David Satter's documentary retraces the Soviet fall

In 1974, Alexander Shatravka and his brother Mikhail, both in their 20s, were caught trying to defect from the Soviet Union. Punishment was an involuntary stay at a psychiatric hospital where they were heavily dosed with debilitating drugs. More than 30 years later, author-turned-filmmaker David Satter had a camera rolling when Alexander was reunited with one of the nurses who administered the torturous chemicals. In the footage, the now-aged woman calls the drugs "completely harmless." Shatravka counters that his brother's health was destroyed at the hospital and his death linked to the pharmaceutical abuses. The silence that follows is awkward and heartbreaking. In the end, he gives her stooped shoulders a brief hug of forgiveness.

This scene between two scarred souls is one of the many poignant moments that make up Satter's documentary Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union, which won a Grand Jury Prize at this year's Amsterdam Film Festival and is based largely on his 1996 book of the same title, with some new reporting. Satter, a Foreign Policy Institute fellow at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, lived in the Soviet Union between 1976 and 1982 as a reporter for the London Financial Times. His focus in the film is rank-and-file citizens who became disillusioned with the Soviet system: a miner hounded by the KGB for complaining about working conditions, Afghan war veterans pressured to keep silent about their harrowing experiences, Ukrainian women recounting the mass starvation and even cannibalism that occurred in their village after Soviet officials took all their grain to Russia.

The vivid vignettes reveal the anger at communist rule that became a groundswell by the late 1980s after Mikhail Gorbachev tried to save the Soviet system by curbing some of its excesses. Making such a film in the Soviet era would have been impossible, Satter notes. "You couldn't go around with a camera in those days," he says. "Pointing a video camera at someone would have been a little bit like pointing a machine gun at them—they would have been too afraid to talk."

Filming began in 2006. Tracking down the surviving interviewees from more than 20 years earlier to get their stories on video was difficult, but local journalists helped. Satter says a greater challenge came in early 2011, when he had 150 hours of raw footage in hand and suddenly parted ways with his Russian director over what he describes as "artistic and other disagreements." Satter put together the film himself after a weeklong crash course in using editing software. "I had no experience, but I also had no choice," Satter says.

He had a purpose in reopening the wounds of a vanished nation. He believes Russia's present condition, including Vladimir Putin's increasingly authoritarian rule and the corruption and gangsterism intertwined with much of the economy, has roots in the sins of the Soviet Union. Such connections are the subject of his two other books, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (Yale University Press, 2003) and It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past (Yale University Press, 2011).

"The Soviet system destroyed people's moral sense and the notion of individual conscience," Satter says. "Only by facing the crimes of the past and understanding them can Russia move forward." His film, he hopes, will be studied in classrooms as a frank and honest snapshot of life in the USSR. "The film depicts the real experiences of real people under the Soviets, and for that reason, I hope it has a long life."