The new stories were no longer those of Yeltsin’s Russia, which was perceived, both at home and abroad, as a weak, insignificant, and corrupt bogeyman reeling from its Cold War defeat. These were stories of an enigmatic young technocrat tirelessly crisscrossing the country and meeting with workers, farmers, and cultural figures, attending theater galas and factory openings.
That technocrat was Vladimir Putin. During his travels rebranding the government’s image (and Russia’s by extension), he’d noticed parts of the country “starving for the Kremlin’s attention.” So he considered giving a New Year’s Eve speech as midnight tolled in each of Russia’s eleven time zones (eleven is disputed, in a fascinating bit of geopolitics here.) Spoiler alert: it was an unattainable dream.
But the impetus for this overzealous feat indicated something more: Putin wanted to emphasize Russia as united under an overarching national identity. With far-flung hinterlands and an array of sociological differences among the populace, solidifying national identity is key in touting the country’s strength, and ensuring it’s under central control. “The perennial dilemma of a country as large as Russia: what the central government in Moscow ordains does not always hold in the provinces.”
It may be physically vast, an unwieldy amalgamation of nationalities, languages, religions, cultures, and backgrounds that together seem more cacophonous than harmonious, but the idea was Putin’s attempt at subtly fostering a sense of connection in “ever-paradoxical, geographically distended Russia.”
Nikita Khrushchev’s great-granddaughter Nina Khrushcheva, Russian-born and now a New Yorker, and Jeffrey Tayler, a Moscow-based American author and journalist, decided to trace Putin’s hypothetical route for that speech. It wound them through the country’s boundless expanses, where glimpses of life and customs beyond the westernized metropolises of Moscow and St. Petersburg could shed light on the current state of the empire. This includes on-the-ground responses to Putin’s policies, primary among them “the ultimate Kremlin message: embracing our past makes Russia great.”
Both of us wondered if the Kremlin had really managed to impose its writ on a hinterland traditionally impervious to change, but nevertheless having undergone three dramatic political and social upheavals in the past century alone. Determined to find out, in the spring and summer of 2017 we did something close to the sequential trans-Russia journey from which Putin found he had to desist…in search of the factors – among them, natural resources, educational institutions, ethnic and religious diversity, and strategic assets – that define Russia and its place in the world.
Do the three imperial pillars of Russia’s past still uphold an empire of Putin’s present?
It’s an undertaking as far-reaching as Putin’s was. But unlike him they complete it, and it provides ample opportunities for insights, impressions, and uncomfortable truths.
As a deeper exploration of politics and the development of national identity, it falls somewhat short. Like Putin’s New Year speech extravaganza, it was a bit too ambitious. The political and social questions posed are worthwhile, but would have necessitated longer stays in each hinterland locale and deeper research with consulted experts in each. A book like Anne Garrels’ Putin Country looks at similar issues within one city, Chelyabinsk, and is more successful on that front for its streamlined focus.
As a travelogue, even one with the constant presence of sociopolitical topics, this works much better. The authors conduct their research by taking the temperature among encountered locals, having casual talks with taxi drivers and cafe-goers. They also visit regionally specific museums, another way of sussing out what’s important to a place’s identity. This is, to be sure, a good method for gauging public sentiment and what’s valued, but it also felt a bit casual – again, more light travelogue than anything else. They arrange interviews with regional experts who give the most insight into economic and political issues, considering how these appear in each location. Kaliningrad, Ukraine’s Kiev, Ulan-Ude, Lake Baikal, Arkhangelsk, Vladivostok (maybe my favorite chapter) and Novosibirsk are covered, among other stops.
As for the cafes and museums, this is where its bones as a travel piece show through. Cafe scenes are interesting reading, but not necessarily settings for serious current affairs. There are other books that address these issues in a more organized way -the aforementioned Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia or Bears in the Streets for a travelogue with more pointed purpose and the ability to show changes in the same places over decades. But this still offers an interesting and worthwhile angle, questioning the layering of a complicated past onto an unsure, often unstable present.
The travel writing is descriptive and atmospheric, impressive considering its unusual subjects, like when describing Omsk in Siberia: a “city that seems to have never caught a break,” that exudes a “feeling that life was somewhere else, beyond Omsk’s dusty borders.”
Or a surreal moment in Yakutsk: “In this remote city on the shore of the Lena River, where the wilderness is vast enough that it has served as a realm of exile, and where woolly mammoths are the objects of local pride, American movies serve to connect the inhabitants to people in the outside world … The juxtaposition of Mel Gibson’s image above Sakha gamesters, of bingo inside and bog outside, combined with the palpable sensation of being far from anywhere we knew induced a disorienting feeling of alienation.”
The most significant theme, and one the authors illustrate vividly, is Russia’s duality. It’s literal, as in the double-headed eagle seen on the cover, and also comprises Russia’s longtime identity, or the crisis of one. Duality permeates so much of national identity and politics, even affecting names, like in oft-rechristened St. Petersburg. The authors attribute this perceived exaggerated tendency to rename to “the country’s binary spirit, with the currents of history sweeping first in one direction and then in the other.”
They also focus on the concept of Russian identity’s inextricable link, for better or worse, to the West: “Russia derives much of its identity from the West, either in imitation of it or in opposition to it. It has both striven to define itself as Western and what the West is not.” The authors return repeatedly to a concept of a “display of feelings of insecurity and superiority all at once…think of the double-headed eagle, the split-personality syndrome.”
It’s tough to summarize, as it covers a lot of ground, metaphorically and literally. It has its weak spots as it asks many questions seeking to understand what’s making Russia great again and how, if that’s indeed happening at all, but it doesn’t answer them all. And it was, like Putin’s one-night-only jetsetting, too ambitious. But as an evocative travelogue and glimpse into regions that don’t often dominate social, political, or economic discussions, it’s excellent.
Each rail from the narrow-gauge railway, uzkokoleika, that used to carry ore up and down the mountain, was engraved with the words ‘Zavod Imeni I.V. Stalina’ (the J.V. Stalin factory). None here was ever to forget for whom they toiled – to the death.
Riding to Magadan’s airport, we encountered the image of another leader whose presence is constantly felt everywhere in Russia – Vladimir Putin. From a billboard towering over the once deadly Kolyma Route, dressed in khaki fatigues and a naval cap, he wished us, said the caption, ‘a good trip.’
In Putin’s Footsteps:
Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones
by Nina Khrushcheva and Jeffrey Tayler
published February 19, 2019 by St. Martin’s Press
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.