Sitting on the southern edge of the Ural Mountains, the industrial Russian city of Chelyabinsk is the focus of Anne Garrels' new book, Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia.
Most people have probably never heard of the place. So, why Chelyabinsk? Garrels, a former NPR correspondent, was determined to study the development of post-Soviet Russia by focusing her attention on one region and then charting its course over decades. Lacking a pin, she threw a pencil at a map of Russia and it hit the city which was until 1992 closed to the West because of its military and nuclear activities.
The result of her decades-long study is worth reading, although for reasons I will later explain, I can't say that I loved it. If you fall into the increasingly irritating camp of analysts and observers who believe Russia can do no wrong, you won't much like it. Likewise, if you fall into the camp that believes Russia can do no right, there are are a few elements which will no doubt have you shouting 'Putin apologist!' before you know it.
If, however, you have a genuine interest in understanding Russia, past and present, in all its contradictions, and if you can accept that this is one book, by one author, then go ahead and pick it up.
When protests erupted in Moscow in 2012 against the re-election of Vladimir Putin, Garrels was struck by Western coverage which made it appear that all of Russia was on the edge of violent revolt, when in fact Moscow's protests were rather limited in the scheme of things and did not reflect a country-wide dissatisfaction with Putin. All the more reason to spend time in a city where the majority are supportive of his government, she thought.
To attempt to understand Putin's approval ratings by getting into the nitty-gritty with 'real' Russians outside of the capital was a great idea, particularly given that this book comes in the midst of a barrage of condescending reportage which would have you believe that Russians are completely ignorant, suffering fools with no access to information from the outside world.
But at some point, Garrels seems to have lost sight of her goal. It soon begins to feel like she has gone looking for the Russians who do not support Putin instead of the ones who do. Or as historian Paul Robinson put it in his own review of Putin Country:
"...her study is marketed as an attempt to understand [Putin supporters]. To my mind, though, that’s not really what this book does. While it does contain some interviews with Chelyabinsk residents who support Putin, there is little analysis of why they hold the beliefs they do. Nor does Garrels spend a lot of time describing people who are not involved in politics, business, or some sort of activism, but just go to work every day and don’t do anything out of the ordinary."
This was disappointing -- and it's hard to imagine how Garrels couldn't have realized that if she spent so much time talking to activists rather than ordinary people, she was certainly not going to find the opinions or the reasoning she claimed to be looking for.
As I read through each chapter, at points I found myself thinking that a reader who had never visited and did not know much about Russia, might come away thinking the place was nothing more than an unimaginable hellhole. At other points, I had to admit that the stories Garrels was telling were indeed unimaginably hellish -- and needed to be told.
She introduces us to characters whose lives have been tainted by horrendous corruption and injustice -- two things which, although they have improved, are unfortunately not relics of the past. Some of the stories are hard to read and hard to stomach. She charts personal stories of corruption in the justice system, the prison system, business and the church. Readers looking for a book that paints a perfectly rosy picture of contemporary Russia to prove how wonderful everything is under Putin will be sorely disappointed.
She fairly criticizes the state's effort to create a standardized history textbook lacking in "ambiguity" or "contradictions". She looks at pressure on academics to interpret history in the "right" ways and pressure on the media to do the same for current events. She looks at a growing and dangerous sort of nationalism that leads young Russians to believe that calling someone a "traitor" because they hold a different opinion is acceptable or normal. Time and again she comes back to the worrying inclination to label anything and anyone a "foreign agent".
Her description of the Kremlin's policy on Stalin's legacy was simplistic:"Russians are now being told to ignore the mass killings and concentrate on Stalin’s development of the country". Not quite. The reality of the Kremlin's policy has been more nuanced than that. At the same time, she demonstrated that while parts of history are emphasized and others downplayed or whitewashed, a country can never be fully at peace with its past -- and that is not a problem unique to Russia.
Although many certainly will, it would be a mistake to write this book off as just another Western attempt to paint Russia as a country full of brainwashed fools.
While Garrels is generally supportive of the Western narrative on Ukraine, she does criticize some of the "shabby" reporting on that country as being too simplistic: "Western journalists have repeated unsubstantiated and unconfirmed claims by Ukraine’s government without confirmation while being quick to dismiss Russian reports, without checking them. They have underreported the less savory actions of armed Kiev-backed nationalists and paid little attention to the flaws of the country’s “pro-Western” government." She accepts that it is not for no reason that Russians are angry with Western policy.
On the other hand, one person she speaks to derides Putin's "criminal actions in Ukraine". The fact that these are opinions coming from Russians somewhere, to the Western ear, as far flung as Chelyabinsk, puts a little dent in the argument that Russians only have access to "Putin's propaganda" when they are forming opinions on the issue of the day -- and I think that's the one great service this book does. It demonstrates clearly that Russians are not simply a nation of zombies mesmerized by TV propaganda.
Yes, the majority support Putin. They are justifiably angry at the actions of the West. Garrels states this, but unfortunately does little to explain it. At the same time, others feel nothing but contempt for the state and time and again are more than willing to let Garrels know. Others hold opinions somewhere in between -- much like any country.
Ultimately? It might not do exactly what it says on the tin, but Putin Country is still worth reading.
Note: This post contains an affiliate link, which means if you buy the book, I will earn a tiny cut (at no extra cost to you!)
I will never link to any product I don't honestly recommend, and will always give you my honest opinion.