Putin Country: A Journey Into The Real Russia

By Anne Garrels



On a midwinter morning in 2013, the Russian city of Chelyabinsk was blinded by a white streak in the sky. It lit up the late dawn and arced across the horizon, leaving a trail of smoke. Students at Lyceum 31 pressed their noses to their classroom windows to see "the unreal light." Minutes later, there was a huge blast. Solid windows merely shuddered, but across the city panes and TV screens shattered, sending shards flying. Car alarms were triggered, and the roof of a zinc factory partially collapsed. Around twelve hundred people were injured by the hail of debris. Amazingly, no one was killed.

Remarkable images immediately flooded the Internet, recorded by car video cams mounted on dashboards. These are commonly used to record the region's all too frequent traffic accidents and support insurance claims. What they recorded this time was the result of a sixty-foot-wide meteor approaching the earth. It came in undetected at roughly forty-two thousand miles an hour—twelve miles per second. It began to blow apart twenty-eight miles above the Chelyabinsk region, exploding with the energy of about five hundred kilotons of TNT, thirty times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. At its most intense, the fireball glowed thirty times brighter than the sun. Scientists say it was the largest rock to reach our planet since 1908, when another meteor crashed into Siberia's Tunguska River.

Fragments rained down all over the countryside, with the largest single piece punching a huge circular hole in the thick ice of Lake Chebarkul, a couple of hours' drive from the regional capital. There was no boom there, just a flash of light. Worshippers at the nearby Orthodox church continued with their service. Ice fishermen dozing off on the frozen lake were shocked out of their sodden reverie, but whatever had landed quickly disappeared in the watery depths, leaving only a gaping hole.

Eight months later, divers retrieved a half-ton piece of space rock. It broke into three pieces when it was lifted up. The largest piece now sits benignly under a Plexiglas dome in the regional museum. Compared with the colorful rocks indigenous to the Urals, glistening green malachite and deep purple charoite, the residue of the meteor is a dull lump, with sculpted pits where its molten material chipped off on its extraordinary journey.

The superstitious and the religious tried to find some meaning in this rare event. Wags suggested President Vladimir Putin's appointed governor, long the target of corruption allegations, had been fingered for his sins. What everyone agreed was that Chelyabinsk, a gritty industrial region a thousand miles east of Moscow, was again on the map, though for once the troubles were not man-made. Known to be one of the most polluted places on the planet because of a once-secret nuclear accident and choked by clouds of industrial waste, the area had suffered plenty of indignities. But residents looked on this natural event with a kind of pride and awe. Trade in alleged "space rock" flourished briefly. A local chocolate factory came out with a deluxe Meteor assortment.

Chelyabinsk had been on my radar since 1993, two years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, when a newly independent Russia was struggling for its survival. I had served many stints in the Soviet Union and the new Russia as a journalist and was then NPR's Moscow-based correspondent. As any Russian will tell you, Moscow is not Russia, and in the 1990s it was clear that the country's richest and most powerful city was racing even further ahead. Moscow is not just the capital and seat of government. It is also the financial, commercial, cultural, and entertainment center—Washington, New York, Chicago, and L.A. all wrapped into one. But most Russian citizens, including the members of many diverse ethnic groups, live elsewhere. Dispersed across a vast landscape, they both admire and resent the Moscow megalopolis. I decided 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.

Deciding to focus on one provincial area, I considered any number of towns and regions and finally let fate decide. Lacking a dart, I threw a sharpened pencil at the huge map of Russia in my office. It landed close to the center, making a small rip in a region that, like much of the country, had long been closed to foreigners but had recently opened up to the world. Given my silent pledge to go wherever the pencil point landed, my relationship with the city of Chelyabinsk and the surrounding region of the same name was sealed. I have been going there regularly ever since. It has indeed become my second home.

The size of Austria, and with a population of only three million, the Chelyabinsk region sits on the southern edge of the Ural Mountains. The word "mountains" is a bit of a misnomer. Worn by the ages, they are now really little more than humps, dividing the western, "European" part of Russia from Siberia. Far from Moscow and the Pacific alike, people here are proud to live in what they call the backbone of Russia, a place rich in minerals and coal, forests, fields, and lakes. They believe they have supported the country in war and in peace. But the cost has been exorbitant, and the region is still raw from the ravages of history.

That history continues. When thousands of middle-class Muscovites took to the streets in 2010 and 2012 to protest election fraud, corruption, and malfeasance, the rest of the country remained relatively silent. The Moscow-based international press corps made much of the capital's protests but ignored the heartland. In those days, should you have read the Western media, you would have been persuaded the country was on the edge of rebellion.

The foreigners' blindness reinforced my determination to continue charting events in the Chelyabinsk region. Like most of Russia, it's Putin country, and as I write, it has only become more so. The reasons are many and confused.

