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What I’m reading: contemporary Russia

The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin (2016) / David Satter

Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia (2016) / Anne Garrels

In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine (2016) / Tim Judah

Okay, you guys, I have some serious things to say right now.

This is not a political post, as such. This is an informed citizenry post. Whatever your opinion is of the current state of US-Russian relations (formal and public, formal and secret, or informal and backchannel) and the media’s handling of that state of relations, I don’t think anyone can rationally say anything other than that the relationship between our two countries is a big fucking deal, and will remain so for some time to come, and Americans should maintain some awareness of the current Russian political scene and its impact on US-Russian relations and the world.

I think it’s also no secret that I’m in no way objective about Russia generally or about Vladimir Putin specifically. I don’t think that I’m obligated to be. Informed and self-aware, yes. It’s more important to be informed because I know I’m not objective. But being scared as shit of the guy doesn’t mean I don’t get to have anything to say on the matter.

And what I do when I’m afraid of something is I read about it. And sometimes that’s not so helpful with the being less afraid, but it is certainly helpful with clarity and focus and understanding. I’ve been reading about the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet Russian political and socioeconomic landscape for basically my entire life, because if you have a big, rich, scary, demonstrably violent neighbor, it’s just what you do.

And so it was pretty much inevitable that I was going to read a book with a title like The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep.

The Less You Know is a retrospective summary of David Satter’s journalistic work over the last twenty years, tracing the use of propaganda, violence, and manipulation of the rule of law to serve corruption in the Yeltsin and Putin administrations. He traces the timeline of events and connections from the  1999 apartment bombings to the outbreak of the first and second Chechen Wars, which he has written extensively about in the past, and from there to the devolution of Yeltsin’s administration, the election of Putin and the early days of his power consolidation, the hostage crises at the Dubrovka Theater and Beslan School #1, the Presidential election of Dmitri Medvedev in Russia and Viktor Yanukovich in the Ukraine, and the Maidan protests and outbreak of the war in the Ukraine. I’d followed all of these events in the news as they happened, but it was very helpful and interesting (and terrifying) to review them in context.

There is no one who quite conveys the capacity for rationalization and denial in the face of corrupt politics that is trained into the Russian system by the unrelenting generational cascade of empire-Bolshevik-Stalin-late Soviet-oligarchy like Satter. I read his It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway not long after it came out about five years ago, and it haunts me. This book, I know, will haunt me too.


Where The Less You Know is about the leadership, Putin Country is about the ordinary people.

What Garrels means by “Putin country” is not – as might be mistaken at first glance – “a country that is overwhelmingly loyal to Putin,” because Russians aren’t. It’s quite simply Russian for “redstate,” or perhaps “flyover country.”

What I don’t think even Americans, who have a pretty darned big country, realize is: Russia is big.

Moscow sits in the center of a hub of loosely connected cities about 1500 km in diameter: St. Petersburg and Tver to the northwest, Yaroslavl and Novgorod and Samara to the east, Volgograd and Voronezh to the south, and to the west, the capitols of a bunch of former Soviet states: Kiev and Minsk and Vilnius and Riga. This sphere of influence is roughly equivalent in both size and population density to the United States west of the Mississippi, and it is about one-fifth of the total size of Russia.

Moscow is four hundred kilometres from the Belarus border. It is six thousand kilometres from Anadyr, the easternmost city of significant population or administrative influence.

So Garrels, having spent a large chunk of her career as a journalist in Soviet- and post-Soviet Russia-and-by-Russia-I-mean-Moscow, had an opportunity to spend some time doing deep investigative work somewhere else, and to decide where to go, she closed her eyes and threw a pencil at a map of Russia. Where she ended up was Chelyabinsk, a fairly south-central industrial city and capitol of the oblast of the same name, about 1700 km almost due east of Moscow, near the Khazak border, or, to put that into perspective, about as far east of Moscow as Copenhagen or Vienna is west. Chelyabinsk and neighboring Yekatarinburg (150km away), both a little over 1-million population, provide an administrative, transportation, and industrial anchor just about halfway between Moscow and Novobirsk, which is the largest city in Russian Siberia. It would be reasonable to think of Chelyabinsk as the Russian equivalent of St. Louis or Oklahoma City.

Putin Country is a series of loosely interconnected essays forming an overarching narrative of day-to-day life in modern Russia, distant from the capitol and the West, somewhat less distant from the war in the Ukraine, still reeling from the economic aftershocks of the Soviet collapse and the chaos of the Yeltsin years, struggling with corruption and crime, stabilizing and modernizing and carving some prosperity and normalcy out of the ashes even as the prospect of new instability looms.


You know what makes me absolutely crazy is when people conflate “former Soviet” with “Russian.” There are fifteen internationally recognized independent states that are part of the former Soviet Union, and seven more self-declared states that either are currently fighting for their independence or have fought unsuccessful wars for independence and are currently maintaining separatist movements and governments in exile. In some cases, as in the Baltic and Central Asian states, the boundary lines are crisp – these countries are ethnically, religiously, historically, linguistically, and politically not just distinct from but oppositional to Russian domination in the region. But in some other parts of the former USSR, the lines are blurrier, and the history is complicated.

The Ukraine is characteristic. The second-largest post-Soviet state by a large margin (with three times the area and four times the population of the next largest, Belarus), it has a language closely related to Russian and a huge bilingual population and deep historical ties. But of course a lot of those deep historical and linguistic ties are the legacy of centuries of conquest and occupation. There are a lot of ethnic Russians in the Ukraine because the Stalin regime murdered millions of Ukrainians and shipped Russians there to take over their land, because the Soviets built military bases and then huge military-industrial complex cities around them and staffed them largely with Russians. Of course this is the same reason that the Ukraine has so much Soviet-era military hardware!

Tim Judah gives an excellent overview of the precursors of the current Russian-Ukraininan war from the Ukrainian side, balancing Satter’s review of the events from the Russian side. He also gives a superb, wrenching, fascinating street-level view of the slow, weird start of the war, escalating directly out of the military-police response to the Euromaidan protests, which involved hundreds of thousands of protestors with small arms and explosives and tens of thousands of responders over many months, which blurs the line between “protest” and “civil war.” And with very little trust for very spotty news, the average Ukrainian couldn’t really be sure what was going on unless (and sometimes even when) they were right in the middle of it, in Kiev, in Crimea, in the Donbass. It took a while for the reality that full-scale war was on to sink in; the conditions of war were not really that different from the conditions of supposed peacetime.

Russia, of course, insisted that they were not militarily intervening in the Donbass; it was strictly a civil conflict and any ethnic Russians fighting on the anti-Kievan forces were either Ukrainian citizens or volunteers who crossed the border to join up of their own accord. Of which, to be sure, there have been some.

And so it’s weird, and confusing, and surreal, which heightens the degree to which it is terrifying, stressful, and traumatizing. There’s a bizarre tension between can we just pretend that things are normal? and how long can this horror go on? and Judah captures and conveys that brilliantly.


Taken together, these three books are a powerful, fascinating, important look into the experience of Russian people and people in the Russian sphere of influence that official news just isn’t well-positioned to relate, thoughtful deep investigative journalism about lived experience in a time of conflict and oppression, and it’s important to pay attention to stories like these.

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