Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall
by Andrew Meier
Norton. 512 pp. $28.95

The collapse of the USSR in 1991 brought with it the demise of the discipline of Sovietology. With cold-war-era subsidies from Washington running dry, specialists in Soviet affairs faced a bitter struggle to justify the continued relevance of their field. Many young scholars gave up the ghost, switching to more fashionable subjects or leaving the Ivory Tower altogether.

Into this intellectual void rushed a generation of freelancers, who made up for their lack of academic training with sharp eyes for journalistic detail. David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb (1993) and Resurrection (1997) dramatized Russia’s painful transition from Communism, while Stephen Handelman’s Comrade Criminal (1995) set the standard for studies of the Russian mafia.

Andrew Meier, a friend of Remnick’s who reported on Russia for Time from 1996 to 2001, now aims to take the genre to a higher level. Black Earth distills much of Meier’s reporting in the ambitious format of a literary travelogue. Although the scenes it describes took place over some six years, the narrative flows smoothly, as if we were touring Russia with the author in real time.

Meier’s journey begins and ends in Moscow, the seat of both financial and political power in the new Russia. From Moscow, he sets out for Russia’s extremes, heading south to strife-ridden Chechnya, north to Norilsk, the world’s northernmost large city, east to Sakhalin island off the Pacific coastline, and west to Peter the Great’s imperial capital on the Gulf of Finland. The distances covered are so vast that Meier usually travels by plane, braving Aeroflot and its underfinanced offshoots. Once he arrives in the provinces, though, he generally explores by “vulture” taxi, hitching a ride, for a price, with locals. This allows him to obtain first-hand impressions of regions seldom visited by foreign reporters.

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Chechnya, Meier’s first stop, is not exactly a tourist destination. Kidnapping emerged as the most profitable industry in the province’s brief period of independence between 1996 and 1999, when the Chechens made, in Meier’s judgment, “a dismally poor effort at self-rule.” The era was marked by the imposition of the Wahhabi brand of Islamic law “in its bloodiest form,” with young Chechen fighters aided by mercenaries and money from Saudi Arabia.

Rebel recruitment was further fueled by the Russians’ brutal “cleansing” of Chechen villages, which led to horrendous civilian casualties. Despite President Vladimir Putin’s claims to the contrary, the war rages on, with sabotage and suicide bombings the daily fare. The morale of the Russian troops is not simply bad; it is often mutinous. On the one hand, corrupt Russian commanders do a brisk business selling arms to the enemy. On the other, Russian conscripts, often left unpaid, have been known to fire on their own command posts—something Maier reports having witnessed with his own eyes.

It is something of a relief when Meier leaves Chechnya behind for the far north. What he finds there is also bleak, but not nearly so discouraging. The Norilsk Nickel conglomerate is staffed by descendants of the Gulag slaves sent there to mine metals by Stalin. Although employees of this now-privatized corporation are paid high salaries by Russian standards, the industry is in the process of being downsized and workers are being forced out. Still, some of the locals Meier meets seem to take pride, despite the extreme cold and the air laced with chemical pollutants, in living in such a desolate place. When the World Bank offered loans to resettle residents in 2001, not a single one left.

Sakhalin, the next leg of Meier’s journey, forms yet another sharp contrast. The island has a mild climate, is rich in natural beauty, timber, fish, and wildlife, and has even benefited from the most ambitious foreign investment in Russia to date: an offshore oil concession worth billions. Yet “everyone who can,” a local woman tells Meier, “moves away.” Sakhalin has seen its population drop precipitously since the early 1990’s, after government funding for the fishing and forestry combines was cut. As Koreans, Japanese, and other foreign oilmen arrive, those able-bodied locals who remain have mostly taken to drink.

From the Far East, Meier’s narrative moves back to Moscow and then, by night train, to St. Petersburg. Meier senses a dark omen in the number of abandoned villages along the well-traveled route between the two cities, where, “after years of nocturnal silence . . . the wolves had returned to rule.” It is a fitting metaphor for St. Petersburg, a battered city often referred to as Russia’s crime capital. The centerpiece of Meier’s chapter is the still-unsolved contract murder of the liberal politician Galina Starovoitova in 1998, the sixth Duma deputy killed since 1993.

