“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 power in 2000 was, for many, a godsend.”
How does the beloved Anne Garrels, formerly foreign correspondent of the dismal, faux-liberal but also mysteriously beloved NPR, know all this?
She claims she knows because she made repeated visits to Chelyabinsk, in Putin’s nonexistent “heartland,” over twenty years.
I gather she’s now even published a book about this fairy kingdom to great acclaim.
The problem is the story she pretends to have dug up has been the standard narrative for western journalists and academics pretending to cover or study the “real Russia” for a long while now.
The problem with the standard narrative is that it is not true, although it was partly spun from a combination of half-truths, outright but persuasive sounding lies, and thoroughly unexamined “facts.” It was cooked up, back in the day, by masterful Kremlin spin doctors like Gleb Pavlovsky and Vladislav Surkov and a whole team of other spin doctors.
Over the last eighteen years, it has been drilled into the heads of “ordinary Russians” and the legions of pollsters, academics, and journalists who have feigned to be studying what “ordinary Russians are thinking.” All of the above-named parties, including some “ordinary Russians,” have then gone on to vigorously scrubbing each other brains with the narrative in a completely closed feedback loop.
However, the Putinist standard narrative was never true even when easy oil money made it seem partly true, and it’s even less true now when that money has dried up, and the Russian economy has been driven into the dirt by crisis, mismanagement, cosmic-scale corruption, and sanctions.
Yet the less true the standard narrative becomes, the more determined the western media and the west’s dubious posse of “Russia hands” (who don’t live in Chelyabinsk but always know what is best for the people of Chelyabinsk: twenty more years of Putin’s “heartlandism,” apparently) have been to pound the narrative into our ignorant little readerly, viewerly, and listenerly heads.
It’s no wonder the odious phrase “the Russians”—as in “the Russians think this” and “the Russians do that”—has come into vogue again. As if 144 million people all think and do the same thing, as if the eighteen years of Putin’s faux “heartlandism” hasn’t, in fact, been one long “cold civil war,” as a friend of mine aptly put it many years ago.
That is a really complicated story to report. Most western reporters are not up to the job for various reasons, so they have just rung the changes on the standard narrative, “heartlandism,” and Putin’s amazing “popularity” (measured by pollsters whose methods should not be trusted, and whose results should not be taken at face value in circumstances where polling cannot by definition produce objective feedback, if it ever could), and have called it a day.
Since editors and newscast producers are usually none the wiser and have lots of other stories to shepherd, they have let the journalists and their sources in the world of Russia hands spread the Putinist standard narrative up and down and round the west, so that schoolkids and soccer mums in Melbourne, Grimsby, and Cuyahoga County, if pressed, could regurgitate it almost as convincingly as Garrels does, in the “Comment Is Free” piece for the “liberal” Guardian readership, as quoted above.
If there is anything worth preserving about political and social liberalism, it is the desire to reject canned truths and dogmas and find out what has really been going down somewhere.
Instead, nearly the entire western press corps and a good portion of its academic experts on Russia have bought the whole bill of goods, freeing the Russian elite from any responsibility for its cynical, destructive, dysfunctional, and dangerous governance of the world’s largest country.
Amidst the fake moral panic over “hysterical Russophobia” this has always been the real story: how western political, media, and academic elites have mostly been letting the heartlandist-in-chief get away with it, in effect, aiding and abetting him and his old friends in the Ozero Dacha Co-op, serving as cashiers to him and the Laundromat, helping him amass his supplies of real and symbolic capital.
This shell game will all come to a screeching halt one day, however, and all the back stocks of bestsellers like Garrels’s will have to be pulped because they won’t be worth the paper they were printed on. TRR
All photos by the Russian Reader