Putin Country answers the simple question asked by many Westerners: How can the Russian people so adamantly support President Putin?
“The reasons,” writes Anne Garrels (I imagine her grimacing), “are many and confused.” The longtime NPR correspondent, who has been covering the USSR and Russia for nearly four decades and is personally sympathetic to those living in “the real Russia,” eventually has to conclude: “Western sanctions have so far had the opposite of the intended result: many Russians have only grown more consolidated around Putin.”
Garrels’s book "Naked in Baghdad" (2003), a diary account of her months in Iraq leading up to and immediately following the American military invasion of the city, was a tour-de-force of reporting and an incidentally revealing portrait of her unassuming, marvelous self. This book is also about how time brings about not only unexpected cultural changes but reinforces depressing characteristics of a great but foundering nation. Garrels stands much further back from the action than she did in Baghdad but provides us with a wide perspective of an industrial region on the cusp of the Urals a thousand miles east of Moscow. Chelyabinsk is – not coincidentally, considering its mining history and unenforced environmental protection measures – “one of the most polluted places on the planet.”
Fluent in Russian, Garrels has needed no translator and developed over the years many connections in the region. She tries to be hopeful, but for her fellow Russophiles (I count myself one), "Putin Country" is devastating. In contrast to the fiery Russian American journalist Masha Gessen, who almost never steps off her exasperation-pedal when writing about Putin, Garrels keeps her cool and listens quietly as she gathers locals’ narratives and opinions, no matter how disturbing: “ ‘[Stalin] renewed the country and made it stronger,’ he says. ‘Everything we have now is on the basis of what Stalin achieved,’ adding, ‘We are nothing without Putin.’”
Recounting a conversation with an old friend and Chelyabinsk resident, Garrels’s bewilderment surfaces: “When I ask if there is one law for Putin and his coterie of corrupt oligarchs and another for the rest of the country, he finds excuses. He says there is corruption everywhere, ignoring Russia’s international listing as one of the most corrupt countries. He stands by Putin as smart and capable, a man who will restore the country’s industry and its international standing. He deflects whatever criticism of Putin I throw at him, concluding with a Russian proverb: ‘When there is a fire, you don’t ask who the fireman is.’”
Some Russians have learned, through threats, fines and imprisonment, to shake their heads and withhold further attempts to bring about social progress, and most have settled into acceptance of or qualified support for the status quo. Chelyabinsk’s “real” citizens believe in Putin and almost universally blame the US for the country’s economic problems (and some blame us even for the moral dysfunction): “I understand there is a war against us, not with weapons, but a kind of spiritual war from the outside perhaps because we are so vulnerable,” remarks one of Garrels’s sources.
The Chelyabinsk region, about the size of Indiana, was off-limits to “foreigners” during the USSR-era because of its nuclear reactors and scientific research communities. Since 1993, however, Garrels has been regularly visiting there, making friends and reporting stories. Two of the best chapters, “The Taxi Driver” and “The Forensic Expert,” are like nonfictional short stories, wherein we become familiar with the long arcs of the protagonists’ tumultuous lives. In 1989, Alexander Vlasov, the forensic expert, investigated a series of mine shafts within which were hidden the decades-old corpses of thousands of murdered Soviet citizens; the KGB hastily shut down the investigation. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Vlasov used his now unrecompensed forensic skills to go into the new, suddenly lucrative funeral business. Meanwhile, Kolya, the taxi driver, a born-again former convict and drug addict, played not quite as important a role in Garrels’s reporting as her driver and friend Amer did in Baghdad, but he shared his connections with her up and down Chelyabinsk’s economic and criminal ladder.
While ever fascinated by her subjects, the steady accumulation of anxiously paranoid or glibly ignorant testimony from educated Russians seems to have daunted the spirited Garrels: “A young journalist who covers the security services for an influential online news outlet … would like to see the government force all Muslims to observe their religion through one Kremlin-controlled authority. An Orthodox believer, she says, ‘I am against this excessive tolerance, that we need to respect other religions.’”
On the other hand, the heroes who won’t back down and continue to try to reform the region’s lawlessness, intolerance, and corruption start to seem, after Garrels shows us what they’re up against, fool-hardy: “ ‘Why do you take these risks?’ I ask her, my eternal question to those who challenge the system. ‘Someone has to.’ … She repeats an idea I hear so often, that Russia lost its best and brightest in the wars and purges: ‘I begin to think we are genetically flawed when I see how we so easily fall into a slave mentality.’”
Garrels doesn’t blame this idealistic independent journalist for considering giving it all up: “She has gathered material on Chelyabinsk units that have secretly been sent to Ukraine, but new, increasingly punitive laws against ‘extremism’ hang over her. She grows weary of taking risks with less and less support from those around her. She thinks about leaving the country.” Garrels’s own brave “journey into the real Russia” finally offers only the wish, not the evidence, that Mother Russia will get well soon.
Lest we be dumbfounded by ordinary Russians’ support of Putin, we Americans should remind ourselves we have plenty of our own admirers of political bullying, war-mongering, and xenophobia. I would only like to suggest that the noted Putin-fan Donald Trump pull up stakes here and relocate to Chelyabinsk, where he could find out what it means to live with federal indifference to the epic pollution and, as a businessperson, encounter irregularly scheduled shake-downs by police and government officials.
Bob Blaisdell is the editor of "Essays on Civil Disobedience" (Dover, forthcoming).