SALISBURY — “I have no easy answers,” NPR Senior Foreign Correspondent and author Anne Garrels announced to a packed auditorium at Salisbury School.
Her talk on Friday, Oct. 21, was part of the Salisbury Forum series. She was there to speak about her new book, “Putin Country: A Journey into The Real Russia.”
The topic drew such mass interest that Route 44 was jammed that evening with a long line of cars attempting to enter the boys boarding school. Inside, every seat was filled.
In the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, Garrels described Russia as having gone through “a political, economic and social earthquake.” Planning on how to report on the aftermath, she wanted to find one location within the country she could cover consistently, allowing her to get to know citizens and track their inner thoughts through times of change, or as Garrels put it, their “evolution in the midst of madness.”
Moscow was not that place.
“It became increasingly clear to me that Moscow was not Russia,” Garrels said, describing Russia’s heavily populated capital as the equivalent of Los Angeles, New York and Chicago wrapped up in one.
So, one night she threw a pencil at a map and it landed on Chelyabinsk.
“A typical industrial city,” Garrels said. “It became my home from 1993 to today.”
At the start of the 1990s the majority of Chelyabinsk’s population was unemployed, with a few exceptions: factories making steel doors became popular as theft had become widespread. One man Garrels met had started a funeral business, finding that while ordinary people scraped together what they could for payment, the Russian mafia was willing to pay large sums for elaborate funerals.
“Gradually I saw, as I kept going back, people became more disillusioned with The West. The U.S. promised, not that it wouldn’t expand NATO, but that it wouldn’t take advantage of a crippled Russia.”
But the people of Russia perceived the military alliance as doing just that.
As Boris Yeltsin resigned, the rise of Vladimir Putin was met with “a sigh of relief,” said Garrels. “He was young and healthy” and the economy improved as oil prices soared.
“Starting in 2000, Chelyabinsk was transformed. People could get mortgages. They could get loans. New companies started. Pensions were being paid. Health care dramatically improved.”
Garrels described the change in attitude found in Russians to be “largely apolitical.” Russian citizens in the 2000s were “living better. They were aspiring to and beginning to realize the middle class life.” In 2012, Garrels saw cafés on the streets, Chanel boutiques, women headed to exercise classes.
While demonstrations against the government could be seen in Moscow, Garrels said, “They were not replicated across the country.”
Putin claimed control of the media. The opposition to him was fragmented, fraught with in-fighting, and had “nothing to offer the country that competed with Putin’s vision of a better, greater Russia.”
In areas like Chelyabinsk, Garrels said, “people were sick of beating up on themselves. They were sick of the world beating up on Russia. Putin took advantage of this and ran with it. That included re-evaluating history, distorting history a little bit, finding new heroes. Stalin became a new hero. Putin was looking for something good in Russia’s past.”
“Does this sound familiar at all?” Garrels asked the audience. “Let’s make Russia great again.”