Putin Country

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Most of what we know of Russia comes from our views of Moscow and Putin. Distorted half-truths, political assassinations, Cold War spy mythology, Communism and political oppression reign in the capital city, but as many Russians will affirm, Moscow is not a reflection of Russia. Most Russian citizens, including the many diverse ethnic groups throughout Russia, live elsewhere. Dispersed across a vast landscape, they both admire and resent the Moscow megalopolis. From the outsider perspective, Russia is Moscow. Anne Garrels, then NPR’s Russian correspondent, decided to spend time in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. The size of Austria, and with a population of only 3 million, the Chelyabinsk region is on the southern edge of the Ural mountains, a place not known to many westerners. Until recently, it was known to be one of the most polluted places on the planet because of a once secret nuclear accident and choked by clouds of industrial waste. That is until in 2013 when dashcam video’s across the region captured video of a blinding light streaking through the sky. The asteroid burst into a fireball and scattered debris across the region. residents looked on this natural event with a kind of pride and awe. Trade in alleged “space rock” flourished briefly. A local chocolate factory came out with a deluxe “Meteor” assortment. Long before the meteor strike, the longtime NPR correspondent Anne Garrels had Chelyabinsk in her sights. More than ten years ago, she began visiting the city in order to understand what life was really like in post-Soviet Russia, beyond the confines of the glitzy Moscow metropolis. In Chelyabinsk she discovered a populace for whom the new democratic freedoms were as traumatic as they were delightful. A closed nuclear city throughout the Cold War, Chelyabinsk was thrown into disarray in the early 90s as its formerly state-controlled factories were exposed to the free market. And the next twenty years would only bring more turmoil. The city became richer and more cosmopolitan, even as the forces of corruption and intolerance became more entrenched. In The Real Russia, Garrels crafts an intimate portrait of the nation's heartland. We meet ostentatious mafiosos, upwardly mobile professionals, impassioned activists, scheming taxi drivers with dark secrets, and beleaguered steel workers. We discover surprising subcultures, like the LGBT residents of Chelyablinsk who bravely endure an upsurge in homophobia fueled by Putin's rhetoric of Russian 'moral superiority,' yet still nurture a vibrant if clandestine community of their own. And we watch doctors and teachers try to do their best in a corrupt system. Through these encounters, Garrels reveals why Putin commands the support and loyalty of so many Russians, even those who decry the abuses of power they encounter from day to day. Her portrait of Russia's silent majority is essential reading at a time when cold-war tensions are resurgent.