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13 November 2018

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Book Review

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Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia

by Anne Garrels (FSG $26)

Anne Garrels, one of America’s most experienced and fearless journalists, has covered Russia intimately for much of the past 30 years. She had two postings in Moscow, one that ended in expulsion in 1982 as persona non grata, and another after the fall of the USSR.

During the latter posting, she at one point decided she wanted to “adopt” a single Russian city and get to know and understand it truly well. That city, selected with a pencil toss at a map, was Chelyabinsk. As a result, Garrels has traveled to the Siberian city countless times over the past two decades and developed deep ties to the people living out their lives there.

This book is the fruit of that commitment. Through pointed interviews, salient vignettes, and a dense narrative style, Garrels refracts many issues of Russian society through the lens of a rather representative industrial city. Crisp chapters focus on issues of marriage, adoption, work, business, the military, crime, drugs, human rights, church, schools, etc.

It must be said, however, that this is not a book that will leave you upbeat or optimistic about where Russia is headed. On so many issues, Garrels ends her chapter on a dark or ominous note, whether because of the chaos of the 1990s, a century of murdering the nation’s best and brightest, or rampant corruption.

Yet she does share numerous glimmers of light and hope: they are the stories of dogged individuals (a mother who refuses to accept doctors’ diagnoses of her special needs child; a forensic pathologist who won’t be cowed; a journalist who is braver than events say she ought to be; a hospital administrator trading in food to see that his staff get paid; human rights activists so exacting that no charges can be invented against them), all of them refusing to fold even though the house holds all the face cards, aces, and even the tens.

“Russians,” Garrels writes early in the book, “are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in the world.” It is a privilege to read these particular Russians’ stories, even if it means carrying away a deep sadness about the difficult odds they must contend with.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Mar/Apr 2016