Book Reviews

Father Russia

A new book about Russia provides insight into its people. But to know Russia’s soul, look to the strongman at the helm.

By Marvin Kalb

Tagged Russia

Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia by Anne Garrels • Farrar, Straus and Giroux • 2016 • 240 pages • $26

Many years ago, in the early 1950s, one of my professors, a young scholar named Robert L. Wolff, offered a graduate course at Harvard called “Russia and the West.” It was not a required course but, even as an elective, it still filled the lecture hall—which was puzzling. Wolff had the reputation, richly deserved, of being a tough grader: In his arsenal, “A’s” were in short supply. And as a lecturer, he lacked sparkle and wit, unable even on a good day to fire the imaginations of students with tales of Russian barbarism or ballet, cruelty or craftiness. For this course, he stuck to the basics: He had us read many articles and books penned by Western diplomats, businessmen, and journalists who had traveled to Russia over the centuries and recorded their impressions, starting in 1517 and running through the 1940s. It was a rich course, and it raised many questions, which I am still trying to understand, let alone answer.

The authors were Westerners who lived in Moscow for months and years, learned to speak Russian, studied the Kremlin’s policies, and, in time, came to appreciate the power of the Russian Orthodox Church to mold the people’s mystical attachment to the land and fixed allegiance to the state. Because they clearly did not go to Russia for the food, the diplomats spent their time dipping into the difficult task of trying to understand and then reconcile the deep differences dividing Russia and the West. The reporters had to fight their way through many layers of bureaucracy, corruption, and secrecy to produce what their editors back home might consider “news.” And they had to do all this when the snowy winds of winter blew across Red Square, and the temperature hovered on a good day between 10 and 20 degrees below zero. Summers were short and sweet, and generally spent in any place other than Russia.

The first of the Westerners who lived in Moscow and left a detailed written report of his experiences there was an Austrian ambassador named Baron Sigismund von Herberstein, who completed one tour in 1517 and, because he did so well negotiating a truce between Russia and Lithuania, was sent back in 1526 for a second tour. Von Herberstein, like many other Western visitors over the years, watched and listened, and he later wrote in his famed Notes on Muscovite Affairs that he had been impressed:

  • first, by the severity of the winter weather (his nose once froze so badly that only globs of snow—yes, snow!—applied by a Polish peasant could save it from falling off his face);
  • by the widespread drunkenness of the people and their leaders (“drinking is their only desire”);
  • by the Mongolian legacy of obscurantist authoritarianism enjoyed by Russian tsars (“the will of the prince is the will of God”);
  • and, most amazingly to him and to a subsequent succession of Western observers, by the disturbing observation that “this people [seem to] enjoy slavery more than freedom.”

Over the centuries, many Western travelers to Russia have shared von Herberstein’s early-sixteenth-century judgment of the Russian state and the Russian people, differing only in degrees. Like so many other countries, Russia has changed over time, of course. Tsars now call themselves presidents. Serfs have become literate peasants. Missiles have replaced spears. And the Internet binds this vast nation, stretching from Poland in the west to the Pacific in the east, with means of communication unimaginable only a few years before. But in so many basic ways, Russia remains unchanged. It is still a land governed by despotic rulers and inhabited by a talented but extraordinarily docile people, given to excessive alcoholism but at the same time pioneers in outer space and masters of a massive military machine, who are waiting for a political messiah who will, they hope, one day deliver an economic bonanza.

But how much longer will they wait? This is the question being asked by many Russia-watchers, especially in these increasingly tense times. When will they finally rise up, as they have done periodically in their turbulent history, and demand a better day? Or are the Russian people doomed to live expectantly on the edge of change, never able to reach their promised land?

Russia is an intriguing puzzle. Over the centuries, Westerners such as von Herberstein have tried to explain Russia to the rest of the world; given the obstacles, they have done surprisingly well. Among the most impressive, in my judgment, were the Marquis de Custine in the nineteenth century and George Kennan in the twentieth century. In our century, there are other Kremlin-watchers, whose works have focused less on the lot of the Russian people than on their headline-catching autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin, drawing a broad picture of his consolidation of personal power in the tradition of Peter the Great and Josef Stalin. Among these works are Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, Walter Laqueur’s Putinism: Russia and Its Future with the West, Steven Lee Myers’s The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, and my own Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War.

Now comes Anne Garrels, a former NPR reporter and writer, who breaks from the pattern of focusing primarily on Putin and his policies and instead drills down into the everyday life of Russians living in one city, Chelyabinsk. Once a hub of Russia’s military, industrial, and nuclear development, this city of 1.1 million is located a thousand miles east of Moscow near the Ural Mountains, which separate Europe from Asia. Why Chelyabinsk and not Moscow, the capital? Because as Garrels explains in her deeply informative Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia, “I needed to find a place far beyond the capital’s Ring Road, where I could follow these citizens of the new Russia as they picked their way through the rubble of a political, ethnic, social, and economic earthquake.”

