Anne Garrels first visited Chelyabinsk more than two decades ago as an NPR correspondent. The world may have been basking in the afterglow of the conclusion to a Cold War that had long simmered across the globe, but the idea that the crumbling of communism erased old wounds remains idealistic at best. Garrels knew this when she began charting the aftermath of the USSR’s demise, watching as the region survived economic collapse and ultimately became a hub of corruption and economic power. The spheres of reality and perception, though, can be remarkably different. Garrels’ exploration of both in Putin Country serves as a timely dispatch as the world once more turns its eyes to Russia and its role on the global stage.

The frustrations that many voiced in the wake of the USSR’s collapse—a sense that the old days were a better, more stable time, that cultural imperialism from the West would disregard a well-established world and cast aside its system of traditions and beliefs—are understandable even if the actions that came afterward are much harder to comprehend. The rise of Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent who acted as a salve after the fumbling and sometimes embarrassing efforts of Boris Yeltsin, demonstrated that there was relief to be had in the new and confusing world, even if some see sacrificing gubernatorial elections and a systematic destruction of opposing voices as ruthless.

Garrels opens her narrative in 2012, during a time when she had officially retired from NPR and when Putin’s powers seemed to be reaching a peak. Corruption had become so widespread that it was an omnipresent reality that would have to be dealt with, and though Chelyabinsk had enjoyed a period of prosperity, long overlooked problems persisted, including a failure to fully modernize or to make proper preparations for a world seeking to become less reliant on oil and gas. As Garrels writes, Putin’s popularity remained strong as these cracks appeared out of loyalty or fear or both.

Putin’s stable popularity and a deep suspicion of the West remains strong as Garrels explores a variety of subcultures existent in a region once known for its role in the Soviet Union’s nuclear program. Between relating the struggles and frustrations of present day citizens, the author weaves in elements of the region and the nation’s history, allowing us to better understand the relief between the past and the present. As the West has become, by some measures, more tolerant, Putin has driven his stakes deeper into the ground.
Garrels takes in the impact of Putin’s policies and beliefs, speaking to people from varied walks of life, including parents of disabled children, members of the LGBTQ community and others seen as less than equal by the mainstream culture. Among the dominant conclusions are that whatever progress has been seen since the early 1990s has resulted in increased stability and that faults lie not with widespread corruption but with outside interference.

These may not be striking realizations for those who have paid attention to the former Soviet Union, but they are timely ones, especially at a time when many Americans are questioning the ties that their own nation has with Putin’s and what the outcome of a relationship between the two might look like. One can only imagine, given the portraits Garrels offers here. Given that same information, we may make some predictions about the future of Russia and the bubble it seems to have reached. Its future may not be as bright as it once was and yet its determination for survival remains as strong as ever.

Garrels’ time as an NPR correspondent has served her well not only in the investigative elements of this book, finding the stories and capturing them in striking detail, but also as an author whose ability to establish and carry out scenes with both economy and depth is on full display here.

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