Putin Country (Review)

My informal, ad hoc study of Russia has been aided by the appearance of several contemporary books about the country the past couple of years. More than a few of these feature President Vladimir Putin and his influence. Last week, I stumbled across Anne Garrels’ book Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia.  It’s a rather slim book, just right for summertime reading.

Garrels is a foreign correspondent who worked as ABC-News bureau chief in Moscow until her expulsion in 1982. She was hired by NPR in 1988 and has reported on conflicts in many areas, including Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Chechnya.

For the purposes of this book, Garrels claims to have randomly pointed at a Russian map for a representative city to move to and to focus her attention.  She just happened to pick Chelyabinsk–a bleak, hardtack military-industrial city about a thousand miles east of Moscow. During the Soviet era, Chelyabinsk was a major center of the country’s nuclear program. Today, it contains abandoned cities and closed factories.  Much of the region remains off limits.PutinCountry-02

Putin Country is divided into 18 chapters.  Each one is just about the right length for a broadcast documentary installment feature. This might be due to Garrels’ long tenure as a broadcast journalist.  While the chapters were probably meant to be read in sequential order, they can be read out of order and the book will still make sense.

After I read the first chapter “Chaos”, which serves pretty much as the book’s introduction, I jumped ahead to Chapter 5,  “A Gay Life”.  Homophobia is rampant in Chelyabinsk, but not as violent as has been reported in many other areas of Russia.  Life had been less oppressive for post Soviet LGBT people until the recent crackdown on so-called “Homosexual Propaganda” by Putin and his compatriots.

Garrels compared modern day conditions for Russian gays  “much as it was in the United States forty years ago, or how it perhaps still is in rural Alabama.” This is probably a contributing factor to Russia’s problem of “brain drain” of talented people who are moving out of the country. Garrels’ description confirms what my friends in Novgorod have told me.

Once more, I skipped ahead to read Chapter 10, “Schoolhouses and Barracks”. The situation in Chelyabinsk, and probably elsewhere, appears quite bleak. The chapter describes institutionalized negligence, payoffs, bribes, and outright, blatant cheating. The state of “free” education in Russia is the main factor regarding that nation’s “brain drain”.


After Chapter 10, I resumed reading the rest of Putin Country in sequential order so I could experience the book as the author intended it to be digested.  The book, as a whole, touches on strident nationalism mixed with ambivalence about official policies and national direction. This reader discovered some of the reasons that many Russians are loyal to Putin.

I found Putin Country to be a fair introduction to modern Russian culture albeit rather superficial.  Because the book has the flavor of broadcast journalism, I now crave a more in-depth study of the country. I was disappointed that the author’s attention focused on only one region. Before reading the book, I had hoped for more information about the whole country.  Perhaps someone will offer insight from the arcane reaches of eastern Russia.

The view of the Russian Republic that Anne Garrells shares, leaves me feeling sad.  I not only feel sorry for Russia’s LGBT community, but I have similar empathy for everyday Russian citizens.  Strangely enough, I have a greater desire to visit Russia.

{ Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia by Anne Garrels; 240 pages published March 2016 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; ISBN: 978-0-374-24772-0 }

J 7-1-01The Blue Jay of Happiness puzzles over this statement by Vladimir Putin: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
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