Book review: Putin country

Journalist Anne Garrels’ new book Putin Country: A Journey Into the Real Russia is the product of twenty years of visits to the city of Chelyabinsk. A lot of reporting about Russia focuses on Moscow, but the Russian capital is abnormal in many ways, most notably because of its comparative wealth and the presence of a large, educated, and relatively liberal elite. Analyses of Russian public opinion based on Moscow are likely to be wide of the mark. Garrels therefore provides a useful picture of what life is like elsewhere in Russia.

In the Soviet era, Chelyabinsk was a centre of the nuclear industry and thus closed to most Soviet citizens as well as to foreigners. To Garrels its people serve as a proxy for the majority of Russians who support Vladimir Putin and her study is marketed as an attempt to understand them. 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. Readers do get to meet a taxi driver, Kolya, but even his story is somewhat unusual as it involves drug addiction, time in prison, and infection with HIV.

Moreover, most of the stories in the book are rather negative. We learn that Russian health care is a ‘mess’. We meet those trying to cope with the city’s growing drug addiction problem, whose efforts are thwarted by ‘Neanderthals’ in the government and conservative social organizations. We learn of massive cheating in Chelyabinsk’s universities. We discover that heavy-handed actions by the security services are alienating the city’s Muslims. We read of the horrific pollution caused by the local nuclear industry and of an environmental activist who is jailed for daring to point this out. We meet a forensic expert turned undertaker, whose associate is murdered and who is forced to sell his business after he refuses to bribe local officials. We encounter a journalist whose son is arrested after she writes articles critical of the city administration, and a protestor who receives death threats from what ‘were clearly Putin’s thugs’. And so on.

Overall, the image Garrels paints of Chelyabinsk is a pretty grim one. More important, she doesn’t do much to help us understand why this is ‘Putin Country’. The best that she can come up with is that ‘most everyone seems apathetic, cowed, or bought’. She quotes a liberal film director who says that, ‘It’s a bipolar disorder’, and a former journalist who complains of the  Russian people that, ‘They are still slaves’.

And yet, there are moments in the book which suggest a rather different story. Garrels notes that under Putin, ‘Salaries were being paid. Social services improved. Pensions increased. Credit and mortgages were finally available’. After a few years, ‘the center of Chelyabinsk was unrecognizable … The renovated city center has become a popular gathering place. … the cobblestoned streets … now harbor elegant shops, restaurants, and bars. … Where not long ago there wasn’t a single decent hotel, there are now many.’ There are a ‘new park, new hockey rink, malls, and supermarkets … the skyline is cluttered with cranes.’ We learn that ‘Several ski resorts are in development’, and that just outside Chelyabinsk, ‘you reach villages which are turning into helter-skelter suburbs’. Despite the detailed stories of intimidation recounted by Garrels, she admits that in general ‘small to medium-sized businesses … are no longer subject to the criminal shakedowns of the 1990s.’ And she introduces us to some successful farmers, who ‘were able to buy improved Russian tractors … [other] domestically produced equipment … cutting their expenses’, and who are now ‘moving into IT’. After the litany of stories of corruption and intimidation, one wonders how this is all possible. Business appears to be prospering, and the government obviously isn’t stealing everything, but is channelling at least some of its funds into genuine improvements of social infrastructure.

A balanced conclusion might be that Chelyabinsk – and one assumes, many other places like it – have made enormous progress over the past 20 years and continue to do so, but could be doing even better if it wasn’t for the sort of corrupt behaviour Garrels describes. Garrels analyzes the bad news very well, but to get the good news, you have to read between the lines.

28 thoughts on “Book review: Putin country”

  1. I was watching some Russian talk show recently, and they said that the life expectancy in the country is now above the recorded maximum of all times, including the Soviet period. I googled it, and got this:
    So, yes, it sounds like it’s true.

    Also, apparently they’ve finally achieved a positive natural rate of population increase in the last couple of years. Compare to the hair-raising statistics of the 90s… It is truly amazing, what they’ve managed to achieve in mere 15 years…

    And it seems that these achievements (together with asserting national independence, obviously) is the only explanation for all the mudslinging… Or at least I can’t find any other explanation…


  2. From my experience, a lot of people that do these kind of “Putin books” simply arent interested in ordinary Russians, success story of these ordinary people etc.

    I happen to know Chelyabinsk somewhat well, given that part of my family is from there. If I look at the difference between 1994,2004 and 2014, well, it is/was simply shocking.

    The sentence that perhaps sums up the opinion of normal every day Putin supporters in the country is probably this:
    “Times since Putin took power were pretty good, some times were even really good. The good times are probably over now, but it will not become as bad as it was before.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A.I. Schmelzer,

      A question is whether she would be any more interested in what most people think and feel if she were writing a book about Liverpool.


