Book Review: Far from Moscow and St. Petersburg, former NPR correspondent Anne Garrels brings readers closer to the “real Russia” with her new book Putin Country.
At JSC Mikheyevsky Mining and Processing Plant, part of JSC Russian Copper Company (RMK), in Chelyabinsk Region. Photo: Pavel Lisitsyn / RIA Novosti
If one types “Chelyabinsk, Russia” into the Google search box, two things come up first: countless videos of the meteor that struck the city in February 2013 and documentation of the city as “the most contaminated spot on the planet.” Both oddities are true of Chelyabinsk, a city located thousand miles from Moscow — in the Ural Mountains, on the border of Europe and Asia.
Until 1992, the city was closed to the West, making it even more inscrutable. “The entire region had been closed to foreigners since the late 1930s because of its ‘secret’ military and industrial installations,” writes Anne Garrels in her new book, Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia.
Garrels, a former foreign correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR), was one of the first foreigners to arrive in Chelyabinsk in 1993, once its state-ordered quarantine was lifted. Since then, she has visited the city regularly — more frequently since she retired from NPR in 2012. That was the year Vladimir Putin ended his term as Russia’s prime minister and began his third term as the country’s president.
Russia, as seen through the microcosm of Chelyabinsk
Garrels is shrewd to study Chelyabinsk during such a tumultuous two decades. Her new book tries to avoid simplification. Instead, she tries to debunk reductive stereotypes ubiquitous in the Western media’s representation of Russia under Putin. Her work is a mélange of historical accounts, journalism and analysis as part of an effort to expose the reader to the “real Russia.”
In order to do so, Garrels introduces real characters and delves into their stories, bringing the reader close to the travails of today’s Russians. With her large cast of characters, Garrels gives a real sense of a community, its hardships and successes, its outcasts and its leaders, its Putin-sympathizers and its anti-Putin activists.
We meet Elena Zhernova, who founded a special needs center for children called Starry Rain, Natalia Baskova, the head of the Chelyabinsk Family Welfare Committee, who believes women should be relegated to family life, and Eduard Reebin, a doctor who retired, exhausted from a profession soiled by rampant corruption.
Unlike Peter Pomerantsev’s book, Nothing is True and Anything is Possible, where he serves up a sensationalist plate of Russian caricatures, Garrels reintroduces authenticity to Russia’s complicated situation. In her book, no one is one-dimensional. And while Putin is always there, Garrels allows the West to meet someone else for a change. The image of a shirtless Putin on horseback sinks into the shadows.
Each chapter of Garrels’s book tracks a theme of life in contemporary Russia, as seen through the microcosm of Chelyabinsk. Throughout, Garrels describes the Russian mentality beginning in the chaotic 1990s after the end of the Soviet Union to the present moment, which is largely characterized by lasting support — and even reverence — for Putin, as her title suggests.
This is no small task in a country with 11 time zones. While she paints broad strokes, her claims are anything but baseless, considering her extensive research as an American in Russia, and specifically in Chelyabinsk, which she calls her “second home.”
The book is one of the most honest accounts of contemporary Russia available to the Western masses for the mere reason that Putin Country’s backdrop is neither Moscow nor St. Petersburg. Of course, Putin Country is just one case study of the Russian experience and an inherently subjective one — readers should not extrapolate too much from her observations.
Writing the detailed account that she does, Garrels must also rely on journalistic selectivity. But in contrast to the sea of recently published books about Russia that circulate around the cult of personality of Putin — think Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, and Steven Lee Myers’s The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, just to name a few — Putin Country and its account of Chelyabinsk provides a refreshing societal perspective.
The city central to Garrels’s Russian experience is located in the Chelyabinsk region, which is roughly the size of Austria, but has a population that is less than 3.5 million, if that. Under Joseph Stalin, the region rapidly industrialized. “For a while, it was proudly known as Tankograd as workers, under the most primitive conditions, produced 18,000 tanks, almost 50,000 tank diesel engines, and more than 17 million units of ammunition,” Garrels writes.
It was also the birthplace of the Soviet nuclear program. Like the rest of Russia, Chelyabinsk faced demoralizing economic instability in the years following the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 and forfeited its industrial gains. It underwent the democratic reforms of the Yeltsin era and is now experiencing crackdowns on freedom since Putin came to power.
Why Russians think that ‘Putin is the best leader’
Today, the one thing most Chelyabinsk residents seem to agree on is that “Vladimir Putin is the best leader for Russia.” When Garrels first arrived in the city in 1993, “Chelyabinsk was a depressing place, where people were alternately desperate, hopeful, and fearful as changes emanated from Moscow.”
In 2012, however, “Chelyabinsk is unrecognizable.” The city center is transformed, its streets cobblestoned and lined with statues. Residents can shop at Western brands like H&M and Chanel and visitors to the city can stay at the American mid-tier hotel chain Holiday Inn. Paradoxically, “The state-run media have begun to broadcast more and more anti-U.S. material, but all the shops and restaurants have foreign names, a stamp of quality and service,” Garrels writes.
Garrels’s time in Chelyabinsk has also helped her understand the rise of Russian nationalism, which has had little time to develop. In its void, the Russian government and many of its citizens have come to blame other countries, directing internal problems outward.
Garrels interviews Tamara Mairova, a retired engineer, who bemoans Western intervention in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “All those financial manipulations, the rush to privatize, these ideas didn’t come from here, they came from you, from the West, but the West didn’t have to live through the results,” Mairova says.
Even those who appear Western on the outside, like Irina Korsunova, a fashionable magazine editor, “[harbor] a resentment, almost an outright hatred of the West.” To Garrels, Korsunova provides an example of a common Chelyabinsk mentality — like many others, she is tired of seeing the West fixate on the rampant corruption in her country and tired of blaming herself.
It is through Garrels’s illumination of Chelyabinsk’s bewildering contradictions that her study of the city becomes a synecdoche for Russia itself. We meet Dima and Tatiana, who, in 2013, are a part of the burgeoning cohort of middle-class business owners, live in a large home in the suburbs and send their children to private schools in New York and Europe. But, Garrels writes, while “[o]n the surface this would appear to be Putin’s dream: expanding, stable Russian families,” there is a catch. “While still based in Russia, the family has insured themselves and their children against an uncertain future [...] Tatiana spent months in Miami to ensure her last two [children] could be born in the United States.”
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But most important are Garrels’s characters who portray the internal conflict that inhabits the Russian state of mind. Yura Kovach, for example, is a skilled engineer who has struggled to make money since his country’s transformation into a market economy in the 1990s. “Even so,” Garrels writes, “he continues to respect Putin as a strong leader who built a middle class, improved social welfare, kept the country together, and restored Russia’s self-respect.” He and Garrels have been friends for 20 years, although his anti-Americanism and pro-Putinism — Kovach believes the U.S. government and American NGOs supported the anti-Putin protests in Moscow last September — have at times strained their relationship.
Even though she is an American, Garrels is an insider in Chelyabinsk. The author’s intimate relationship with her interview subjects brings valuable nuances to an outsider’s understanding of contemporary Russia under Putin.
Garrels has witnessed one Russian city’s transition from the Soviet era and felt the ebb and flow of these changes, some good, some bad, some worsening. She observes that many believed that the end of the Soviet Union would be like the meteor that hit Chelyabinsk in 2013, which “blazed across the sky, spewed out its shards, and then sank quietly into a lake.” From her experience, however, this is not the case: “The shards continue to resurface, and their ripples are felt far and wide.”