Roaming Russia’s Heartland to Better Understand ‘Putin Country’

The Chelyabinsk Organ Hall © Kirill Hryapin

There’s an industrial city, past its prime, far from the big money metropolis. Many of its residents are angry. There’s an opioid epidemic and treatment to combat it is scarce. Residents look to a strong leader, an authoritarian to return the country to the glory days they believe are gone. Many Americans can’t understand why…

A huge percentage of Russians want Vladimir Putin to make their country Velikiy again.

Former ABC and NPR correspondent Anne Garrels has been spending time in Russia since the days of the Iron Curtain. She even got tossed out more than once for her efforts. She was always interested in the hinterlands, the world beyond Moscow that Americans know so little about. Starting in 1993, she made her home base in Chelyabinsk, a hardscrabble city that has a lot in common with the Rust Belt. (And a little with Homer Simpson’s Springfield too!)

In her fascinating book Putin Country: A Journey Into Real Russia, Garrels introduces all kinds of Russians going about their everyday lives. We meet human rights activists, drunks, schoolteachers, Muslims, journalists, families, and the workers in the region’s walled-off nuclear facility.

It’s an important and timely work that sheds light on everyday Russia. From her home in Connecticut, Garrels — who also wrote Naked in Baghdad, a memoir about her time in Iraq — talked to Signature about the vast differences and similarities between our countries, Russian fatalism, the Obama Administration’s missteps, homemade hooch, and what the future may hold.

SIGNATURE: I’m not entirely sure where to begin, but let’s start with where we are right now in terms of America’s relationship with Russia.

ANNE GARRELS: We’re not even talking about Russia in a sensible way. We’re talking about domestic intrigue and whose done what to whom. I am no Donald Trump supporter, but I did hope there would be a fresh look at the relationship. He suggested there might be, but unfortunately, President Trump’s ham-fisted approach has blown it. We’re now going to be in a series of investigations and there will be no relationship as such.

SR: Coming out of the Obama years, what do you think we should be doing differently in our dealings with Russia?

AG: Frankly, we didn’t fully appreciate the evolution of how Russians think about themselves and the West. Policymakers didn’t understand how distressed Russians were by the so-called Western “reforms” of the 1990s. We didn’t appreciate the trauma. We focused on Moscow, where there was a lot of money and people did pretty well, which was not the case throughout the rest of the country. We didn’t appreciate Russian concerns about losing their identity, about NATO expansion to their borders, and about the U.S. and other western countries meddling in the Ukraine, which led to the overthrow of a constitutionally-elected government. It was stupid and short-sighted.

SR: I remember the rah-rah Ukrainian news reports in America, but Putin Country shows it’s a much more complex political situation to Russians.

AG: Completely. And we shouldn’t have been surprised. Our policies over the years helped create a Vladimir Putin and his nationalist defensive, or aggressive, policies. Putin is an authoritarian thug, of that there is no doubt, but he is extraordinarily popular. People keep forgetting that, or they say he controls the media or whatever. It’s partially true, but many educated people I know in Russia say, “I am not a zombie,” and support him. Putin was very fortunate when he came in in 2000, following the disastrous economic upheavals of the 1990s, because oil, gas, and raw materials prices went up, so the economy stabilized. Social services were restored and people were able to get loans for the first time. Even when oil prices plummeted and people’s buying power went down in 2011, Russians sucked it up and bought into Putin’s sanctions against European food imports. You can’t imagine the increase in living standards for the average Russian from the 1990s to the 2000s.

I kept asking people how far Putin could go in his authoritarian moves. People would say shutting down the internet, but Putin has been clever about it, leaving it just open enough. You can still get opposition voices. Those who don’t buy into Putin’s moves either stay silent because they’re making money or leave the country.

SR: Is it the case where following the Cold War we Americans assumed or overestimated that things were inherently going to get better for Russians?

AG: Of course we did, because if it was better for us, it had to better for them. Democracy! Perestroika! Economic reforms! Privatization! We had no idea what the cost was or how difficult the transition would be, but it was nicer for the United States. Russia was no longer a challenger. It was a good combination from an American standpoint.

SR: Is there something specific the Obama administration did that backfired?

AG: The biggest mistake the Obama administration made was referring to Russia as a “regional power.” It’s the largest land mass in the world. The country was crippled, but its military was coming back and they still have a massive nuclear weapons force. Russians aren’t stupid. They outmaneuvered us in Syria, brilliantly. In due time, we’ll see if the Russian government was behind the hacking and releasing of information prior to the election, which would be a first. But there is no question Vladimir Putin absolutely loathes Hillary Clinton. When she compared him to Hitler, that’s just throwing gasoline on a fire.

SR: Before reading Putin Country, I could understand why he would be popular with people who are nostalgic for–

AG:  It’s not just nostalgia and it’s not just in Russia. Look at Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” for Christ’s sake.

SR: That’s what’s fascinating about your book, I was unaware that in many ways, Putin has made Russia great again.

AG: There is no question that people began to live better under Putin and that the West ignored all of their concerns. Whether it was Yugoslavia, Iraq, the Arab Spring, Syria — and with the exception of Yugoslavia, the West wasn’t really successful in any of these regions — we don’t account for Russia as a major world player.