      1. As you seem to know UK well – if she wrote a book about Liverpool, would she be immediately bullied in all state media in UK, accused of being a “traitor”, “fifth column”, fired from work, threatened with beating or killing, and eventually indicted of “extremism” and “inciting a racial hatred”? This is purely hypothetical and any resemblance to any real events in any specific country is purely by chance.


  3. Af a person who was born in Sverdlovsk (and who spent his childhood in Yekaterinburgh 🙂 I can atest that, no – Chelyabinsk is in no way an apt representation of Russia at large. First of all – its in Ural. Second – ad this might surprise some people – most of Russia is not so thoroughly fucked up ecologically speaking. And, yes, I was in Chelyabinsk. This city justly possess its memetic status in Russia (“Chelybinsk [smths/smbs] are so brutal, that…”)

    I’ve read Mrs. A. Garrels interview to the NPR. This woman is clearly suffering from the so-called “baby-duck syndrome”. She got imprinted into her own psyche that Chelyabinsk is *IT* – a looking glass into the “Real Russia”. Nothing can change Mrs. Garrels opinion, and she will share (and imprint) even more people to share her misconceptions.

    This constant Wesrn kvetching about Russia, when it’s seen as “good reporting” to mention only bad things actually pisses of a lot of Russians. I find it unsurprising that she followed her instinct of class solidarity and talked and interviewed only kreakls, members of buisiness class and intelligentzia, and then tried to pass that as the “opinion of Russians”.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hmm. I noticed something similar when reading Midnight in Siberia by David Greene (also an NPR journalist!) and Lost and Found in Russia by Susan Richards. In both books, the journalists sought the Real Russia™ and brought considerable liberal baggage with them. Greene interviews everyday Russians, but only to capture their negative stories, and Richards interviews only the intelligentsia. As a result, the former book perpetuates the Russia-as-s***hole narrative, and the other perpetuates the “declining but mystical Russia” narrative.
      My question is,why? Are liberal voices in Russia easier to reach, despite being in the minority?


      1. “My question is,why? Are liberal voices in Russia easier to reach, despite being in the minority?”

        Yes. Or do you really think that all those Western missionaries of the One and True Way of the End of History, Invisible Hand of the Market and Librulism came to the backwards and uncouth Russia knowing aborigene’s parlance? Perish the thought!

        No, they want it easy and, preferably, without translators. So they end up talking to the people close to them idealogically in class standing – intelligentsia, thoroughly fucked in the brain by Perestroyka, and then fucked physically and financially by Yeltsin’s policies.

        Plus there were the confirmation bias, pre-existing stereotypes and misconceptions at work.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Is it because in 1990s we were the Criminal Capital of Russia (suck it, St.Pete!), because all kinds of gangs were waging turf wars over lucratice and still profitable factories? Of because “Kater” nowadays feels all the joys of maypr Royzman “wise” rule?


      1. ““Kater” is a local name? Somehow I still prefer E-burg =)”

        Ё-бург is haram for all of you non-locals (Micky McFaul got burned for that). Also – only we can diss our stupid dual monument to Tatischev and de Genin and call it “Beavis&Butthead” [nods]


  4. “Yes. Or do you really think that all those Western missionaries of the One and True Way of the End of History, Invisible Hand of the Market and Librulism came to the backwards and uncouth Russia knowing aborigene’s parlance? Perish the thought!”
    Thanks for answering my unintentionally naive-sounding question. I only realized after the fact that I should’ve worded it differently.


      1. Thank you, Paul. Your review of Putin Country was wonderful, as to be expected. Do you have any idea what you’d like to review next?


    1. I agree. I don’t feel that stereotyping and class bias sufficiently explain it.

      For one thing, I know middle-class educated Russians who are not anti-government. They are not super-patriotic, they may be critical of the government, but not anti-government. Not Putin-haters. They are realistic.

      Another thing is that when these western journos need to, they find working class and underclass people who hate the government just fine. Their class bias doesn’t prevent them from that.


      1. I think most of the Russian part of my family falls into the “realistic” level. They ask themselfs one simply question: If Putin goes, is it realistic to assume that whoever is next will be “less bad”? The awnser of course is no, especially if you look at the pro western opposition.

        They would be OK with Medvedev or Mironov, and prefered these over Putin in some cases, however, Putin has a track record at winning wars, and right now thats more of a thing then in lets say, 2010-2012.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. There is beautiful scene in one movie (V Dvizhenii).
        Two guys argue in a club and almost start fighting but stop and make peace. One says “what a country we live in” another agrees “yeah stupid country”. When some stranger near by says “yah, country is shit” with German accent. Both Russian guys attack him right away.

