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He may be reviled in the west but the president was a godsend in the desperate, dying old rustbelt towns
Any number of journalists are now scouring the American heartland to find out what they missed in the run-up to the US presidential election. For more than 20 years I’ve done the same in Russia to try to understand the political aftershocks of the Soviet Union’s collapse. I was convinced, as a reporter there on and off from the 1970s, that Moscow was not Russia.
By 1993, despite western praise, support and optimism for the Yeltsingovernment, my travels beyond the beltway suggested that the post-Soviet Russian heartland was much more fragile than was generally accepted. I took out a map, chose one region and continued to spend time there until 2015. And thanks to Skype I remain in constant contact. A thousand miles east of Moscow, Chelyabinsk is a gritty, polluted industrial area the size of Belgium, with a population of 3 million. And it is typical of much of the country outside of the capital. Unlike Moscow, bursting at the seams with people and attracting all the money, Chelyabinsk – dependent on steel, mining and out-of-date military plants – was, and is, struggling for its life.
A closed region until 1993, it at last opened to foreigners and suddenly became dependent on a free market, about which it knew nothing. There was a glimmer of hope that so-called “democratic reforms” would lead quickly to western-style prosperity and “freedom”, but conditions were desperate: miners and factory workers weren’t being paid; and doctors, reliant on western aid, scrambled for X-ray plates and medicines. Local people flocked to novelties such as meetings of western missionaries, curious about their religion and ideas. The Russian Orthodox Church was frozen in the past, concentrating only on gilding domes.
Non-governmental organisations funded by the west had begun to make inroads, encouraging human rights, environmental and social programmes. But for the most part people were lost.
They were losing their jobs, as corrupt factory chiefs and bureaucrats, conniving with former state officials, stole, sold and dismantled production facilities in the name of privatisation, all with the blessing of the western-backed Yeltsin government. When I suggested that Russians were doing the stealing, one engineer replied: “You [westerners] taught us how to, and we are good learners.”
Marriages broke up as men could not face the ignominy of unemployment and took to drink and the sofa. Children were given up for adoption by foreigners, which over time would become a national shame. In 1996 the region voted to bring back the Communists. Boris Yeltsin, with US backing, stole back the election and temporarily managed to put in his own bureaucrats. Things only got worse in 1998 when Russia defaulted on its loans: the people of this area once again lost what little they had saved, and the oligarchs just got richer, in yet more deals that Russians perceived, with some justification, to have been brokered by the west.
I watched as the people of Chelyabinsk began to search for an identity – a Russian identity that would give them pride. Vladimir Putin’s unexpected ascent to powerin 2000 was, for many, a godsend. In stark contrast to the ageing Yeltsin, who had embarrassed the heartland as a drunk, Putin was a sober, youngish leader who managed to destroy, however brutally, the Chechen insurgency, an initial step toward restoring confidence in the military and security services. How he did that was not questioned. Rampant crime came under control. With a surge in oil, gas and raw material prices he was able to raise social benefits. Loans and mortgages suddenly became available. A modest middle class emerged.
Corruption continued and indeed worsened but there was a trade-off. The people of Chelyabinsk complained bitterly, but they started to enjoy buying power. Small businesses, cafes and restaurants, long visible in Moscow but not out here, began to emerge. Some people even began to take cheap package trips abroad. Chelyabinsk in the mid-2000s changed beyond recognition. Next to a still-standing statue of Lenin, the centre of town boasted an elegant pedestrianised walk, comparable to the famous Arbat in Moscow, where restaurants offering cappuccino and sushi rubbed shoulders with the best high street shops. Trips to Ikea redecorated the burgeoning suburbs, where new apartment blocks were finally solving rampant familial overcrowding.
With this came a growing sense of what Russia might be again – and, despite the desire for everything western, a growing resentment towards the west. Sick of beating up on themselves, and having the rest of the world join the chorus, more and more in Chelyabinsk began to wear Orthodox crosses. They were disillusioned with western financial intervention. Though there was never a promise not to expand Nato, there had been a pledge not to take advantage of a crippled Russia.
As Nato expanded to Russia’s borders, and the US appeared to dismiss Russian concerns around the globe, Putin brilliantly played on festering wounds, talking about a resurgent national identity and pride. The huge 2010-11 Moscow demonstrations against corruption in political high places – which were covered extensively in the western media – were not replicated in the provinces. For all his faults, Putin was largely seen as a saviour.
Yes, there was some resistance to Putin’s increasing control, but the opposition – inchoate, confused and conflicted – was easily undermined. Journalist friends of mine were in despair as their freedom to challenge Putin shrank. Local businesses would not advertise on any media that were not pro-Putin, lest his tax police turn up on the doorstep. Corruption was so endemic that everyone was tainted, and everyone fearful.
But that was Russia’s business. When Hillary Clinton compared Putin to Hitler, she only galvanised local support. People were learning more about the peccadilloes of other countries, including the US, and they resented outside criticism.
I challenged one friend about Putin’s growing police state and his own apparent corruption, and he said “when there is a fire, you don’t ask who the fireman is.” Full stop.
Putin’s seizure of Crimea, historically part of Russia, was applauded by an overwhelming majority, including many in the opposition. Over the years I kept asking my acquaintances in Chelyabinsk – everyone from teachers to builders and street cleaners – where the “red lines” were, beyond which Putin could not go. Some said restricting the internet. Putin has played this well, clamping down on and off, but leaving websites open enough to be acceptable to most. Human rights activists have been largely silenced, labelled as “foreign agents” and having their funding from the west shut down, but there has been no public protest. What about the economic downturn, and Russia’s continued reliance on plummeting oil and gas prices and sanctions? Local protests are allowed to vent about rising utility costs, but this hasn’t turned the majority against Putin, many still buying into the promise that, given western attempts to isolate Russia, the country needs to be self-sufficient – and while this is tough for now it will be better in the long run.
The borders remain open, so those who don’t like what’s going on can still leave. Stubborn, intrepid journalists, with no chance of employment, seek asylum elsewhere. Some of the most talented in other fields, with opportunities abroad, are also voting with their feet. Others I know in Chelyabinsk are protecting themselves from future
ncertainty by having their babies thousands of miles away in Miami. For now, Putin retains either astounding popularity or silence from those who remain.
Whatever opportunity there was in the 1990s to reconfigure cold war structures such as Nato, has passed and a resurgent, defiant Russia now sees itself surrounded by enemies – and is itself now seen as an enemy, if not by Donald Trump then by many on Capitol Hill. Trump’s ham-fisted, less than secret approaches have so far backfired. And what wounded Russians began to say some years ago – make Russia great again – is now echoed by confused Americans. This gives life to the definition of tragedy.
This is the first article in a series, The Putin paradox – how does a leader distrusted in the west remain so popular at home?
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