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Atlantic Unbound | December 17, 2003
Scenes From Russian Life

Andrew Meier, who spent most of the past decade in Russia, talks about his travels through a country both damaged and vital


Black Earth

Black Earth
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Andrew Meier
W. W. Norton
512 pages, $28.95

ussia has deeply affected the American psyche. For decades the Soviets were a threat to everything the United States had struggled to achieve. A generation of Cold War kids grew up with the fear that they would be incinerated by a Soviet nuke while huddled under their school desks. In the sixties, young people rejected a "Father Knows Best" respect for what one should become, in part because the odds were fair that the only thing one would become was "vaporized." Hedonism was the thing because planning was pointless.

As the "evil empire" crumbled under its own weight, Americans breathed easier and were anxious to put the Soviet nightmare behind them. And they did. Now, since the attack on New York's Twin Towers, events in Russia don't even make the evening news.

But the journalist Andrew Meier warns that we need to pay closer attention to what is happening in the former Soviet Union. He feels that devoting American energies and assets exclusively to Iraq will increase the likelihood that the long struggle to democratize the former Soviet Union will turn out badly for the good guys.

In his first book, Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After The Fall, Meier takes us the length and breadth of Russia's eleven time zones. On the sometimes brutally difficult journey, he makes us understand a couple of very salient things. He shows us that post-Soviet democratization is not a done deal, and that the possibility that the state will slip back into pre-glasnost ways is considerable. In the following interview Meier points to Vladimir Putin's recent arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's wealthiest oil executive, as evidence that an unchecked Putin may interfere with the still wobbly-legged infant that is the Russian attempt at a market system.

Meier believes that a second reason we need to examine our apathy toward Russian issues is that Russians and Americans are cut from the same cloth—in the words of the poet Joseph Brodsky, the same frontier spirit, guts, and predilection for extremes built both nations. While it is easy to ignore who and what one does not understand, Meier seeks to remove any excuse not to embrace the Russian people with whom we share so much.

Black Earth tells tales of government betrayal during the war in Chechnya, makes us understand factory life north of the Arctic Circle, and takes us to the penal colonies on the Island of Sakhalin where the writer Anton Chekhov is said to have found his "moral voice." The book is not a dour academic examination of a defeated nation. It is a rich tour of a daunting land during which we truly feel the pain and the pride of a misunderstood people.

Andrew Meier studied at Wesleyan and Oxford. He is a recent fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and a 1996 Alicia Patterson Fellow. He has spent more time in Russia than nearly any other Western journalist, including five years as a Time correspondent. And with his uncommonly nuanced understanding of the Russian language, he is able to immerse us deeply in all aspects of post-Soviet Russia.

Meier is an easy man to talk to, and as I spoke with him on the phone, I came to wish that I were meeting with him face to face in the dark corner of a Moscow bistro, late on a cold white Russian night.

—Bradley Jay

Andrew Meier
Andrew Meier   
In your descriptions of the personality of Moscow, you use the Russian word "naglost," which I believe translates as "an unseemly blend of arrogance and shamelessness." How does the personality of Moscow differ from what one encounters in New York or Paris?

Well, that's a good question. In any big city—but especially in New York and to a lesser extent London and other places in Europe—there is a kind of intimacy because you're forced to share another person's space. Whether through glimpses of intimacy or shared conversation, life overlaps.

In Moscow there is a real extreme between the public and the private. If you come to Russia and don't know anyone and only see people on the street you wonder, Why does everyone look so unhappy? Why are their faces so dour? But if you enter the private realm of their homes you see a very different face, and there's an incredible warmth.

In Moscow, people must always be prepared for the intrusion of the State on that personal self. When you feel that you feel the full brunt of naglost. It's a constant slap in the face. In America, of course, the President rides in a limousine and officials stop traffic. It can be an inconvenience. But in Moscow it can go for hours. They close off whole sections of the city. All traffic stops. It is a reminder that you are in the presence of greatness. Not just of a figurehead or an elected official, but a person who controls your fate.

Do the people hate this and resent it, or do they embrace it in a way, because it is proof that they are in fact living among this greatness?

