Putin Country: A Book Review

A Journey Into The Real Russia

By Eric K. Williams

New York – Voices from the ‘every-man’ inside Russia, from farmers, hair dressers, educators, factory workers, academics, taxi cab drivers, entrepreneurs, and college students speak candidly, and tell a compelling story. They all share a riveting tale of what it is really like inside the post-Soviet nation. They tell their story in revealing, often painful recollections. They also share their vision, dreams, deep pride and hopes, of a better day, in ways that few outsiders ever get to hear. putincountry

‘Putin Country: A Journey Into The Real Russia,’ is the book that many Americans, and other citizens, who follow the international political scene have been waiting for. It comes from a journalist and writer who knows her subject well, and who most of all, is a writer that is fair. No ideologue, Anne Garrels is that writer who paints a picture, sometimes a gloomy portrait, of a people grappling with rapid change, and a country with a long and complicated, yet fascinating history.

Garrels has been a tough, no nonsense and, take-no-prisoner kind of international journalist. One who has long covered, reported, and explained to millions of Americans, the people, the events, the politics, and the inner workings of Russia, in a clear and concise manner.

For an American journalist based in Europe, who lived through the end of the Cold War, has witnessed rapid, even radical change, from the days of the now defunct Soviet Union, to what is now a nation reinventing itself, covering Russia is no doubt perhaps the toughest of all assignments on the continent. Here, she takes the reader along for part of that journey. It is a riveting, harrowing, sometimes shocking, but never a boring journey that reads like a sneak peek into a reporter’s notepad.

Garrels first came to the attention of this reviewer during her days as a correspondent for ABC-TV’s World News Tonight program. She later switched to radio, doing the bulk of her reporting work on the National Public Radio network news program. It was there on NPR where she delved into longer and far more detailed pieces, longer than the standard television news ‘package,’ in describing a country that continues to be little understood, if not hated, and feared, by most Americans. Her work there garnered her the prestigious George Polk Award for Radio Reporting. She also won the Courage in Journalism Award, in 2003, from the International Women’s Media Foundation.

What Garrels has done in her book PUTIN COUNTRY, also took courage. She details her own confrontation with Russian bureaucracy, a sometimes precarious, if not frightening proposition. Yet, she makes a country largely unknown to many in the outside world, accessible. That is, accessible and discernible in telling a straight story out of the mouths of the Russian ‘everyman.’ Making it mostly understandable to the eyes of the reader, whether they are academics, international policy wonks, leaders inside think tanks, elected officials, all the way down to the layman. Garrels had long been based in Moscow, which is the center of political life in that vast nation. In this work, however, she traveled to and lived for some of the time in the Russian heartland, to a city many are not familiar with: Chelyabinsk.

Chelyabinsk was a city that for many years was not even listed on official Soviet-era maps. It was one of several so-called ‘secret cities,’ listed in most cases only by a postal code because it was one of several homes of the Soviet nuclear program. Chelyabinsk, Garrels explains, is both a city and a region that together is about the size of Austria, with a diverse population of just over three million inhabitants.

It lays roughly 1000 miles east of Moscow, but in many ways the Chelyabinsk region serves as a kind of metaphor for the current state of Russia in the 21st Century. Both beautiful, pristine, and green with lakes a-plenty akin to what could be found in a state like Minnesota. While at the same time in contrast to that beauty the region contains some of the most polluted areas on earth.

And so, it is here where the voices of the real Russia are heard for perhaps the first time. It is a mixed bag of those who yearn for a new identity, want a strong Russia on the world stage, who embrace some of the aspects of ‘western’ culture but now reject the chaos of the turbulent 1990’s, and who also embrace the stability afforded to them by the reign of Vladimir Putin. Why? The economy has grown nearly tenfold and real incomes have increased, Garrels explains, with poverty and unemployment cut in half under Putin.

