordinated sequence of bombings in Moscow, Buinaksk and Volgodonsk – and the botched attempt in Ryazan that exposed the role of Russian operatives under Putin’s directive. Blaming the bombings on Chechens, Putin went on to invade Chechnya. “The apartment bombings are impossible for a conscientious observer to ignore,” Satter writes. “The circumstantial evidence that the bombings were carried out by the FSB is overwhelming. The only reason there is no direct evidence is that the Putin regime has concealed it. The rubble from the buildings was cleared almost immediately … By any standard, murdering hundreds of randomly chosen civilians in order to hold on to power shows a cynicism that cannot be comprehended in a normal human context.”
But as Steven Lee Myers noted in The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (Knopf 2015), Russia’s political elite initially thought Putin’s rule would be weakened by popular opinion against another bloody Chechnyan incursion. “Yet, to the surprise of Yeltsin and many others, Putin’s conduct of the war proved to be immensely popular,” Satter writes, “but now it seemed that ordinary Russians wanted, as Putin, to ‘bang the hell out of the bandits.’”
Satter’s tense reporting is designed to trigger queasy disbelief that finds its counterpoint in the credulity of “ordinary Russians.” He proceeds in the next five chapters to spell out the steps Putin and company took to devise the widespread criminalization of the country. Satter says, “The new society that emerged had three outstanding characteristics: an economy dominated by a criminal oligarchy; an authoritarian political system, and, perhaps most important, a moral degradation that subverted all legal and ethical standards and made real civil society impossible. Their interaction set the stage for Russia’s drift into as regime of aggression and terror.”
The details are chilling – and impressive insofar as a small group of politicians and oligarchs plotted to exploit perestroika and Soviet dissolution and thus dominate the privatization of just about everything in Russia. In “The Power Vertical,” Satter demonstrates how Putin’s system “involved installing a vertical chain of command and eliminating alternative centers of power.” After the mess of the Yeltsin period, the populace accepted Putin’s hierarchy – though it was embedded before most Russians knew it existed. Putin even usurped the roles of street criminals: “Street extortion, formerly the province of criminal gangs, is now carried out by the police.”
As massive a caper as it was, the wresting of the Russian economy pales when compared to specific, ongoing acts of terror perpetrated on targeted individuals and the populace. “Russia’s most pressing need is a truth commission,” Satter says, pinning his hopes on “10 to 15 percent of the population” that still yearns for a democratic form of government and a renewed civil society.
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In 1917, social reformers and religious leaders in North Carolina persuaded the legislature to establish the state’s first institution for white female juvenile delinquents. By 1919, the first 200 girls and women between the ages of 10 and 30 had arrived at the new State Home and Industrial School for Girls known familiarly as Samarcand Manor located on a 240-acre site about 100 miles south of Durham. In 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was enacted declaring that all American women deserved all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. But the story of Samarcand Manor tells us that America was hardly willing to grant equal rights to all young women.
“Girls came to Samarcand with social maladjustments, venereal diseases, felony convictions, prostitution arrests, and even lesser misdemeanors like vagrancy,” writes Karin Zipf in Bad Girls At Samarcand. The stated objective of the Manor was to restore the inherently positive traits of a white woman through instruction in hygiene, piety, physical exertion, and vocational training – sewing, canning, cleaning and laundry tasks, and poultry and dairy work. Technically, every girl could be “saved.” By 1930 the Manor had an accredited high school and a hospital on its campus which housed about 300 girls and young women.
But the institution’s larger if implied mission was to preserve class dominance. “White supremacist imagery lay at the core of southern whites’ desire for a racially segregated girls’ institution,” Zipf says. “In the U.S. South, the ideal of white womanhood rested at the heart of a racial hierarchy. The conventions of the day characterized white women as virtuous, pure, genteel, and the exclusive object of white men’s affections and desires. Those same conventions restricted African American woman from claiming ladyhood … To maintain this multitiered fiction, southern whites needed to elevate the lowest class of white girls to the status of ladyhood, that pier of the privileged and pure, if only in name.”
But many of these interned women had rejected – and continued to bristle at – the conventional traits of piety, chastity, gentility and submissiveness. Some of the inmates were runaways who were then committed to the institution. If a wayward woman persisted in unacceptable behavior, she could be classified as unredeemable. In 1919, the state sanctioned sterilization as an appropriate technique for limiting the spread of “genetic mutations” that supposedly caused everything from delinquency to feeblemindedness and epilepsy. A State Eugenics Board reviewed individual cases. Zipf reports that over 2,000 “unfit” women were forcibly sterilized in North Carolina between 1929 and 1950. Some 60,000 women were sterilized nationally.