Even my liberal opposition friends applauded Putin when he seized Crimea in 2014. We should have known it was an explosive situation. Instead, we talked about pushing NATO borders or having naval bases in the Black Sea.

SR: Is there something specific about Putin that Americans just don’t get?

AG: The way he thoroughly played on the loss of Russian identity and how they feel put upon by the West. Take the New Yorker article from a couple weeks ago, “Trump, Putin, and the New Cold War.” It doesn’t look at why average Russians feel this way, and they overwhelmingly do. Too many in the Western media only talk to people who reflect their views. We all know Putin is horrible in many ways. And yes, it’s hard to get access to officials, but in the New Yorker piece, David Remnick only talks to ex-government officials, opposition figures, some of whom live here. They don’t talk to people who can explain what Putin has done right in their minds. It’s one-sided and doesn’t help Americans get a sense of everyday life in Russia. It makes it look like we want regime change. As if we could change the regime in the first place.

SR: Are you a fan of Lenin’s Tomb?

AG: Absolutely. I think David Remnick is a brilliant writer. He’s just so vehemently anti-Putin, he sort of dismisses people like me who try to explain why Russians feel the way they do. He’s basically saying they don’t have a reason to be upset. And it’s not just him. The New York Times seems to never speak to anyone outside of Moscow.

To be clear, I know too many people who have been killed — journalists, politicians, human rights activists, etc. — if not by him, then without a real investigation into their highly suspicious deaths. I have no fondness for the man, but he is their leader and we deal with thugs all the time. We don’t need to give in to Putin, but America needs to find common ground, or some sort of understanding, of Russian concerns. It will just get worse and worse.

SR: One more question about the current state of the world, were you surprised by how much admiration President Trump has expressed for Vladimir Putin?

AG: Yes, I have been, but I am suspicious of the Trump Administration’s personal reasons for wanting an improved relationship. I suspect they want to make money, which is not why I think we should improve our standing with Russia. I do think there should be an investigation into Trump’s financial arrangements with Russia. If they are on the up-and-up, why did Jeff Sessions lie about it?

SR: What first drew you to Russia?

AG: A chemistry professor in college, my advisor, realized I had no scientific skills and suggested I take Russian. My dream then was to be a doctor; he thought it would improbably help me achieve that goal. I, being a sixteen-year-old freshmen, became hooked. When I graduated in 1972, there were no jobs that called for Russian other than the C.I.A., so I went to work in a publishing house. All of the great dissident literature was coming out then, so I was able to continue using Russian. I ended up at ABC. In those days, newspapers would train people in Russian for a year before sending them over there, but television networks didn’t. Papers got all the scoops, TV got nothing. It was all correspondents in furry hats standing in Red Square reading official statements.

I had a great boss who said, “You’re young and inexperienced, but you speak Russian and have a passion for it. Go find stories.” I was in Moscow from 1979-82, traveling as widely as one could in the Soviet days. Most of the country was still closed to foreigners. Then I was expelled and never thought I’d go back.

SR: For what?

AG: They called me a spy, the usual stuff in the Cold War days. Anybody after three years, especially if you spoke the language, was sent packing. I think when I first got there, they thought there was no way a young woman could handle it, but I did. “We’ll get her” sort of thing, but I actually got them. For television, I did a lot of innovative reporting, matching my print colleagues. It was exciting and I was heartbroken when I got expelled. I told my husband I wanted another Russian assignment if ever possible. He thought that was the easiest promise he’d ever make to me. Then the world changed. Other than the KGB, my husband was the only person who truly blanched when Mikhail Gorbachev opened Russia up. In 1988, all of us persona non grata-ed got back to Moscow for the Reagan-Gorbachev summit. 

SR: And obviously, you spent a lot of time there since?

AG:  I was there from 1993-98 for National Public Radio. For my sins, after 2001, I was in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and then Iraq for eight years. I kept going back to Russia though, to fill in when needed, up until I retired in 2010. After that, I returned to Chelyabinsk for three months at a time, which I had first visited in the early 1990s. I did that for four years to do the year-after-year reporting, to bear witness to the changes in Putin Country.

SR: Can you describe Chelyabinsk and how you ended up there?

AG: It’s a classic Russian industrial region, a thousand miles east of Moscow, on the edge of Siberia. The Chelyabinsk region is about three million people, the city of the same name is one million. It’s the heartland. I did what American reporters are doing now following Trump’s election, scouring for stories to explain the entire country, not just the corridors of power. I realized early on that the provinces are not Moscow. The capital is flush with money, and unlike the United States, it’s all centralized. It’s New York, Chicago, San Francisco, L.A., Washington D.C., and Miami all rolled into one. It has little in common with the rest of Russia. I threw a dart at a page and Chelyabinsk became my home for the next twenty years.

SR: And within that region is the walled-off self-contained nuclear power city?

