Putin Country

As authoritarian control and renewed superpower tension dominate headlines, telling stories of Russia’s everyday heroes can reveal lost alternatives.

Susan Richards
19 January 2017

Workers walk along a railway line into the industrial town of Karabash, in Chelyabinsk Oblast, 2013. (c) Aleksandr Kondratyuk / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Unhappy the land that needs heroes, as Bertold Brecht’s doomed Galileo famously declared. He might have been describing Russia today. The experience of life in a systemically corrupt and unaccountable regime is such that heroes are needed to protect the vulnerable. And wherever you go in Russia, from arctic Magadan to Makhachkala in the south, you find them — extraordinary women and men who risk everything day after day to do just this. 

Over the years, as post-Soviet Russia has felt more embattled, the stories of these insanely brave people have reached the outside world more rarely. So Anne Garrels’ book Putin Country is most welcome. Garrels is no ordinary foreign correspondent. She has been reporting from Russia for almost 40 years and visiting Chelyabinsk, an industrial city in the Urals for the last 23. Indeed, it is Garrel’s focus on life in this "unglamorous" city and region over time that makes this book special. 

After the fall 

Until the fall of communism, Chelyabinsk was closed to foreigners because of its armaments factories, heavy industry and mines. It was also the heartland of the Soviet Union’s notoriously messy nuclear weapons programme.

There were no elementary safety rules: workers and soldiers were asked to handle uranium blocks with their bare hands and clean up radioactive waste with rags and buckets. Thousands died before they were thirty. Radioactive waste was dumped in the River Techa and the 28,000 villagers living downstream continued to drink the water, swim in it and water their fields. Only some villages were evacuated. Then in 1957 the river was unaccountably declared safe again.

That same year a radioactive waste containment storage tank at the Mayak nuclear fuel reprocessing plant exploded, further contaminating the River Techa and releasing a radioactive cloud over an area the size of New Jersey. Only after another devastating accident did they “officially” stop dumping waste in the Techa. 

Russia’s people and its doctors were unprepared for the explosion in heroin use after the fall of communism

Forty years later, dogged investigation by activists like Nadezhda Kutepova showed that radioactive waste was still being dumped in the river between 2001-2004. Kutepova, whose own family members died of radiation exposure, was unable to prove this because of incomplete records. But being furiously litigious, she has had some success helping other victims get compensation. Her reward has been to face all the usual deterrents faced by social activists — charges of tax evasion, as well as being a foreign agent. Kutepova fled for France in 2015.

A glance at the map shows why Chelyabinsk is a key transit point for drugs being trafficked north from Afghanistan. Garrels’ coverage of this issue is sobering. Today, one in a hundred Chelyabinsk residents are estimated to be suffering from HIV. This is more than twice the national average, which in turn is double that of the United States. (There is a widespread belief in Russia that the US failure to stop poppy production in Afghanistan in the 1990s was a targeted act of aggression.) 


Another monument to glory in Magnitogorsk, a large industrial monotown in Chelyabinsk Oblast. Photo CC-by-SA-2.0: Aleksandr Zykov / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Russia’s people and its doctors were unprepared for the explosion in heroin use after the fall of communism. One of Garrels’ heroes, Dr Alexander Viguzov, has been leading the fight against HIV and AIDS in the Chelyabinsk region for years. His battle is against compounded institutional ignorance: resistance to the very idea of sex education in schools; ongoing hostility to homosexuality, and an abiding belief that HIV can be caught like a cold. 

Alongside unprotected sex, sharing needles remains a primary cause of HIV infection. Prejudice being what it is, infected people resist being tested — although treatment would save their lives. Undeterred by the odds against him, Viguzov leads his understaffed team into battle against “the Neanderthals” with missionary zeal. Resistance to the use of methadone on the grounds of it being merely another addictive substance leaves abstinence as the only approved cure. Suspicion of foreign experience exacerbates all these problems. 

The Russian state started colonising the Chelyabinsk region only in the 18th century. There has been an indigenous Muslim minority there long before that. Today, the religious revival Russian Muslims are experiencing has stoked fears of radicalisation. Garrels’ portrait of the travails of one self-taught Muslim cleric Vilyard Yakupov is telling. Following years of Soviet restrictions, the level of Islamic education in Russia is low. So Yakupov accepted a two-year scholarship to study Arabic in Saudi Arabia. Ever since he returned, he has been targeted as an extremist. 

Yakupov’s family have been pressured to give false testimony against him; he has been subjected to exhaustive investigation and surveillance. But Yakupov’s real crime is that he questioned the religious credentials of the Kremlin’s favoured local Muslim cleric. The Kremlin’s message is simple: all Muslims who do not recognise the Kremlin-endorsed authorities are suspect. Yakupov is far from alone in believing that the government’s heavy-handed approach is creating the very extremism it is trying to curb

When political tensions isolate Russia from the outside world, it is worth remembering that it is the most vulnerable who pay the highest price 

The archetypal heroes of this Brechtian type are Nikolai and Tatiana Schur. Garrels’ account of the exploits of these veteran environmentalists and human rights activists over the last quarter century reads like a condensed picaresque novel. They have succeeded in getting themselves appointed to the regional commission that monitors conditions in Chelyabinsk prisons.

Thanks to the Schurs’ tireless detective work, regular prison visits and vigilant attention to the fine print of the law they exposed secret torture cells in almost every prison in the region. The worst beatings and shakedowns have stopped, but the Schurs know that this respite will not last. So far, their scrupulous financial housekeeping has protected them from being silenced by charges of corruption themselves. But this too could change any day.

It can only be hoped that these extraordinary people who have talked so freely to Garrels will not now be suffering for having done so. My friends persuaded me that I had to give up writing about the lives of ordinary people for this reason some years ago. 

Who pays the price?

The great value of Garrels’ book is the picture it gives of a region through time. After the fall of communism, talented, educated youth from all over Russia embraced the hope of being able to practice as independent lawyers or journalists, of being able to grow successful businesses while remaining reasonably honest.

Among the characters Garrels portrays is Natalia Baskova, who, as a leading figure in the women’s movement in Chelyabinsk in the 1990s, took on long-ignored issues of family violence and rape and championed the cause of women in public life. Today, as a member of the city’s council and head of the region’s welfare committee, Baskova’s priorities have changed dramatically. In 2012, she proposed a law that would require Russian women to marry and have a child by the age of 20. She was met with such an outcry on the internet that she backed down. But that is what her experience as an activist taught her. Today, Baskova doubts any woman will be happier for choosing to prioritise their career over their family.


The ordinary and extraordinary people of Russia’s provinces. Children play in the snow outside a school in Chelyabinsk Oblast, 2015. Photo CC-by-SA-2.0: Filat Astakhov / Flickr. Some rights reserved.As Russia and the west have stumbled ingloriously towards hostility, the full story of Russia’s orphans deserves a special place. In the late 1980s and 1990s, when Russia was in chaos, Americans adopted more than 60,000 Russian children, orphans or children whose parents could not cope. Inevitably, there were a few newsworthy casualties among these adoptions. As tensions mounted between the countries, Russian opposition to foreign adoptions mounted, becoming at times hysterical and ending in a ban. Garrels relays the disgraceful ups and downs of this tale well. 

At a moment when the news agenda is focused on Trump’s inauguration and a possible “reset” of relations between the US and Russia, the appearance of this book is timely. Chelyabinsk city centre may look a great deal better than it did 20 years ago, and its supermarkets are full of food. But when political tensions isolate Russia from the outside world, it is worth remembering that it is the most vulnerable who pay the highest price.


Putin Country, A Journey into the Real Russia by Anne Garrels was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2016.






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