That's a key question. On the one hand, it's infuriating. It frustrates them and it's another reminder of how removed they are from the people who are really in control of their lives. Yet at the same time there is definitely a sense of pride that they have a state that has this kind of pomp. Russians love pomp, and they love the sense that they are again players on the world stage. There's a bizarre interplay between those two.

You mention that there is a symbiotic relationship between the black market and the elite. How important is that tie?

Up until the last couple of weeks, I have been a voice out in the dark desert on this. I don't like to consider myself an expert—I like to consider myself a reporter. But living in Russia for most of the last decade, I've realized that even if you're doing the cleanest business story, there is always the ugly, unseemly subtext that arises if your eyes and ears are open. I could bore you to death with the minutia of that. But the essence is that business and politics are inseparable in Russia, and the events of the last few weeks have pretty much proven that to every conscious person who is aware that there is a country called Russia.

So how does the recent arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former CEO of the Russian oil giant Yukos, compare with what's happened to previous oligarchs—for example, Vladimir Potanin, whom you discuss in the book—and how will it affect the way the Bush Administration deals with Putin?

On the one hand, anybody who is shocked about Putin arresting Russia's richest man has been asleep for the last three years. Putin has done this on a much smaller scale again and again. There's been a rollback of press freedoms, whether it's by degree or just outright closure. At the same time, NGOs from Moscow to Siberia have also faced greater scrutiny from authorities. The list goes on and on and on. The American Peace Corp was basically accused by leading Russian officials of espionage and was given the boot. Catholic representatives across the country have suddenly had their visas revoked.

All of this has been going on, and Washington, and to a lesser extent European capitals, have really given Putin the benefit of the doubt. There are a number of reasons for that. The proponents of that kind of appeasement, as I call it, would talk about 9/11 and the need to bring Russia into the West to join as a full partner in the war on terror.

What's coming around now is a boomerang. I think that the story of arresting the richest man in Russia will become a political story in the West because it's about oil and money, first and foremost, but it's also about the future of Russia. George Soros said a pretty smart thing this week. He said he worries that Washington is making a deal with Mr. Putin. That in strengthening democracy in Iraq, we are weakening democracy in Russia. That's a far-reaching statement, but I think he's right.

In the portion of your book called "South: To the Zone," you take us down near Grozny, the Chechen capital. Andrei Sazykin, a Russian soldier, died on the northern edge of Grozny in 1996, but he didn't die in battle. According to letters sent to Andrei's parents by his comrades, he was "sold down the river"—Russian guards at a checkpoint took payoffs and allowed enemy Chechens through to slaughter Russian soldiers. Can you explain why what happened to Andrei is important?

He was exceptional, and he was ordinary and common in the sense that he was killed in the worst way you could be in Chechnya. If we back up a bit, the Bush White House would like you to believe they've now joined the Putin line that Chechnya equals another front in Islamic terror, and that Al Qaeda has always been a part of that war. It hasn't. The first war of Chechnya under Yeltsin was from 1994 to 1996. It was only by default a war about radical Islam. It started out being a war for independence, for national sovereignty. But slowly the war became more and more about radical Islam. Suddenly you saw Chechen rebels literally taking their old Soviet fatigues off and tying the Islamic green bandanas over their foreheads. Then you saw them adding—first in Russian, and these days in Arabic script—the slogan of the mujahideen, and talking about jihad.

What I was trying to do was talk about how incredibly fucked up the war had become by the time Vladimir Putin became president. You had Russians selling Russian arms to the Chechens. The Russian army had become so corrupt and was in such a degraded state that even the best-intentioned Russian soldiers were being killed and wounded and destroyed by their own commanders. And the guy you're talking about, Andrei Sazykin, was an extraordinary example of that. His parents actually brought one of the first cases against the Russian military. They sued.

How did they do?

They lost. But they went all the way to the supreme court. They were simple people—they are simple people. I've kept in touch with them. The father had served for decades in the military himself, and he just could not believe that the army had become so degraded that they only found out their son had been killed after other guys in his unit returned home and started writing letters. They found out that their son Andrei was killed at the end of the first war, on the day the Chechens basically stormed back.

That had to be rough for the parents to hear.