On the surface and within the society, that stronger economy is demonstrated in different ways. Russian women, for example, have never looked better, and are now a far cry from the Nikita Khrushchev-era ‘bubushkas’ of their grandmother’s times. That is helped in large part with many Russian women now having access to beauty salons, health spas, fitness clubs, and expensive make-up. Washing machines and other consumer goods inside the home, once considered luxury items, are becoming more common, with even shops and mega stores like IKEA now on the scene. Yet, in the chapter ‘Identity,’ the citizens of Chelyabinsk paint a conflicting picture of what it now means to be Russian. “Their embrace of much of Western Culture and their selective denial of what doesn’t fit into the official ‘Russian’ model seldom makes sense,” Garrels writes.

What is shocking and what surfaces again and again is the level of corruption, bribery, and the greasing of palms in the governance within Russian civil society now. It is a nasty, and disturbing under-current that hovers just beneath the surface. Perhaps it was always there, even during the Soviet era. Yet, through it all the Russian people cleverly find a way.

Garrels stays away from the use of battalion sized sentences when talking about Russian history, generally, which is no easy feat, considering that it is a long, vast, and complex historical experience. She explains, for example, the origin of the Russian Orthodox Church, how it differs from the church in Rome, and what role it has played, politically and socially, and how it has survived through the centuries. She explains how leaders of that church have remained a key social force through the reign of the Tsars, the Bolsheviks and, the current era of Putin. They have done so cleverly, she writes, by truncating the growth of competing religions, especially Islam, often pitting them against one another over scarce resources, while at the same time also creating a cozy relationship with whomever rules, that is mutually beneficial to both.

While containing a population of just over 142 million citizens, under half the size of the U.S. presently, the country’s land mass is also nearly twice the size of the 48 contiguous states. Yet, Russia also matches, in both sheer and in real numbers, the same social issues as the U.S., such as drug abuse, and alcoholism, according to Russia’s own official statistics.

Then there is the matter of how Russians see themselves, and the outside world through their media, now largely state controlled. “Russia’s experiment with press freedom was brief. In the late 1980’s, (former Soviet Premier Mikhail) Gorbachev’s glasnost policy went much further than he ever imagined,” Garrels says. Since his rise to power, Garrels adds that “Putin has made it clear that he would not brook criticism of him(self) or (those inside of) his circle.” And as such, gone are the once hilarious satirical programs and investigative journalism which are now all shut down. The one holdout television network, called Dozdh, or ‘Rain’ as it would be translated into English, has been dropped by all cable tv systems, with even its landlord refusing to re-new the lease on the offices where station programmers had operated out of. All parties connected to Dozhd felt the direct pressure from the Kremlin.

Putin Country is a book that is hard to put down, and it falls easily into the category of ‘page turner.’ From chapter to chapter there are surprises, mystery, shock, and intrigue, in the subjects Garrels touches on that have end-up on the front page of the international press as this reviewer writes. The current admission by high ranking officials of cheating by Russia’s athletes, now being barred from some events in the upcoming Rio Olympics in Brazil is a case in point.

Even with page after page of shocking developments detailed within Putin Country, it is clear that Anne Garrels admires, and even loves, the Russian people. Yet, Russia has not been ‘Russia’ since 1917, when the era of the Tsar came to a close following the Bolshevik revolution. With that, there are people such as Irina Korsunova, a stunning, and fashionably dressed, fully westernized thirtysomething magazine editor, who feels that her country has given much to the world, while receiving little in return. Like millions of Russians of her generation, she regrets the breakup of the Soviet Union and blames what she calls the “importation of Western corruption” for helping to destroy what was best about her country.

Putin Country is an important read that offers a window into the current mindset of the Russian psyche, as a nation on the way back up. It helps to explain in simple sentences the background to that mindset. That is a nation whose citizens are conflicted over the recent military intervention in countries like the Ukraine, who are now more aware of the inequalities inside the West, while at the same time are angered by the view of their country as a “mafia-ridden kleptocracy,” while complaining about corruption around them.