Book Review: Take a journey into the real Russia

Author Anne Garrels explores what Russians really think about President Vladimir Putin.
Updated 23 August 2017

Book Review: Take a journey into the real Russia

The popularity of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin seems undiminished since the high ratings he received three years ago regarding the reunification of Crimea. What is also remarkable is that his reputation appears to be unaffected by the country’s recent economic troubles. However, in the wake of recent protests, feelings of discontent and mounting criticism are a growing challenge for the Kremlin.
“Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia” takes us to Chelyabinsk, a city which became a hub when it was linked to Siberia in 1896 with the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Author Anne Garrels chronicles the development which has taken place in the area she calls the “real Russia” through the prism of Chelyabinsk since 1993, two years after the breakup of the Soviet Union. In those days, Chelyabinsk, like other Russian towns, was a sad-looking place reflecting the total collapse of the economy. Moscow was still the richest and most powerful city and it was developing fast.
From the 1930s, the entire region of Chelyabinsk, the size of Austria, had been isolated from the rest of the country because of its secret military installations. Russians still remember the days of anarchy during the 1990s when hunger, unemployment and poverty were rampant. They now aspire to live in an economically stable country and believe that Putin has reinstated national pride.
The 1990s provided an opportunity for a few well-connected individuals in Moscow to make a fortune but for the majority living in the rest of Russia, democracy and reform came with hunger, crime and poor-quality social services.
“Even today, few Westerners fully appreciate how unpopular (former president) Boris Yeltsin and his circle of Westernized and Western-supported advisers had become,” Garrels wrote.
When Yeltsin stepped down at the end of 1999, he named the unknown Vladimir Putin as his successor. Under Putin, Russians benefitted from higher prices of oil, gas and raw materials. Salaries were paid, pensions increased, social services improved and soaring inflation was brought under control.
Ten years after Putin came to power, the Russian economy was flourishing. This created a consumer boom and sparked the emergence of a middle class. Change was visible everywhere. The center of Chelyabinsk was completely renovated with a beautiful cobbled street lined with elegant shops, cafes and restaurants.
“Clothing stores — from Chanel, Max Mara and Escada to more affordable chains like H&M — sell Western apparel for stylish Russian women who effortlessly stroll (along) the cobblestones in four-inch heels… The new generation of Russian women have access to the best makeup, salons, spas and fitness clubs, not to mention plastic surgery. It’s a far cry from the babushkas of the recent past,” Garrels wrote.
When the author arrived on her first visit in 1993, Chelyabinsk had no decent hotels but 20 years later, American and European hotel chains cater to Russian and foreign customers.
Many Russians who have access to credit are either buying new houses or renovating their homes with designer bath tiles and European-style kitchens. There are also many travel agencies as it is a booming industry. Russians from all walks of life look for sun and fun in Egypt, Turkey, Thailand and Dubai.
It seems that Russians are still trying to understand who they really are and where they fit in the world. Despite the positive changes, some regret the demise of the Soviet Union and blame scapegoats for existing problems, according to the book.
The government and the state-run media constantly reference the existence of a Western conspiracy, creating suspicions which, according to Garrels, “are not without foundation.”
Jack F. Matlock, the American ambassador during the breakup of the Soviet Union, believes that the end of the Cold War was not a victory but a negotiated agreement that was intended to benefit all sides and boost future cooperation. However, the US has tended to treat Russia as a loser and took advantage of its weakness, thus fomenting feelings of humiliation and revenge. Therefore, Putin struck a chord with proud Russians. His policy on Crimea has raised his popularity and, despite the economic sanctions, many Russians stand by their president’s policy regarding Ukraine.
Still struggling
Russia is still struggling with a demographic crisis. While the US has a population of just over 300 million, Russia has only 142 million in a country twice the size. The government has come up with a number of programs to increase the domestic birthrate. Parents receive a payment for each child born after the first child and a woman’s job is guaranteed for two years after birth.
Nowadays, young people are getting married later. They often leave the family home and relocate to other towns in search of a job. Grandmothers, who used to help take care of the children while their parents were at work, often have a career of their own or they decide to work in order to increase their meager pension.
However, a number of middle class business owners who fear an uncertain future are leaving Russia. They are not the only ones as the country’s talented graduate students have also criticized the lack of opportunities in the field of physics and economics. They say that their countrymen must realize that oil and gas must not prevent the government from creating and developing new industries.
Young people in Russia, like the rest of the world, spend hours on the Internet. Many are concerned about moral degradation and they resent the fact that money is so highly valued. Indeed, the fact that universities are no longer free has created a new class of students who feel free to do whatever they want. Some students bribe their professors to avoid failing exams and the quality of higher education in some establishments has deteriorated as a result.
“A Fulbright scholar at the Teacher Training University was also stunned by the utter apathy of her students. When she showed them a few TED talks and asked them what they thought about the issues, they said: ‘That’s not for us to think about. The government, which is wiser than us, will decide’,” Garrels wrote.
However, in an era of international sanctions and the falling price of oil, can Putin still make the right decisions for the country? Moving forward could prove to be an impossible task.


What We Are Reading Today: The Language of Global Success by Tsedal Neeley

Updated 20 November 2019

What We Are Reading Today: The Language of Global Success by Tsedal Neeley

For nearly three decades, English has been the lingua franca of cross-border business, yet studies on global language strategies have been scarce.
Providing a rare behind-the-scenes look at the high-tech giant Rakuten in the five years following its English mandate, The Language of Global Success explores how language shapes the ways in which employees in global organizations communicate and negotiate linguistic and cultural differences, says a review on the Princeton University Press website.
Drawing on 650 interviews conducted across Rakuten’s locations around the world, Tsedal Neeley argues that an organization’s lingua franca is the catalyst by which all employees become some kind of “expat” — detached from their native tongue or culture.
Demonstrating that language can serve as the conduit for an unfamiliar culture, often in unexpected ways, Neeley uncovers how all organizations might integrate language effectively to tap into the promise of globalization.