Interview with Anne Garrels, author of Pushkin Prize 2017 shortlisted book 'Putin Country'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

Why did you become interested in Russia?

For totally bizarre reasons. I grew up in England and in order to get out of boarding school I went to the USA to study aged 16 at university. I was young and stupid and thought I wanted to be a doctor though I have absolutely no mathematics, physics or chemistry ability. My chemistry adviser said you really ought to take German or Russian – it’s enormously helpful for medicine. It was absolute rubbish - I don’t know who was paying him. But I was at Middlebury which had an excellent Russian department.  That was the beginning of the end.

When did you first travel to the country?

There were no jobs after university, and I ended up back in England working for the publisher George Weidenfeld. Dissident literature was coming out and I was able to continue in some form my passion. A friend who had been the wife of a diplomat put me in touch with Julian Nundy from Reuters. I didn’t realise he was one of the most talented and most controversial journalists of his era. He sent me an invitation reading “my darling Anne, I can’t wait to see you.” And I got a guest visa from the embassy in a matter of days. The authorities thought I would be a distraction from his work.

When did you start to report on Russia as a journalist?

I went back to the States and worked on a documentary on the Soviet Union for ABC and ended up in the news room. The TV networks had been sending people with absolutely no Russian, who were totally dependent on their KGB translators. There were things they didn’t do: dissidents, Jews. My boss said you’re not very experienced and you’ve never been on air but you speak. We’re going to send you. I didn’t do anything that the print media hadn’t long been doing but our television reporters had done nothing but basically stand on Red Square with furry hats quoting TASS.

Then you were evicted?

I stood out like a sore thumb. I spoke Russian, I was a good friend of Sakharov and was close to the dissident community. I was not popular. I had an awful car accident, and was accused of being a spy. My days were numbered. I was kicked out in 1982 and I thought I could never go back. When I met the man who was to become my husband, I said I really wanted another tour in Moscow, which he thought would be easy to agree to. But with the 1988 Gorbachev-Reagan summit, those of us who were persona non grata were allowed back in. I was from then on allowed to regularly report on Russia. I lived there in 1993-97 and continued to go back in and out.

Why did you choose to focus on Chelyabinsk in your book?

We were all stuck in Moscow in 1993, reporting about our friends who had gone into the Yeltsin government. The more I travelled, the more I realised things were much more difficult elsewhere. It was clear people were really struggling in the provinces. I wanted to choose one place where I would get to know people, follow them and watch the evolution of their lives and their views. I threw my pencil at a map and it fell on Chelyabinsk, just when it other and “closed cities” were opening up. It became my provincial home town, but it could have been anywhere. I have been there perhaps 20 times since.

Why did you decide to write a book about it?

After I retired in 2010, I hadn’t been in Chelyabinsk in a while and when I saw reports about the big demonstrations in 2011-12 against Putin, one had the impression reading the western media that Russia was on fire. As it turned out, the protests were not replicated across the country. In fact, his popularity continued to grow. I was constantly astonished that reporters sat in Moscow, and were basically talking to like-minded people and not going out and figuring out that something actually different was going on in the rest of the country. It took me 24 years of watching an evolution to write, to give a sense of the real Russia and what people had gone through.

Did you have any problems reporting there?

I have had trouble on most trips but I keep getting visas. In 2012, the head of migration in Chelyabinsk sent people to my hotel at 5am. I was registered and had a visa, but they called me in and after eight hours he met me and would not explain why there was a problem. I was asked what had happened when I was kicked out in 1982. I said that was 30 years ago in a country that no longer exists. Wondering if my interrogator wanted a bribe, I tried the great Russian question: “how can we solve this problem? But he just said it was so unfortunate we are not as democratic as you, you’re not allowed a lawyer and you’ll be out tomorrow. He was arrested just afterwards for a big bribery scandal and died in prison.

What’s your impression today?

I’ve just come back from a two-week trip. Something new is going on there now. I was astonished at the growing number of people – though I’m not sure I would say the majority – who openly say they are fed up:  with corruption, the establishment.  Young people I had met before were utterly apathetic. This time, every student of university age said how their lives and prospects had changed. All were looking for a way to go to Moscow or St Petersburg. That was totally different from three years earlier, when they still saw some prospects and there were jobs. Some 43,000 people have left - the best and the brightest. Putin is facing his greatest challenges yet. There are many who still see him as offering stability. Most people still support his foreign policy to some degree and believe the west has taken undue advantage. But what I’ve seen since is disillusionment. We’re back to the Brezhnev-era stagnation. There is a risk if you take part in demonstrations, in a small city where everybody knows everyone, you are very easy to identify and the FSB takes pictures of you. I was astonished but even a couple of people I know with very good jobs who could lose out took part. That was indicative of something.