Interview: Anne Garrels, Author Of 'Putin Country' Steve Inskeep talks with former NPR foreign correspondent Anne Garrels about her new book Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia.
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A Journalist Delves Deep Inside 'Putin Country'

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A Journalist Delves Deep Inside 'Putin Country'

A Journalist Delves Deep Inside 'Putin Country'

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Journalist Anne Garrels had a problem. She was covering Russia years ago. She wanted to understand what was happening beyond the swiftly changing capital city, Moscow. So she took out a map and chose a city at random.

ANNE GARRELS: It could be anywhere. And I basically just threw a pencil at the map, and it hit Chelyabinsk 20-odd years ago. And I've been going there ever since.

INSKEEP: That's how she began her long relationship with the city of Chelyabinsk. If you've never heard of it, that's the point. Garrels, who was an NPR correspondent for years, says she wanted to get beyond the daily news. She writes of that city in a book called "Putin Country."

GARRELS: Putin country is sort of like middle America, hard-core, industrial and the area of the rest of the country apart from Moscow.

INSKEEP: And the kind of place where President Vladimir Putin is popular. Chelyabinsk turns out to reveal a lot about a country the U.S. constantly confronts on the world stage. The city's industries grew during World War II. Entire factories were moved to that remote region to get the machinery away from invading Germans. Russian nuclear installations grew up nearby. By the time Anne Garrels arrived in the 1990s, that city was suffering. The Soviet Union had collapsed and with it much of Russia's economy and government. In the 2000s, Garrels says, President Vladimir Putin captured local people's imaginations.

GARRELS: He played on this search for identity - search for Russian pride - which had disappeared. And he did it very cleverly.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by Russian identity or Russian pride and playing on that?

GARRELS: Well, the last time Russia was Russia was 1917. And when the Soviet Union broke apart, suddenly Russia was a country on its own again. And so they - they didn't know who they were. They didn't know where they fit into the world. And they also felt pressured. They could see NATO moving up to their borders. They weren't allowed to be a member of NATO. Although, the West would say, hey wait a minute, you know, we invited the Russians to be - have an observer role and have a say. But they didn't really have a say.

INSKEEP: Did people in Chelyabinsk - this rather remote kind of middle-Russia kind of place - did they really care about foreign policy and whether Russia had a grand role in the world or a diminished role in the world?

GARRELS: Yes. I mean, it's not so unlike the appeal that Donald Trump has by telling American - middle Americans we will be great again. And so they may not have necessarily paid attention to the details. But they got the message that Putin was going to stand up to the West and make Russia great again.

INSKEEP: So Putin rode a wave of high oil prices. There was a time when oil was going for more than a hundred dollars a barrel. What has happened in the last few years, as the price of oil has dropped again, to this Russian city?

GARRELS: It's been very dramatic. There are for-rent signs all over the place. Stores are closing, restaurants. Foreign brands are no longer opening branches as they had been. Most of my friends, their income has dropped by easily 30 percent, if not more. But that has not created a burst of opposition against Putin and his policies.

INSKEEP: Why not?

GARRELS: That's a very good question. Partially, they think, well, Western sanctions are going to make us finally develop our own industries, our own agriculture, our own food production. And this is going to take time, but this is good for us. The other part is that, I mean, as much of a dictator in many ways as Putin has become, there are people who are even more draconian who are waiting in the wings possibly.

INSKEEP: What's it like these days to be a critic or opponent of Vladimir Putin?

GARRELS: One friend of mine who I call L because she was afraid of using her name - to start with, in the beginning, when we first, met she was not afraid but then, as the years went by, asked me please not to - she sort of describes being back in the Soviet days, where she has frank discussions in her own kitchen but does not express her views publicly.

INSKEEP: So people have had to become more and more restrained?

GARRELS: Completely. But it's a very selective problem. I mean, the Internet, for all intents and purposes, is still pretty lively. But increasingly - and this is just beginning to happen now - Putin - before, Putin's people would go after major figures who might be a threat. But now they're using very vague extremism laws to go after, for instance, one ordinary Russian who simply said God doesn't exist on the Internet. And he is now being prosecuted. So you've got this selective intimidation, which has wide-ranging ripples.

INSKEEP: In a place like this, what does the rule of law mean - that phrase, the rule of law?

GARRELS: It's highly capricious and basically means very little. Judges are totally under the control of the political authorities. And while they might be fair in certain cases, if the political authorities want the case to go forward, it will go forward.

INSKEEP: So I want to make sure I understand this. The Russian state quasi-collapsed in the '90s. There was massive corruption, things being stolen left and right. People were very frustrated and were suffering. It sounds like that kind of corruption has continued right on through the Putin era.

GARRELS: Completely.

INSKEEP: Do you ever ask people if they blame Putin for that?

GARRELS: Of course I do. And they just kind of shrug their shoulders and say, you know, there's nothing he can do about it. And then I say, but wait a minute. It's not that he's an innocent in all of this. And they just once again shrug their shoulders. It's - they complain about it all the time. But it has not yet affected his popularity, which is at record-high.

INSKEEP: So what do you think that American policymakers need to know, need to understand about Vladimir Putin when they try to deal with this figure on the world stage?

GARRELS: Well, one of the reasons I did the book was to go back and look at maybe what mistakes we may have made along the way that helped create a Putin by sort of dismissing Russia as a loser and by not acknowledging that it really might have a say in some things - and I think trying to understand that Russia is wounded and is licking its wounds.

INSKEEP: Are you saying we should look at this big. dangerous country as actually a quite weak country - insecure?

GARRELS: Yes, in large part - I mean, it can certainly interfere, as we've seen in Syria. But I think understanding that it is a wounded country is key.

INSKEEP: Anne Garrels is the author of the new book "Putin Country." Thanks very much.

GARRELS: Thank you.

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