        What I’m trying to say is that it’s a bit intimate question. I can go on with friends about Putin and St. Pete gang, corruption, Milonov and stupidity. But that doesn’t mean when it comes to Russian government vs West or Putin vs opposition I will be on the same side as West/opposition. And so it is easy thing to translate private negative opinions about mane things in Russia forgetting to mention that this is spherical horse in vacuum and facing choice those people may make one author won’t approve.

        Sorry for a bit garbled post. I’m in a bar.


      3. Incidentally, all those NPR-liberals in the US are super-enthusiastic practitioners of the “lesser evil” concept themselves… They hate Clinton (corruption, war-mongering, etc.), but of course they’ll all go and vote for her – because the alternative is so much worse. Go figure…


      4. Hilariously enough, I did never get into trouble critizing Russia in Russia towards ordinary Russians.
        Perhaps it is because I say things like “from my foreign point of view, it would appear that the administration does work in a matter that could be optimized for the benefit of Russia” and not “Russia is the most corrupt sucky place ever”.

        You also get much more substantiative responses from this. I had a really nice discussion with MVD officials on how to make Russias police less corrupt once, amusingly enough we went at it from the opposite direction, as in “in what situations would Russian police become more corrupt”.
        This lead to the following exchange (roughly from memory):
        MVD1: “So, when would we be more corrupt?”
        MVD2:”Everything like in the 90s, like, we get nearly nothing, have to steal from the citizens to make ends meet?”
        MVD1:”So, to make this even worse, we would have to be paid absolutely nothing and to have the stealing legalized?”
        Me:”Why, this sounds exactly like civil asset foreclosurelaws in the USA? They actually have police departments which finance themselfes exclusively from civil asset forfeitures”
        MVD1:”How does this civil asset thingy work?”
        Me:”Police claims you used something for a crime, police seizes it and either sells it or auctions it off.”
        MVD2:”But, thats America, isnt there some legal process?”
        Me:”In theory yes, if you can prove that your car, or your cash is innocent, for which you need and expensive lawyer, you in theory get it back. Of course, the proper law enforcment response is….”
        MVD1:”To seize all the cash so the citizens cant hire a lawyer!”
        (MVD2 shoots MVD1 a very distressed glance)
        MVD2:”What, the Americans do this? This is ridiculously retarded and impossible, they cant be that stupid, dear Andrej Iljitsch, did you watch too much Russia Today?”

        After I provided MVD2 with actual proof that civil asset forfeitures are a thing, he got really really drunk. He was the only of the group who got drunk before me, I think that was because the shock of the whole thing temporarily damaged his alcohol dehydrogenases or something.

        MVD1 meanwhile started to googling greencard admission processes.


      5. Yeah, but civil forfeiture is a bit complicated. The real shocker (though not corruption-related) is the open container law. Getting arrested for opening a can of beer on the street.


      6. Re: Civil asset fore closurelaws.


        Wow. I mean. I’ve heard about it – in general, but never about its application in reality. Not that Ekho Mosvky, Do\\\d’, RBK or Novaya Gazeta will ever run stories that can harm the Saintly Image of the Western Valinor.

        You know, probably the only reason why this, and other systems work at all and people not complaining in the States is because of the general laziness and imprinted law-abideness? Cops are too lazy to go over the top in exploiting this and 1000 other absolutely legal ways of depriving their fellow citizens from the hard earned money, while the civvies are too trusting in the Law and System, or generally not pissed enough to take any actions to do something about it?

        In which case – who are they to… lecture us?


      7. I had no idea that civil asset forfeitures were a thing before reading these comments! I am one of those civvies. I AM ONE OF THEM.


  5. Interestingly, the discussion on why the police force is corrupt fundamentally boiled down to mutual lack of trust (both concerning citizens trusting the police, and the police trusting the citizens).

    I think there are some projects/approaches focused on fixing that by dealing with everyday matters really really quickly. I think Chelyabinsk has a system where, if you get your mobile phone stolen and can provide proof of ownership that you in fact own a certain number, that the phone gets located by the police and stuff then happens really fast.

    Reasoning behind this is that most citizens wont have much police interactions in their entire lives, and that, if an interaction goes really well and quickly, that the citizen who benefited from that will be pleasantly surprised and talk about that. So basically, they are devoting extra resource to, lets call it a department of quickly solvable easy stuff, to generate positive interactions with the law abiding citizenry. I think they had some complex ways of making sure that the “department of quickly solvable stuff” does not become a career dead end, but I was too drunk when this was discussed.

    The reasoning is that increasing trust this way makes less really hard cases appear, and makes it easier to deal with hard cases in the future. It is not a panacea though, resources are finite, and some other departments suffer a bit.


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