Zipf’s chapters include a few thumbnail sketches of particular individuals who suffered through these times, but much of her narrative tracks the thinking and actions of the decision makers. However, the final chapter covers the intriguing Samarcand Arson Case, focusing on the 16 young women who in 1931 set fire to and destroyed two dormitories. Charged with a capital crime, they awaited trial in jail – and set fire to their bunks.
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When Charles Rist began his diary in Paris on September 2, 1939, he was sixty-five years old and recognized throughout the West as an expert in monetary policy. Born in Alsace Lorraine in 1874, he began his career as an academic and Dreyfusard who evolved into an influential advisor to the French finance ministry. He served on the boards of several major banks and the Suez Canal Company. Highly regarded in America, he met with President Roosevelt in March 1940 to plan a mutual embargo of materials to Germany. But in May, the German army entered Paris.
Rist knew the leaders of the collaborationist Vichy government and drafted their prewar economic policy platform, the final task he performed for them. In 1941, Marshal Pétain proposed that Rist become Vichy’s ambassador to the United States (this did not happen). But Rist kept his distance, preferring to observe the war with deep passion from his villa in Versailles. As the consummate insider outsider, he wrote his diary from a unique perspective: he disdained everything about the Vichy regime yet was familiar with France’s power elite. His eldest son was active in the Resistance. His second son was married to a Jewish woman; Rist worked diligently to protect her from deportation. Another son was killed during a Resistance maneuver.
The original manuscript of his diary was written in long hand on stationery. The version published in France in 1983 as Une Saison Gâtée or “a corrupted age” was based on a typescript provided by Rist’s widow (he died in 1955). But Michele McKay Aynesworth has based her English translation, Season of Infamy, on a photocopy of the original and has restored passages that were omitted earlier.
We discover in these pages a closely observed view of life and events in France during the occupation. Often disgusted or horrified by French conformity to German interests, List was also capable of distancing himself from the action in the mode of his revered Chateaubriand and Montaigne: “It is amusing to watch people arguing over which is best, democracy or totalitarianism, as if it were a matter of opposing abstract principles that can be decided by logic and reasoning.” Tracking the war’s events, his narrative is informed by a sophisticated knowledge of history, literature, and human behavior. On Sunday, October 1941, he writes:
I wonder if Hitler is not indulging in Mephistophelean joy simply to see how low men can go – if he were not sent by a sardonic god to bring out into the open all of the cowardice, pettiness, and idiocy that in ordinary times are hidden in the depths of society and whose revelation the conventions of a well-ordered community normally prevent.
Below, an entry dated Wednesday, 5 August 1943:
On behalf of my little granddaughters, I tried all of last week to obtain a certificate good enough for the Jewish Affairs commissioner, who, after some formal promises, declared he could not give his consent and demanded more unambiguous statements. All the scandalous illegality and grotesque arbitrariness of these procedures have been visited upon us … The potato crops have been ravaged by mildew because of the constant humidity. What will winter be like? For the first time since the beginning of the war, we are facing a real famine. The Ministry of Agriculture has forbidden sending parcels of butter – our last resource.
Another entry dated Friday, 10 December 1943:
Some weeks ago a German general named Jodl, speaking after Goering to a gathering of Gauletier, made this magnificent statement, which the German papers reported: “If we lose the war, world history has no meaning.” It is a symbol of German mental deficiency that this character – doubtless a good military man – could claim to know the meaning of world history. This imbecilic exaggeration of the national ego that lies at the heart of all their ills is fed by a so-called philosophy of history, surely the most inane occupation of mental defectives. That is the “political education” that National Socialism claims to have given its adherents and that is nothing more than a romanticization of brute force.
Season of Infamy is not an entry-level book on the occupation. But after one becomes familiar with the history, List’s often captivating diary will add texture through its distinctive insights and uncompromising humanity.
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The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep, published May 24, 2016. 240 pages, $30.00 hardcover via Yale University Press.
Bad Girls at Samarcand, published April 4, 2016, 240 pages, 28 b&w photos, $39.95 hardcover via LSU Press.
Season of Infamy, published May 9, 2016, 576 pages, $50.00 hardcover via Indiana State University Press.