Yeah. And to this day they cry when they talk about it. They are totally stoic people. When I went to go see them in their apartment—they live on the absolute edge of Moscow in a very poor neighborhood—and every time I went to see them their table would be full of food. And we drank many, many shots of vodka to his memory. The shrine is there in the living room. One day we were sitting there and the father turned to me and asked a question—which is really the central question in the whole book. Wherever I had been in the most extreme corners of the country—and Russia is still the largest country in the world in terms of land mass—people would again and again and again ask me this question: can a country live without a conscience? Where is our conscience? They know full well that there is a conscience, but somewhere it's buried, somewhere it's hidden, somewhere it's afraid to come out.

When you went up north to Norilsk you could have flown, but you chose to take the rugged overland route. Could you talk about why, and what the experience was like?

From the archives:

"Esteemed Passengers!" (February 2001)
Searching for equanimity in the skies above Siberia. By Jeffrey Tayler
A couple of reasons. One, I had flown before, and it scared the hell out of me. Flying in Russia is not an easy proposition anywhere, even in the best of weather. Norilsk claims to be—and I think the geographers would agree—-that it's the northernmost city in the world, of those cities that have 200,000 people. It really is extreme isolation. I think it's a couple hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle and it has a very small airport. When I flew there, it was an incredible ordeal in the Moscow airport. I basically slept there the night before I was supposed to leave because the plane kept being delayed. After it was delayed the fourth time I got up and started to go. I had made friends with a woman who was in her fifties and was a schoolteacher from Norilsk. She said, "Where are you going?" I said, I'm going back home, and she said, "Why?" I said the plane has been delayed four times now. She said, "Oh, we'll go, sooner or later. It may be three days, but we'll go." That's the essence of the kind of people who live in Norilsk.

I traveled to Russia in 1991, and if I think back to my experience, we did fly back from Helsinki to Moscow on Aeroflot. And when we flew back, when I was boarding the plane, I swear to God, I looked at the tires on the plane and the rubber had worn right through to the white canvas. People can't believe that that's true, but it is true. And for that reason those pilots can land those planes light as a feather.

I always used to tell myself, and I still tell myself, these guys all fly Soviet Migs. They learned how to fly dodging bullets. That gives you confidence, but anyone who has lived in Russia has horror stories from flying. I think my favorite is from my wife. She was flying into some very small town in Siberia in the winter, and they got out (they couldn't even walk on the runway, it was covered in ice), and she noticed that the pilot had goggles on and was wearing an old, World War Two-style leather flyer's cap.

But the real reason why I didn't fly to Norilsk was because I wanted to take a river boat trip from the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk to the port city of Dudinka about 2000 kilometers north on the Yenisei River. The Yenisei is one of the great rivers in the world. I had studied a lot about Norilsk—I had been there before and I knew the history. It was started in the 1930s as one of the prime centers of the gulags, Stalin's prison labor camps, and it gained fame then and during the war. Now it's known as one of the world's greatest centers of precious metals, mainly nickel, and now palladium. I knew the gulag history, but what I was surprised about is how beautiful the trip up was. I thought I was going to take the gulag tour, as they would call it in Moscow. I thought this would make a great opportunity to write about the children and the grandchildren of Stalin's victims, who are now taking advantage of the new freedoms and new openness and going back to where Grandma or Grandpa died. What I found instead was a beautiful boat—one of the people I traveled with called it a mini Titanic. It was a 1953 boat, a little steamer that had been built in East Germany, and it was full of Siberian mall rats. There were all of these kids from the middle of Siberia who were totally hip and incredibly wired to the Western world. Every night they had an open-air disco on the top deck. I was suddenly immersed not only in the heart of Siberia, in the middle of nowhere, but also astounded by the overwhelming beauty that I had never expected. And the Russians didn't expect it either.

The kids were well-wired, but what about the people who were living in what you called the "Pompeii of Stalinism"? The picture you paint of Norilsk, it's pretty gray. Why do the people live there if in fact it is as dreary as the picture you paint?