AG: Yes, which almost kept me from going to Chelyabinsk. In 1993, there wasn’t much trouble, so I stayed the course. But as time went on and Russian authorities became more suspicious of my reporting out in the provinces, especially the ones with the equivalents of Los Alamos or Hanford, it got harder and harder. Knowing that, I probably would have chosen somewhere else, but I’m glad I didn’t. People in Chelyabinsk were very open. To this day.

SR: I liked how Putin Country is political in the day-to-day lives of your subjects, but not in the standard “here’s what I know and think” sort of way.

AG: I’m really more of an anthropologist than a political reporter. I’m more interested in why people think the way they do, how they react to situations, how they live through challenging times. When I moved there, everyone was so wounded by trying to make a dollar to get through the day. Everything changed, including local people’s attitudes about Russia. My initial plan to break down the book by groups of people worked out much better than I could’ve ever predicted at the time.

SR: As a generality, is fatalism a bedrock aspect of the Russian character?

AG: Given their history, Russians would say yes. Fatalism was expressed to me in different ways. One of the best things the American State Department ever instituted was a program that brought Russian kids over here to work in summer camps. It was brilliant. Even in Chelyabinsk, some 4,000 kids took advantage of it. They learned a lot about the U.S. and one girl said, “I’m surprised by how optimistic Americans can be. In Russia, it’s eto nevozmozhno. It’s not possible.”

Just look at the devastations of the past century: World War I, the Revolution, Stalin’s purges, World War II… Russians told me all the time, “We lost the best and the brightest. We have a depleted gene pool.”

SR: I was unaware historically of how the lack of contact with the Renaissance played in defining Russia for centuries.

AG: Russia’s awakening in the latter part of the 19th-century was late and brief. It’s had a profound effect on what people think is possible and on the impact of the Russian Orthodox Church.

SR: Have you been back to Chelyabinsk recently?

AG: I planned on it, but I have lung cancer. I’m clean at the moment but my husband, while taking care of me, came down with acute myeloid leukemia. He didn’t make it. The past year has been annus horribilis in the worst way.

SR: I’m sorry to hear that, but can I ask you, is your lung cancer related in any way to being in a nuclear region?

AG: I didn’t live in the nuclear power centers, or drink the water. I did visit contaminated villages and carried a dosimeter. Hell, I even went to Chernobyl after the meltdown, but I can’t say it’s why I became sick. I smoke, that’s why I got lung cancer. Chelyabinsk is horribly polluted, but I managed to pollute myself worse.

SR: What do you miss most about Chelyabinsk?

AG: My friends. I made so many over twenty-plus years. Skype helps, but it’s not the same as living it and feeling it every day, of meeting new people who shed light on what’s going on. Although now, an intrepid journalist friend is living with me because she can’t work in Russia. She started a blog when newspapers would no longer take her stories, but then her backers were warned off by the authorities. She got to America last week and will be seeking asylum.

SR: Did you ever fear for your safety?

AG: My sanity, maybe. I wasn’t concerned for myself, because I’d just get chucked out. My deeper concern was that being a friend of mine could be a liability. There was no question in my last visits that I was being monitored. I was thrown out in 2012 and the official said to me, witheringly, “We are not as democratic as you. You will be out of here tomorrow.” He even brought up 1982, from when I was expelled from a Russia that no longer exists. However, I got a visa the following year, and he was arrested for embezzlement and corruption. He died at a young age in prison.

SR: Putin Country examines Russia’s alcohol problem locally, but is it that bad all over?

AG: I think urban intelligencia white-collar workers with decent jobs drink much less than they used to. In the villages though, people are still ninety-proof. Putin, realizing alcohol offers a place to hide, recently cut the booze tax after a bunch of Russians died drinking bath lotion. He wanted people to get drunk cheaper instead of making Samogon, Russian moonshine. It’s a huge problem. To what degree is it a greater problem there than the United States? I don’t know.

The bigger problem lately is drug addiction. Heroin. There and here. Heroin is ravaging the working class neighborhoods of rural Connecticut where I live. It’s new to Russia, only happened after the borders opened. Treatment facilities aren’t great in the U.S., but they’re even more primitive in Russia. It’s an epidemic we share.

SR: What’s your biggest fear for Russia going forward?

AG: I fear Putin is going to continue to flex his muscles and somehow we’re going to interfere. The protests and demonstrations in Moscow in 2011 shook Putin, but they weren’t replicated around the country. Everything is an unknown right now. There are too many nightmare scenarios.

SR: So let’s end on this, what is your greatest hope for Russia?

AG: To be perfectly frank, I don’t have a whole lot of hope. Our relationship with Russia is completely screwed up. I’m ashamed we’re at this point.

But I do hope to go back to Chelyabinsk. I still have one good lung left to fight with and I want to reconnect with all the wonderful people I know. I want to see the babies that have been born, the grandchildren of the people I first met all those years ago, and to talk to high school kids and hear what they’re thinking.

I want to see my old friend Kolya. In 2000, he tested positive for HIV while in a Siberian prison. He got out, started driving a taxi, and turned it into a thriving taxi business. He could have gotten help at the local AIDS clinic, which offers quality treatment. Kolya never went, but he’s surviving. In some ways, he’s the epitome of Russia.