Putin Country: A Journey Into the Real Russia
Coming as yet another publication in a bout of renewed interest on contemporary Russia, Putin Country gives the reader at once an ordinary and original perspective. Anne Garrels, as a journalist for NPR, traveled to Russia many times over two decades as the country opened to the world, at times embracing and rejecting western economic and political influences. Garrels does well to avoid many of the clichés about new Cold War tensions. Despite the title, Putin Country is not about Vladimir Putin’s personality, the Kremlin or Moscow at all, but about the lives of ordinary, working-class Russians trying to make a living in 21st century Russia. Of course, the Kremlin’s centralized decision-making affects Russians, and Garrels reminds that the Russia beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg is often a world distant to Moscow-centered corruption, oligarchs and major players. Instead, she focuses on Russia’s polluted industrial heartland and Chelyabinsk, a city on the border between Europe and Asia.
This work covers a number of topics, all nuanced and socially relevant, with themes including political and social stability, identity, family, healthcare, prisons, religion, ecology, nuclear energy, freedom of speech and many others. Each topic is presented through intertwining anecdotes that involve ordinary Chelyabinsk residents some of whom she has known for years. Garrels, by examining an array of social topics, combined with the fact that Chelyabinsk itself is part of the Russian periphery, offers a kind of country diagnosis unburdened by dry statistics or other social science measures. Readers get a feel of daily life in modern Russia by following Garrels on her journeys and getting a rare glimpse into private lives, some struggling for years under a system which accommodates corrupt practices over hard and honest work. Others of Garrels’ interviewees more easily adapted to the difficult life in post-Soviet Russia and try to improve the lives of those around them.
Garrels writes that in 2012, though Chelyabinsk would not be mistaken for Moscow, it is still unrecognizable from the failing industrial center she first visited in 1993, when New Russia was just forming as a state. Since then, she has visited several times and comments on the changes due to capitalism which developed during the Yeltsin and Putin eras and free-market transformations, including western goods, public health care and education, and the ability to travel abroad. The Russian government, through poorly run privatization schemes has created a new world of haves and have nots, with few people in between. Most people Garrels meets around Chelyabinsk live from paycheck to paycheck, contrasting wildly from nouveau rich Russians who thrive even in times of economic turmoil. But for either party, their daily life leave little time to dwell on human rights violations, government reforms or other pressing social concerns.
Many Russians blame the West as much as their own leaders for Russia’s many problems, and this mindset is not likely to change. Economic transitions have been difficult. “Shock therapy, advocated by the West to replace the Soviet economic system, was most shocking in the countryside…as farms fell apart, land was either stolen by crafty managers or redivided among the ill-prepared workers,” Garrels writes. “With no infrastructure to back them, most couldn’t make it on their own.”
The focus on devastated rural and peripheral industrial centers is a timely critique in the wake of what seems like a worldwide protest against neoliberal globalist values. Many families never fully recovered from the economic and emotional shock of the collapse of the Soviet Union and cannot escape poverty, corruption and crime. The remedies for their economic condition remain few, and some find consolation in vodka, illegal drugs or numerous religious sects that have sprung up all over Russia since the 1990s. Putin’s speech about the collapse of the USSR being one of the greatest tragedies in the 20th century was mocked in the West, but resonated with many Russians who struggled hard in the Yeltsin era. Putin in many ways brought stability to Russia, and for now, it seems people are willing to be stoic in their stance against the West.
Through Garrel’s narrative the reader can trace both the evolution of the modern globalizing Russia and the results of the government’s latest actions. The Russia she explores is a stark contrast from the isolated and self-sufficient Soviet space of the early 1990s. Putin Country serves as both a model and cautionary tale. On the one hand, Russia can still be considered a moderately successful industrial nation. It survived transition without initiating all-out war. On the other, its human rights record is shaky, the industry is in shambles, and the gap between the powerful and the powerless is such that it is a warning for other states going through massive transitions.
“Chelyabinsk is no longer a Soviet city, cut off from the world, and the changes it’s seen in such a short time are dramatic,” Garrels concludes. “Many of those changes are for the better. The gap between rich and poor may be stark, but it’s well understood that this gap is by no means a uniquely post-Soviet phenomenon…And yet even with improved living standards…something is missing for many. Crudely put, Russians face an identity crisis over where their country fits into the overall global scheme.”
Russians have not fully confronted this identity crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some still mourn the loss of the USSR’s superpower status. Many see recent action of Putin and his government not as aggression, but as actions meant to merely protect national interests.
Many Russians interviewed by Garrels admit to finding themselves lost in the ever unfamiliar globalized world. Yet resolving such identity questions is vital in the wake of modern developments, including the crisis in Ukraine, Western sanctions, falling oil prices and Russia’s own precarious economic position. Perhaps this process of struggle and evolution can help Russians decide what sort of country they want and if the amount of agency they have is enough for the lives they hope to lead in the future.
Putin Country is a portrait of a complicated nation, confronting serious challenges. The author accomplishes her goals of without preaching or being condescending. Such balance is hard to achieve, and Garrels does so with precision.
Julia Sinitsky is a recent MA graduate from the European and Russian Studies Program at Yale University.