For readers of Garrels’s other book, a 2003 report on the American invasion of Iraq, ludicrously titled Naked in Baghdad, this Chelyabinsk approach to storytelling will come as no surprise. In both books, she directs her considerable energy to people, not policy, and her readers are the better for it. “I’m not really very interested in the strictly military part of war,” she told PBS “Newshour.” “Rather, I’m fascinated by how people survive, and how the process of war affects the attitudes of all sides involved, and how they pull out of it.”

Reading Garrels’s detailed account of life on the street corners of Chelyabinsk, I found it hard to imagine how the Russian people would “pull out” of the social, political, and economic mess that currently defines their lives. Russians are a stoical people, able to tolerate severe limitations on their freedom of action and thought so long as they are provided with the necessities of life and protected from foreign enemies—real, imagined, or TV-created. Garrels clearly disapproves of Putin’s policies and just as clearly admires the Russian people. She knows their literature and speaks their language, a huge asset for any foreign correspondent, and she has been covering Russia, on and off, since the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union disintegrated and communism died. When she first visited Chel-yabinsk in 1993, it was, as she put it, in a state of “chaos,” a “depressing place, where people were alternately desperate, hopeful, and fearful.”

“Russia is Putin, and Putin is Russia,” say many bewildered Russians, who cannot imagine another leader. Putin cannot imagine another leader either.

As Russia changed over the years, so too did Chelyabinsk. So much in Russia depends on the price of oil, which is the country’s most valuable resource. In 2000, when Putin became president, oil prices around the world began to climb, and the Russian people attributed the improvement in their standard of living to his skill, cunning, and courage. His popularity went through the roof. At long last, “salaries were being paid,” Garrels writes. “Social services improved. Pensions increased. . . . Consumer spending soared.”

In time, Garrels and Chelyabinsk became a thing. She returned many times, almost on an annual basis. With the clear eye of a good reporter, she could sometimes see dramatic improvements—and at other times, disappointing setbacks. She made many friends and, through her, so do we: her trusty taxi driver, Kolya, twice imprisoned for stealing, now wedded to Anna and the proud owner of a small apartment, which makes him part of a rising middle class; a gay man named Georgy and a gay bar called Neon in a city where homosexuality, once illegal, now tolerated, is still seen as a sin so awful only God can expunge it; a nouveau riche couple, Dima and Tatiana, who own a luxurious dacha, have lots of loose cash, and would not mind spending $50,000 a year for their child’s education in a private school in the United States; a doctor, Eduard Reebin, the head of an overcrowded, under-resourced hospital, where patients often have to bring their own sheets and pillows, which is not all that unusual in today’s Russia; another doctor, Natalia Golubiya, who works with drug addicts in a country suffering from an “explosion of HIV” and a shortage of medical supplies; a human rights activist, Nikolai Schur, struggling against the odds in a tiny one-room office to fight a corrupt system of “shakedowns, beatings, torture, and in some cases murder”; and many other Russians, brave and lost, each deserving a book of similar compassion. Overall, life in Chelyabinsk has improved but seems now, in Putin’s time, to have hit a gray wall of political paralysis and economic stagnation.

After meeting her Russian friends, I found myself drawn especially to one of Garrels’s underlying themes, defined essentially as the long, frustrating search for Russia’s “national identity.” Russian historians, poets, and philosophers have grappled with this problem for many years but have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer. Whether living under the tsars or the commissars, many could agree only on the uniqueness of Matushka Rossiya, the powerful, emotional magnet attracting a deep love of land and faith associated with Mother Russia since the time of Kievan Rus’ in the tenth century. After the 1991 upheavals, the question of national identity resurfaced with a new urgency: After communism’s demise, would Russia throw in its lot with the West or with the East? Or would it be detached from both West and East and become the sole master of its Slavic, Orthodox Christian neighborhood? And if it did become such a nation, how would it relate specifically to NATO, the United States, or China? Would Russia be an ally or an adversary?

One major problem with the search for Russia’s true “identity” is that Russia has always been a nation of many nationalities, although, with one great exception—a Georgian named Stalin—it has been ruled by Orthodox Christian Slavs. The tsars were such Slavs; so were all Soviet leaders (except Stalin), and so is Putin. After the Russian Revolution, Lenin learned that there were more than 175 different nationalities in the new Soviet Union. How to retain Slavic leadership of the country but give the other nationalities the impression, however false, that they were theoretically the equals of the Slavs was one of Lenin’s early challenges, and he could not meet it; neither could Stalin.