It's complicated. This was the real question I was wrestling with throughout the whole time that I stayed in Norilsk, and still today. These were people who were institutionalized. They had never lived anywhere else. Their parents or grandparents had come there as political prisoners, and they had stayed. There is the economic issue, too, that in the Soviet era, once you got out of the gulag you worked for what they called the Kombinat, a giant metals complex—it's an amazing labyrinth of post-war smelters and factories above ground, and then beneath ground the mines, some of which run a mile deep. During Soviet times the workers at the Kombinat were very well paid. Then there was a period under Yeltsin when every worker in Russia often went for years without being paid. When I asked people about that, "Why would you go to a factory when you weren't getting paid?," they talked about the complex almost the way a son talks about his mother. It gets to the point where there is more than a reverence, there's subconsciously this kind of maternal bond between the factory and its workers, so that even when you're not paid you go to work. Partly it's pride, but by the time Putin was president there was no pride. The whole town by then was controlled by one of the oligarchs, this guy by the name of Potanin, who flies in every once in a while, stays in a private little hotel, and the average worker never sees him. But they know damn well that he's making billions. Even if they make a thousand dollars a month in the mines—which is much more than the average worker in Moscow makes—prices are much higher there because everything is imported. Nothing grows there naturally. During the Soviet era they tried a system of greenhouses for vegetables, but that's all gone by the wayside. They don't really have pride in the fact that they are owned and their factory is owned and their town is owned and their fate is dependent on one of the richest men in Russia. They don't look at him as some kind of Bill Gates figure, or some kind of icon of the future of the country. Yet, at the end of they day there is this sense that "we are survivors. We have survived through this incredibly toxic legacy." Both in the historical sense and in the physical sense. Because of the smelters, this is an incredible environmental disaster zone. Some scientists say the air is contaminated all the way to Canada. The rates of disease, cancer, what have you, are extremely high. The average Russian male lives to about fifty-eight-and-a-half years. They know all that. Still, there's this incredibly palpable sense of pride. I think what it really is is that, "nobody can live here, but we can."

As tough as it was to get up to Norilsk, Anton Chekhov traveled from Moscow to Vladivostok the, "longest and most absurd road in the world," and you tried to follow that road. That journey made the Norilsk trip look easy, didn't it?

Chekhov is known for writing plays and short stories, but probably the most incredible thing he did was to travel by a variety of vehicles and conveyances the entire length of Russia. He may have been the first writer to voluntarily go to Siberia. Siberia was always a place of exile—it was a forbidding place, freezing, desolate, a place you just did not go of your own free will. Literary critics argue about why Chekhov went. He had had some success in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but he had also had some bad reviews. When he made the journey he was already coughing up blood—he died of tuberculosis at a very young age.

What I did was to go back and read. He wrote a nonfiction book called The Island of Sakhalin; it's the longest thing he ever wrote by far. The island is off Russia's Pacific Coast and just north of Japan. It is an enormous island, and under the czar it was essentially one giant prison camp, though there were some native people living there as well. Chekhov went because he wanted to get a sense of the worst of the imperial system. He was a doctor, and though he really didn't do that much medical work on the island, he did do a medical census and tried to go around to each prisoner and each exile settler, as they were called, on the island. There were probably around 9,500 of them. For each one he made little index cards, which are preserved in the archives in Moscow. When you go through those and see how painstakingly he collected the data and then how he wrote out the census, you realize that he had seen the worst that Russia could possibly offer then—child prostitution, open flogging, executions, women in prison. The most unimaginable things that the ladies and gentle people of Petersburg in their literary salons could only dream of. He never wrote about it. But he did talk about how he couldn't sleep, how he developed heart palpitations at night. And he really talked about the moral conscience that awoke in him afterwards.

So he had seen the worst, he comes back to Moscow and Petersburg, and then he starts writing. His most famous plays, all of the ones where there is tight moral tension and he's capturing life and writing about it with perfect pitch—this all comes after Sakhalin. It's a cliché, but he's come of age. He's had a moral awakening. Of course, I probably don't know what I'm talking about, but that's the way I read it.

There was a lot of hope that a post-Soviet Russia would see a return of the grandeur of St. Petersburg. What's the reality there?

Petersburg was a place, and to a certain extent this remains true, that was renowned as the capital of Russia's golden culture before the Bolsheviks took over. It is without question the most beautiful city I have ever been in. That beauty, however, has an incredible melancholy because it's a faded beauty—crumbling facades and incredibly ornate Italianate and French-built and French-designed palaces and parks and promenades. It was all laid out by the hand of Peter the Great, 300 years ago. It is built on a marsh, and Peter the Great ordered up armies of serfs and masses of the timbers from the northwest province of Russia, and the best architects and designers that Europe had to offer. He had this incredible determination and also this ruthless will. He literally raised the city from the swamps. It still stands in all that majestic beauty, but it's a desiccated, aged beauty.

