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.