More than twenty years ago, the NPR correspondent Anne Garrels first visited Chelyabinsk, a gritty military-industrial center a thousand miles east of Moscow. The longtime home of the Soviet nuclear program, the Chelyabinsk region contained beautiful lakes, shuttered factories, mysterious closed cities, and some of the most polluted places on earth. Garrels’s goal was to chart the aftershocks of the U.S.S.R.’s collapse by traveling to Russia’s heartland.
Returning again and again, Garrels found that the area’s new freedoms and opportunities were exciting but also traumatic. As the economic collapse of the early 1990s abated, the city of Chelyabinsk became richer and more cosmopolitan, even as official corruption and intolerance for minorities grew more entrenched. Sushi restaurants proliferated; so did shakedowns. In the neighboring countryside, villages crumbled into the ground. Far from the glitz of Moscow, the people of Chelyabinsk were working out their country’s destiny, person by person.
In Putin Country, Garrels crafts an intimate portrait of Middle Russia. We meet upwardly mobile professionals, impassioned activists who champion the rights of orphans and disabled children, and ostentatious mafiosi. We discover surprising subcultures, such as a vibrant underground gay community and a circle of determined Protestant evangelicals. And we watch doctors and teachers trying to cope with inescapable payoffs and institutionalized negligence. As Vladimir Putin tightens his grip on power and war in Ukraine leads to Western sanctions and a lower standard of living, the local population mingles belligerent nationalism with a deep ambivalence about their country’s direction. Through it all, Garrels sympathetically charts an ongoing identity crisis. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union, what is Russia? What kind of pride and cohesion can it offer? Drawing on close friendships sustained over many years, Garrels explains why Putin commands the loyalty of so many Russians, even those who decry the abuses of power they regularly encounter.
Correcting the misconceptions of Putin’s supporters and critics alike, Garrels’s portrait of Russia’s silent majority is both essential and engaging reading at a time when cold war tensions are resurgent.
"Quiet but excellent . . . [Garrels's] clear, patient, sympathetic portraits of teachers, children, prostitutes, doctors—the whole raft of Russian humanity—provide a pointillist landscape and an understanding of the country, and its mentalities, that eludes many more overtly political books." —The New Yorker
"A quiet masterwork . . . [Garrels] seems to have talked to everyone . . . She marshals her reporting, character after character, to build the evidence." —Andrew Meier, Bookforum
"Although the nominal subject of Putin Country is Chelyabinsk . . . the book’s deeper and more revelatory theme is that of the Russian wily man . . . There is little remarkable about the place, though that is also what makes the book worthwhile . . . The search for a post-Soviet ideology has, in Chelyabinsk and across Russia, led to a strange mishmash, at once faithful and mystical, distrustful and fatalistic." —Joshua Yaffa, The Wall Street Journal
"More than twenty years ago, Anne Garrels began visiting the formerly ‘secret’ city of Chelyabinsk, closed to foreigners because of its military and industrial installations. Like the miners in that long-suffering city, she dug deep into the lives of the people and she kept going back to talk with them, charting their evolution from Soviet citizens to citizens of a new Russia. With great journalistic skill, Garrels helps us understand the complex emotions of people still in transition, trying to define what it means to be Russian." —Jill Dougherty, former CNN foreign affairs correspondent
"Anne Garrels’s gripping account of people in Russia’s heartland is a fascinating book. It shows us a different Russia from the one most observers see in Moscow and St. Petersburg. It is essential reading for those who wish to understand Putin’s Russia." —Jack F. Matlock, Jr., author of Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended and U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, 1987–1991
About the author
Anne Garrels is a former foreign correspondent for NPR and the author of Naked in Baghdad. She was awarded the Courage in Journalism Award by the International Women's Media Foundation in 2003 and the George Polk Award for Radio Reporting in 2004.