Q: What surprised you most when you returned to Russia?
I left Russia in December 2011 and returned at the beginning of 2013, so my absence was a bit more than a year. I wouldn’t so much call it a surprise, but the thing that stood out to me was how dramatically the protest movement against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin seemed to flicker out. In December 2011, after a disputed parliamentary election, thousands of people took to the streets in Moscow and other cities calling for Putin to go. Protesting on the streets in Russia is an unimaginably brave thing to do – this was a historic and important moment. But there was a sense among Western observers that Russia was joining the Arab Spring. That just wasn’t happening. Even Russians who despise [Putin] told me they could never see taking to the streets or being part of an opposition movement. Even though there is opposition in Russia to Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine, it’s hard to see an anti-Putin movement taking root anytime soon.
Q: Much of your book feels dark. Do you see hope in Russia’s future?
Yes. I see hope in the single mom who owns a hotel in remote Siberia and fights every day to outsmart and out-maneuver local bureaucrats who look for any way they can to get bribes from small-business owners. I see hope in a family who defended themselves when local authorities tried to prosecute them after a skirmish with gangsters in their village. They exposed what the authorities were doing and won. These aren’t street protests, these are smaller battles, under the radar, that may be the real signs that Russians are asking for a new system and craving a different future, at their own pace.
Q: Putin’s aggressive stance today is frightening some global observers. Are they right to be scared of Russia?
Hard to answer. Some people with deep experience with Russia see it as a wounded bear, a desperate and dying empire lashing out before its demise. There are reasons to think Russia is becoming weaker. Then again, Putin has grown stronger politically at home and was in a way vindicated on the world stage.
Q: What do most non-Russians fail to understand most about Russia?
Russians see the world differently than many Westerners do. It’s a different society, with different history and culture, and all that matters. Ask many Russians, even those who don’t support Putin, and they’ll rarely say they crave what Americans have. And creating a new system takes time.
Q: Where does Russians’ nostalgia for Stalin come from?
I think it comes largely from a yearning for stability. Many Russians will say the Soviet Union – for all its flaws – gave them an identity, a purpose, and a sense of protection. All of that is lacking now. I’ll never forget a woman I spent time with in the village of Baikalsk. She’s a local activist – fighting to protect the environment, fighting to protect people from abuse by authorities, fighting what she says is an alarming apathy among many fellow Russians. She walked over to her bookcase, grabbed a biography, and said this was the solution – it was a book on Stalin. Russia needs order, she said. I asked if that also meant bringing back the repression, the Gulags. She said no, not the bad sides of Stalin. I left wondering if she was asking for something remotely realistic.
Q: Do you have a favorite memory from your time spent in Russia?
Many. One was New Year’s Eve 2011. My friend Julia Ioffe invited me to her family friend’s dacha an hour outside Moscow. Julia was born in Russia, raised in Maryland. She’s a fellow journalist, now at The New Republic, who was reporting in Russia at the same time I was. We sat down for a feast – a table full of Russians, Russian-Americans, and us – eating and drinking the night away, not always speaking the same language, enjoying the night together all the same. There was so much warmth, so many laughs. For all its problems, for all the uncertainty, for all the coldness on the outside, Russian culture is warm, generous, poetic, and addictive.