Tourists visiting St. Petersburg or Moscow today may get the impression of prosperous Western normality—there is even a craze for sushi bars—but in Meier’s view, this is only a Potemkin façade. The colossally expensive restoration of imperial St. Petersburg for the celebration of its 300th anniversary last year was, he writes, emblematic of Putin’s efforts to remake the country “in a false image.” The suffering of the slaves who built the city, the horrors of Communism, the present-day epidemics of AIDS and tuberculosis, the “national health crisis” of a “rising deathrate and [a] falling birthrate”—all were swept under the rug. As for the atmosphere of historical and political openness under Mikhail Gorbachev and in the early Yeltsin years, that now appears to have thoroughly dissipated. “Amnesia,” many Russians tell Meier, “relieves pain like little else.”

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Meier is an engaging companion on this tour of Russia during its new time of troubles, drawing out Russians’ humanity and humor in the midst of even the bleakest circumstances. He clearly likes Russians as a people, even if he thinks little of their economic or political prospects. And how can we not sympathize with characters like the stubborn native of Chelyabinsk, site of an atomic disaster in the 1950’s, who, even while coughing up blood, laughs as he tells Meier he hails from the “warm heart of the nuclear world”?

It is when Meier moves from description to diagnosis and prognosis that his considerable journalistic talent comes up short. On some occasions he reveals a penchant for loose insinuation. His Chechnya chapter, for example, introduces several sensational allegations. The first, that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) itself planted the apartment terror bombs used by Putin as a pretext for launching the second war in Chechnya in 1999, has already been investigated by numerous Russian journalists. The second, a dramatic tale of corruption in the Russian army, is less familiar. Both have the most ominous implications for Russia’s future, but, having put them before us, Meier infuriatingly declines to offer an opinion about whether they are false or true.

Meier is similarly coy about Putin. Suggesting that the Russian leader is encouraging the formation of a new personality cult, he introduces us to a Putin-inspired youth group, “Moving Together,” that keeps a list of approved “patriotic writers” and another index of proscribed “trash literature.” But it hardly seems fair to account for the Russian president’s popularity in this way. By all accounts, Putin is genuinely liked and respected by most ordinary Russians for his sobriety and strong leadership qualities. The outcome of the recent parliamentary elections was certainly shaped by the biased government-influenced media, but the rout of Russia’s liberals has been under way for some time. The pro-Putin landslide at the polls merely confirmed it.

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If Meier at times strains to emphasize the dark side of things, his glumness is typical of those who once hoped to see Russia rapidly emerge as a liberal democracy in the Western mold. A similar shift from optimism to pessimism can be observed in a number of other American journalists. In the pages of the New Yorker, the once euphoric David Remnick grew increasingly shrill in his denunciations of Boris Yeltsin’s “betrayal” of reform. An even more acute note of despair was struck by Jeffrey Taylor in a deeply personal cover story for the Atlantic in 2001, revealingly titled, “Russia Is Finished.”

But Russia, even as depicted in Meier’s mostly grim account, is clearly not finished. Yes, horrendous conditions can be found almost everywhere one turns, but so can evidence of resilience and recovery. Russia’s birthrate, though still extremely low, bottomed out in 2000, and since then has been rising steadily—a fact overlooked by Meier. Still more encouraging are developments in the economic realm. In January of this year, the Central Bank announced a major decline in capital flight from Russia, down to approximately $3 billion in 2003 from almost $15 billion two years earlier. Gold and currency reserves are at record levels. The country’s rate of economic growth is more than respectable. These could be temporary upticks, but they could also herald a revival in national confidence, one that is occurring because of, not in spite of, Putin’s illiberal tendencies.

As for the political arena, it would be foolish to expect much resemblance to our own style of rule in a land battered by decades of tyranny. But even here the last word is far from being written, with much depending on further developments both in the economy and in the realm of simple security. If the oil boom continues, and army morale ever recovers from the Chechen debacle, Meier’s elegant chronicle may one day be read with nostalgia for a time when we worried about Russia’s weakness rather than its renewed strength.

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