Most people unhappily remember what they call the "anarchy" of the 1990s, when lawlessness and declining living standards followed the collapse of the U.S.S.R. They are eager for stability and a sense of national pride, which they believe President Putin has delivered. They dream of a country worthy of their love and admiration. Many resent the West, which they accuse of hypocrisy and arrogance. It's hard to find anyone who sees an alternative to the status quo; a grudging complacency is more common. The opposition is fractured, anemic, and intimidated.

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When I first arrived in 1993, Chelyabinsk was a depressing place, where people were alternately desperate, hopeful, and fearful as changes emanated from Moscow. The entire region had been closed to foreigners since the late 1930s because of its "secret" military and industrial installations. Now those state-owned, state-controlled behemoths, often employing tens of thousands, were among the Russian institutions most threatened by the emerging market economy. Suddenly the Chelyabinsk region was a part of the world. Sprung free from government subsidies, lacking the structure and orders they needed to be "competitive," the area's factories required major revamping and investment. Given domestic chaos and a lack of capital at home, this had to be Western investment, about which they knew nothing. "Profit" and "bankruptcy" were the new buzzwords. A whole new vocabulary and set of ideas were gripping the country, and Chelyabinsk, like much of Russia, was ill-prepared.

I was among the first foreigners to arrive in the city, and government officials were embarrassed by the lack of "acceptable" accommodations. There were none of the Intourist hotels, shabby and overpriced, that had catered to foreign visitors in the country's open cities. The only hotels were even more run-down, with irregular heat and water, so the local authorities insisted I stay in what had been a Communist Party guesthouse. It was only marginally better, with its standard narrow single bed, peeling wallpaper, and pink nylon curtains—and its distinct smell of Soviet antiseptic and cigarettes, a smell that still permeated the country.

New restaurants and casinos were opening in Moscow but not yet in Chelyabinsk. A few private clubs had begun serving the small group who had cash. There weren't any signs. You had to know where they were. The clientele, mainly men in black shirts and black ties, accompanied by babes who never said a word, looked as if they had just walked out of a bad gangster movie. These denizens were known as "mafia"—the word quickly adopted to describe the new criminal gangs that made their money running protection rackets across the city, shaking down shops, the few emerging private businesses, and the remaining factories. The head of the city's police department admitted his men were outgunned, outmaneuvered, or complicit.

The skies over Chelyabinsk were clear of the acrid smoke I had been warned of, but the newly clean air was both a relief and a threat. It meant that the steel, chemical, and armament plants on which most everyone depended were at a standstill. Workers weren't being paid or were paid in bizarre goods like crystal vases or industrial pipe their factories had received in barter deals. Many of the biggest plants, with thousands of workers, provided poorly made, costly materials for the Russian military, which had all but collapsed. Those in control plundered anything they could sell off, most often for their own benefit.

Miners, living in conditions that were appalling even by Soviet standards, were threatening strikes. Hospitals had run out of basic supplies and were relying on intermittent Western aid. Food was in short supply, and under every chair, bed, or couch people stored what they managed to cultivate, bottle, beg, barter, or steal. National GDP fell 34 percent between 1991 and 1995, a larger contraction than the United States saw during the Great Depression, and the decline hit hardest in cities like Chelyabinsk. The mayor feared galloping unemployment, unrest, and a budget crisis that would leave the city dark and cold. His worst nightmares did not come to pass, but it was a near miss. Though winter temperatures regularly hover below 0 Fahrenheit, the unseasonably warm winter of 1993 dramatically cut the city's heating bills, providing much-needed relief. Factories were ordered to keep most workers on the books, even if they weren't being regularly paid.

* * *

Like many Russian cities, Chelyabinsk was organized around its foundering factories, which in many ways were self-contained mini-cities: they had their own run-down apartment complexes, hospitals, clinics, and day-care centers. Now these facilities were unloaded onto the local government, which could not cope. The government in turn told residents they could privatize their dwellings. Those lucky enough to have a government apartment suddenly became owners, though just what that meant then was unclear to most except for the criminally inclined. Given the absence of credit and mortgages, there was no real estate market—except for those who were making a lot of cash. Gangsters preyed on the elderly, conning or killing them for their one-room apartments. Meanwhile, the state no longer provided apartments to those who had been waiting in line for them. The young, who often lived with several generations of their families in small apartments, were stuck.