Is it dangerous? We hear about a certain kind of danger, but is it a mob danger? Would it be safe for a tourist to go there?

There was one British tourist, unfortunately, who was sipping an espresso in one of the swankier hotel bars in Petersburg and was felled by a stray bullet. But by and large, those gangland hits are a thing of the past. The nice thing about the evolution of organized crime in Russia is that it's getting more and more organized. It was not organized in the first years after the Soviet collapse. When I first lived on my own in Moscow, it was right about the end of the Soviet Union. My then girlfriend (now wife) and I were renting a small one-room apartment right in downtown Moscow and we were ripped off. We were gone for just half an hour—it was a set-up. They took the razor blades, they took the phone, they even took the suitcases. They packed everything up nicely in our own suitcases and took everything. In those days, foreigners were money. To be a foreigner you were a target. You always spoke Russian in public. You never tried to dress outlandishly. Though there were certainly Westerners who went out to some city in Siberia and got an apartment, got a girlfriend, and decided they could rent a Mercedes, they were a flashing red bulb for the local rackets. We've come a long way since then. And now the evolution of organized crime is such that the "New Russians," as they call themselves (it's a deliberate pun on nouveau riche), are the guys and the women who are the targets, and they have a lot more money than the vast majority of the Americans who are working there.

You must have really enjoyed writing this book, because you know Russian so well and you love Russia so much. You got to meet with key people and talk with them for a long, long time...

Well, before I went to live in Russia, I studied Russian at Wesleyan and Oxford. I thought I knew the language, but you can only get so far in a language lab. When I went to live there in the late eighties and early nineties it was during glasnost and perestroika, and as an American all you had to do was show up at a party and you left with fifteen telephone numbers of people who wanted to show you their home, take you to meet their grandparents, go to their doctor, their country house. It was an amazing time, and you would have had to be blind and deaf, first of all, not to become fairly fluent in Russian and also not to have built up a knowledge and an intimacy with the place.

A lot of people say, who cares about Russia? It has been ten years, they're democratic, they're free, they've had their revolution, Gorbachev is so old news, let's move on. The amazing thing is not only to have been able to write the book but also to come back to this country and see that Americans really do care. I do think that there is a sense among New York newsrooms that it's time to move on, the world has changed. Certainly it has changed after 9/11, but Russia, as Putin likes to say, has been, is, and always will be a major player on the world stage.

In the context of what's going on in the world right now, Russians are really a lot like us...

Oh, no question. The poet Joseph Brodsky had something to say about this. Thirty years ago, he left his native Leningrad under pressure from the KGB and took up life in New York. He was a man of no nonsense. He didn't stand for any bullshit. One time I heard him speak at a reading, and somebody asked him a question. The question from the audience was, Mr. Brodsky, maybe it's a stupid question, but you survived x-number of years in the gulag, in the prison camps, and you then went into exile. If you hadn't had suffered the brunt of Soviet power, would you still be such a good poet? And Brodsky shot back and said, "It's a stupid question." But in following up, he said, You Americans have to understand the creative impulse in our stubbornness and our predilection for going to extremes and our frontier spirit. We are much closer, Russians and Americans, than Europeans and Russians. He basically said, Europe may have its high culture and its Enlightenment and its Renaissance, but Russians and Americans, we have guts.

I don't believe in this myth of the Russian soul. But whenever you're one on one with a Russian, even if you don't speak the language, there is that bond, that affinity.

I'm going to let you go now, but I have to ask you one more question: When are you going back to spend some time, just to have some fun?

I was talking about this with a friend, and once Russia bites you it never lets go. I thought that writing this book would give me a chance to travel to South Africa or China or time to explore different continents. But I've been back to Russia twice this year for long trips, and I'm probably going to be heading back soon. It's something that you really can never escape. That's a beautiful thing on the one hand. But on the other hand it sure would be nice to learn and experience a different place.

What do you think? Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Bradley Jay is a broadcaster living in the Boston area.

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.