Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016, 240 pages
Long before the meteor strike, longtime NPR correspondent Anne Garrels had Chelyabinsk in her sights. More than 10 years ago, she began visiting the city in order to understand what life was really like in post-Soviet Russia, beyond the confines of the glitzy Moscow metropolis.
In Chelyabinsk, she discovered a populace for whom the new democratic freedoms were as traumatic as they were delightful. A closed nuclear city throughout the Cold War, Chelyabinsk was thrown into disarray in the early '90s as its formerly state-controlled factories were exposed to the free market. And the next 20 years would only bring more turmoil. The city became richer and more cosmopolitan, even as the forces of corruption and intolerance became more entrenched.
In Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia, Garrels crafts an intimate portrait of the nation's heartland. We meet ostentatious mafiosos, upwardly mobile professionals, impassioned activists, scheming taxi drivers with dark secrets, and beleaguered steel workers. We discover surprising subcultures, like the LGBT residents of Chelyablinsk who bravely endure an upsurge in homophobia fueled by Putin's rhetoric of Russian "moral superiority" yet still nurture a vibrant if clandestine community of their own. And we watch doctors and teachers try to do their best in a corrupt system. Through these encounters, Garrels reveals why Putin commands the support and loyalty of so many Russians, even those who decry the abuses of power they encounter from day to day. Her portrait of Russia's silent majority is essential listening at a time when Cold War tensions are resurgent.
A timely book that won't be so timely in a few years, but that's the fate of all journalistic accounts of a snapshot in time. Anne Garrels is an American journalist who has been covering Russia since Soviet days. In Putin Country, published just last year (2016) she travels to modern Russia to try to capture what life is like under Putin. She supposedly picked a city at random, though it's a bit suspicious that Chelyabinsk happened to be one she'd visited before, and which is also famous for recently being the location of a meteor strike in 2013.
In contrast to another book I read recently, Gary Kasparov's Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped, Anne Garrels's book is not a polemic but a work of journalism. That said, she doesn't keep her own opinions entirely out of the narrative, and one always has to be suspicious about what a writer chooses to talk about and what she doesn't. But Putin Country doesn't seem to be pushing any particular agenda, even if it is not very flattering to Vladimir Putin.
Garrels largely confirms what Gary Kasparov claimed - that under Putin, Russia has slipped back into a corrupt authoritarian oligarchy. There are many differences from Soviet days - there are more paths for upward mobility, for example. Modern Russia is, on the surface, a lot freer, but that just means the powers that be have adapted to find other ways of controlling information and people. Thanks to the Internet, it's a lot harder to simply keep things hushed up, but Putin's government has been pretty successful at flooding the media with its own version of events and drowning out real stories it doesn't like. In fairness, in a phenomenon we see echoed in the US and elsewhere, often the "opposition" media isn't much more reliable, being full of cranks and ideologues who make it easier to discredit them.
You don't have to be a Party member to be successful any more, and you don't even have to be involved in organized crime, though it's nearly impossible to get very far without having to deal with them, and with government officials (often pretty much the same thing) who want their cut. Over and over, Garrels tells the story of activists, reformers, and entrepreneurs who are shut down, intimidated, or jailed as soon as they're becoming successful.
Alcoholism is rampant, as is radiation sickness in towns and villages that were for decades exposed to shocking levels of radioactive waste, simply dumped into rivers. Soviet officials told everyone that it was fine and not to believe their lying eyes. Garrels interviews some scientists who led protests even under the USSR, and attracted enough attention to force a government response, though the cost to themselves and their careers was high. Today many thousands are still sick and suffering from birth defects, cancer, and stunted lives. It seems entire regions have had their populations stunted. And the government is still denying the scope of the problem, perhaps because they just don't have the money to fix it. Of course, part of the reason they don't have the money to fix it is that so much of it is going into the pockets of Putin's cronies.
This is a pretty depressing book. There is not much of a glimmer of hope that Russia is going to become better any time soon. If something happens to Putin, someone almost certainly just as bad will take his place.
So what do the Russian people think of Putin? According to the people Garrels talked to (keeping in mind, for purposes of this book, "the Russian people" is the inhabitants of the Chelyabinsk area), it's mixed. Most people aren't happy with the way things are run and the corruption, but many admire Putin's "strength," and the way he's restored respect for Russia after the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union. Back in the 90s and early 2000s, there was a lot of pro-Western sentiment as Russia opened up and experienced a few heady years of freedom, but that has soured now. Garrels herself is generally treated politely, but no one has much good to say about America or the West.
Putin Country will probably just reinforce most of what Americans already think they know about Putin's Russia - that it's a corrupt kleptocracy ruled by a nationalist strongman, whose people often look up to him despite the fact that he's manifestly not acting in the best interests of the common man. That it's populated by underpaid professionals, scrabbling workers, alcoholics, now facing threats from Islamic extremists (far more internal threats than the U.S. has to worry about) while being encircled, geographically and economically, by an increasingly hostile West. It is not surprising that Russians feel defensive and their impulse is not to throw off the rule of Putin, who is actually standing up to these threats, or gives the appearance of doing so.
An interesting book, and yet I couldn't really convince myself that it's a comprehensive or balanced picture. Not that I think Garrels was being dishonest, but she's clearly an American, looking at things that interest Americans. She was talking to people willing to talk to an American journalist, in one little Russian city. Gary Kasparov's book was far less objective, far less balanced, but at least it was the work of a Russian (albeit one who has lived in exile for many years). I would like to read more books by actual Russians who are brave enough to tell us what it's really like in Putin country.
My complete list of book reviews.