Narrative snapshots over several decades of a Russia riven by contradictions, aspirations, and entrenched defenses.
Former NPR foreign correspondent Garrels (Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War as Seen by NPR's Correspondent Anne Garrels, 2003) offers finely delineated, meticulously researched dispatches from a region in Russia that seemed to her both typical of a certain Russian provincialism and arbitrarily chosen: Chelyabinsk, on the southern edge of the Ural Mountains. Since 1993, then Moscow-based correspondent Garrels used Chelyabinsk, once the hub of the Soviet military-industrial complex, as a kind of barometer to gauge how the entire country was faring, from the initial economic chaos after the collapse of the Soviet Union to the yearning for strong-armed stability under President Vladimir Putin. In turn, the author examines aspects of this vastly changed society, once utterly insulated from the world but now awash in foreign goods, languages, and TV shows, a country of proud people both leaning toward a Western model and yet fiercely defensive about “where they fit into the world.” Garrels finds the Russians sick and tired of being blamed by the world community—e.g., for the takeover of Crimea, for suppressing free speech, etc.—and, “in the absence of a national idea,” she asserts, they have “fallen into blaming outsiders instead of dealing with the issues at hand.” Those issues involve big-time corruption in most aspects of Russian life, from government to education to the military; the continued blight of alcoholism and the early mortality rate for men; the low birth rate and strain on women in jobs and family; the denial of the existence of special needs children and resistance to adoption by foreigners; the scandalously shabby services and salaries in hospitals; the refusal to address the high HIV rate; and the Orthodox Church’s “cozy relationship” with the Kremlin. In essence, Garrels shows how the gloomy sense of “Russian fatalism” poisons all aspects of society.
A collection of scrupulous, timely journalistic portraits.