For a minority, the late 1980s and the 1990s were a heady time of revelation and positive change. The new era offered the chance to make money and to right old and new wrongs. What were once nocturnal debates in cramped kitchens became open conversations. The first question you asked anyone was "What have you read?"—though teenagers quickly tired of the onslaught of memoirs about the Stalinist past and were much more absorbed by pirated DVDs piling up in the markets. On TV, the floodgates had opened, and Mexican soap operas and British detective series became a constant staple. When the Vzglyad (Outlook) program went on the air on Friday nights, the streets emptied as people tuned in to the latest political eruption. There was a searing satirical program called Puppets, which poked fun at everyone. In those first years, it was impossible to stop people from talking, but for many the new freedoms were as traumatic as they were delightful. Everything they knew and depended on was disappearing.

Even today, few Westerners fully appreciate how unpopular Boris Yeltsin and his circle of Westernized and Western-supported advisers had become by the time the doddering, drunk president finally resigned at the end of 1999. After a honeymoon with the West, when many Russians fell in love with America, they felt all the bitterness and anger of a jilted lover when it didn't work out as they had hoped. While the West and Yeltsin's team argued that the privatization campaign was necessary to put the country's assets into the hands of people who might get them working, most Russians saw nothing but closed, mysterious auctions, inside deals, scams, street crime, and the rise of a privileged mega-wealthy group of oligarchs, many of whom had come to economic power with hidden Communist Party funds. All the workers got were a few privatization vouchers, so-called shares. In their desperation to feed their families, most quickly sold off these shares for a song to those who unaccountably had access to cash.

As money concentrated in Moscow and its streets became clogged with foreign cars, the rutted roads of Chelyabinsk remained free from traffic, with rusted Zhigulis and Volgas the main means of transport. Informal outdoor markets took over from state stores. At these markets, locals, bundled up against the cold, traded what they could to make a few rubles—homemade clothing, cheap, untaxed imports from China and Turkey, and building materials of questionable provenance. Given rampant inflation, people took their profits to one of dozens of money exchanges that had sprung up selling dollars, which they then put under their mattresses. Everyone was tracking the daily dollar rate. All had become adept currency speculators to protect what little they had. It was exhausting and demoralizing.

For many in Chelyabinsk, and indeed in the rest of Russia, democracy and "reform" were becoming synonymous with hunger, crime, and a steep deterioration in social services. One of the most lucrative businesses was installing reinforced-metal apartment doors and triple locks to protect against growing theft and violence. Disillusion with the West's favorite, President Boris Yeltsin, propelled the people of Chelyabinsk to throw out his favored candidate for governor in 1996. An old-guard Communist was elected, but despite the vaunted claims that a new democracy was in place, with the attendant praise from Washington, Yeltsin rejected the results and put in his own governor. For a while, there was an utterly confusing situation with two competing governors in place. Eventually, the former Communist apparatchik prevailed.

In 1998, Russia defaulted on its foreign loans, and Chelyabinsk, still dependent on out-of-date, overstaffed factories, was hit hard again. "How much more can we take?" people asked as their jobs and savings evaporated yet again.

Former Soviet republics and the satellites of Eastern Europe appeared to be reveling in their new independence and new national identities, often casting themselves as Moscow's long-suffering victims. Only Russians seemed to be condemned for the Soviet past, even though many others had been complicit, or so it was felt. Russians watched as the European Union and NATO began to woo their former allies. The West, it appeared, was treating Russia like a loser that could be ignored or preyed upon.

When an increasingly incoherent Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned, naming the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin as his successor, many Russians were relieved. A former KGB officer, healthy and articulate, Putin quickly exploited mounting popular anger. He knew what a decade of upheaval, humiliation, and nostalgia for the U.S.S.R.'s superpower status had done to the Russian psyche. In the south of the country, he brutally defeated Chechen rebels, who had earlier managed to fight Russia's military to a stalemate. Calling on his old friends in the security services, he used law enforcement to destroy his rivals. He blocked most opposition parties from registering and continued Yeltsin's game, once quietly condoned by the United States, of creating pliant, fake opposition parties. He abolished gubernatorial elections in favor of Kremlin appointments.

Most Russians didn't complain. They were suddenly benefiting from a boom in oil, gas, and raw material prices. Salaries were being paid. Social services improved. Pensions increased. Credit and mortgages were finally available, albeit at exorbitant rates for most. Rampant inflation was brought under control. Consumer spending soared. The price for all this—diminishing freedom and growing corruption—was one most seemed willing to pay. Exhausted by the revelations of glasnost, which for many amounted to washing the country's past sins in public, the public was sick and tired. It sat by passively as Putin took control of the nation's main TV stations and threatened the handful of independent media still struggling to do their jobs of informing the Russian public.

Throughout this period, I managed to visit Chelyabinsk pretty much on a yearly basis, though because of assignments to Iraq and elsewhere they were short trips. By 2012, I had retired from NPR and could spend months at a time there. It was perfect timing. President Putin's reign of stability seemed to be peaking, and a whole new set of issues was confronting the country.

Copyright © 2016 by Anne Garrels


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.

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