Today this problem is further compounded by Putin’s controversial decision to engage militarily in the Syrian civil war—a decision that could ultimately undermine his political position at home. Russia is a country with a large Sunni Muslim minority, 20 million out of a total population of 142 million. In other words, one out of every seven Russians is a Sunni Muslim. Two million Russian Muslims live in Moscow alone; 55 million live in adjacent Central Asia. Now, suddenly, Russia finds itself at war with a Sunni Muslim Islamic State in Syria. The longer this war continues, the greater the possibility that Russia’s Muslims will be teased, and in time radicalized, by ISIS’s message. Though Garrels does describe the life and times of Muslims living in or near Chelyabinsk, she does so lightly and, in my opinion, she misses the opportunity to address the looming, larger danger of another Slavic-Muslim confrontation in Russia. Two Chechen wars in the last 20 years are bloody reminders of this prospect.   

If in this context you assume, as Garrels does in her flowing narrative, that “Russia was Russia” only up to the 1917 revolution and that the Soviet nightmare that followed was simply an aberration, then what is the country that Putin governs today? Is it simply the continuation of the tsarist tradition, except in name? Or is it a new political hybrid that combines the tsarist tradition with the madness of applied Marxism to produce neither democracy, Russian-style, nor authoritarianism, Putin-style? Is this hybrid to be modern Russia? Putin’s Russia? One day, an answer may emerge. Perhaps tomorrow. Zavtra is the Russian word for tomorrow; Russians use it often.

Many Western writers, including Garrels, believe that for all their day-to-day problems, Russians are satisfied that at least in one respect they have an answer to their perennial question about Russia’s future. They believe Russia is again a “great power.” An ultranationalism runs through the airwaves, and a bare-chested Putin struts on the world stage, flexing his muscles like a bear on the taiga and frightening Russia’s traditional enemies into flight or submission. Putin has again made Russians proud to be Russian. With each new adventure by its gambling president, whether in Ukraine or Syria, Russia has moved back into the center of global diplomacy, and Putin into the catbird seat of Middle East negotiations.

Russians love their Russia; yet, oddly, they have difficulty defining their love. “Russia is Putin, and Putin is Russia,” say many bewildered Russians, who cannot imagine another leader. Putin cannot imagine another leader either. It is his “firm conviction,” according to Hill and Gaddy, “that his personal destiny is intertwined with that of his country.” Putin has come to be seen as a modern tsar in a country that still respects the dominating power of a tsar, a vozhd, a leader.

With each new adventure by its gambling president, Russia has moved back into the center of global diplomacy.

One of Garrels’s friends, an intellectual from Chelyabinsk, Alexander Selez-nyov, explained Putin’s hold on power: “He renewed the country and made it stronger,” Seleznyov said. “We are nothing without Putin.”

This idea of the omnipotent ruler has deep roots. In the mid-nineteenth century, the conservative Sergey Uvarov, the minister of education under Nicholas I, tried to come up with an acceptable definition for Russia’s “identity.” He connected the strong strands of Orthodoxy, nationalism, and autocracy, and exclaimed, Eureka! He thought he had concocted a definition for all time. In fact, it satisfied conservatives, but few others. Other definitions then cried out for attention, but only one has stood the test of time: that Russia be recognized as a unique country, living between East and West, influenced by both but a part of neither, a lonely outpost of Russian nationalism and Orthodox Christianity destined one day to play a historic role in saving Western civilization from advancing foreign threats—as it did, Russians proudly recall, during the Mongol attacks, the Nazi invasion, and now, once again, during the onslaught of ISIS’s brand of radical Islam.

Another definition of Russia’s “identity” is that it is so special a country, with so special a destiny, that it is beyond logic, impossible even for a Russian to truly understand. The nineteenth-century romantic poet Fyodor Tyutchev gave it a try, but failed:

Russia cannot be known by the mind,

Nor measured by the common mile:

her status is unique, without kind—

Russia can only be believed in.

I have the impression that Garrels is one of those Western visitors who can, on an emotional level, “believe” in Matushka Rossiya. She has certainly met many Russians who personify the uniqueness of Mother Russia, but increasingly her friends do not personify the power of Russia, nor, it seems, the future of Russia. Garrels looked to the people of Russia for answers to many of her questions about Russia. Von Herberstein looked to the tsar. And, in a country where “the will of the prince is the will of God,” as he wrote 600 years ago, he might have gotten closer to the truth about today’s Russia than Garrels.

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Marvin Kalb is a Harvard professor emeritus and senior adviser at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. He is a former Moscow bureau chief for CBS and the author, most recently, of Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War.

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