Black Earth: A Journey through Russia after the Fall
by Andrew Meier
Release Date: 02 September, 2003
This book is about author Andrew Meier's experiences in Russia, where he lived for most of the 1990s. He details much of what he saw of the rise and fall of Yeltsin and the advent of Putin and the events of their rule, including the privatization of many Soviet industries ("an industrial fire sale" of epic proportions), the conflict in Chechnya (the worst fighting in Russia since Stalingrad), and the decline in social and economic well-being of many Russians.
Meier spends a good-sized portion of the book on the subject of Moscow, with its "wretched masses and gluttonous elite," a city that remains the heart of Russia, home of over ten million people, one that grew famous after the collapse of the Soviet Union for its boisterous night clubs and its nearly uncontrolled free market. At least some of the city's character derives from Mayor Yuri Luzkhov, who perhaps has influenced the city in its post-Soviet decade more than any other. Adored by Muscovites - who reelected him in 1996 with 90% of the vote - he has become noted for restoring many of the city's pre-Soviet symbols, such as rebuilding the Resurrection Gate to Red Square.
Much of Moscow and indeed Russian politics has been dominated by the self-styled oligarchs, the new millionaires and billionaires such as Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Vladimir Potanin who arose during the "Great Gab" of the Yeltsin years, grabbing a share of the division of post-Soviet spoils and often growing preposterously rich. Their story is not all rosy however, as many have links to organized crime, and they and Russians everywhere were hit hard by the August 1998 stock market crash and a number of scandals which came to public attention such as the Mabetex scandal and the Bank of New York affair, some involving the highest levels of government.
In contrast to the oligarchs, Meier showed that many Russians were not as well off. Some longed for the days of the Soviet Union, when they felt things were better. A third of households lie below the poverty line, and HIV and drug addiction are a growing epidemic in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and elsewhere. Crime he writes is particularly rampant in St. Petersburg, where assassinations of rival politicians and industrialists are not unknown.
The most interesting section was the one on Chechnya. Located a thousand miles south of Moscow between the Black and Caspian Seas, this Connecticut-sized area of 6,000 square miles is one of the so-called small nations that lie within Russia's borders, once romanticized by Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Mikhail Lermontov in military epics starring "swarthy mountaineers with bejeweled daggers and mysterious black-eyed" women. He chronicled the war in Chechnya - really two wars - the first war began on New Year's Eve 1994 and ended on August 6, 1996, launched to quell a nationalist uprising and in which as many as 100,000 died. The peace that followed brought little more than poverty, banditry, a kidnapping trade, and some local attempts to impose Shari'a law. War with Moscow became inevitable again though when in 1999 two of the most famous fighters of the war - Shamil Basayev and the Saudi mercenary Khattab a.k.a The Black Arab - launched raids into the mostly Muslim neighboring republic of Dagestan (firmly within Russian borders) and a series of massive bombings in August and September of that year killed nearly 300 people in Moscow and elsewhere. Though there were some doubts about a Chechen link to the bombings, the nation united behind what is sometimes called Putin's War, as over a hundred thousand Russian soldiers descended upon Chechnya in September of 1999.
At great risk to himself - unescorted and unapproved journalists in Chechnya were forbidden and kidnapping is a common local occupation - Meier toured Chechnya. Meier wrote of the zachistka, Russian for a "little cleanup" or a mopping up operation, a routine of the operations during Putin's War, which generally meant a house-to-house search for members of the Chechen opposition, though some have compared them to Stalin's purges, the chiski. Sometimes these operations resulted in civilian deaths, such as occurred in the village of Aldy on February 5, 2000, recognized (eventually) by even the Russian government as a war crime, when civilians were slaughtered and people were summarily executed.
The author saw some of Siberia, flying to the city of Krasnoyarsk and boarding a steamer, sailing 1300 miles up the Yenisei, Russia's second largest river, to the mining town of Norilsk, north of the Arctic Circle. Built of the Gulag he writes, it was the stereotypical Soviet industrial city built over the bones of prisoners used as slave labor, a city ordered by Stalin to exist in one of the world's harshest climates, founded to exploit a vast mineral wealth. Though still producing most of Russia's nickel, platinum, copper, and palladium, the need for workers had decreased in the city. Sadly though many of those who live there - descendents of the original zeks or prisoners (if not former zeks themselves) - have become institutionalized, having no where else in Russia to go to.
Meier also visited Vladivostok and the surrounding region and the island of Sakhalin, the subject of much of Chekhov's writings, which well before the Soviets and Stalin was a distant destination for prisoners, as well as. A rugged region often quite isolated from Moscow, long a haven from Tsarist rule and a last holdout for White partisans during the Civil War, here the locals have long been used to self-reliance. Although the region - particularly Sakhalin - is rich in timber, fur, salmon, and offshore petroleum, development (at least to the benefit of the locals) has been stymied by what some refer to as the three Russian diseases; greed, corruption, and bureaucracy. Attempts at foreign investment in the area have been complicated if not thwarted by organized crime and corrupt politicians.
This 450 page book is too massive to adequately summarize here; excellent coverage of Russia since the Fall, with copious end notes and an exhaustive bibliography.
This book is a wonderful description of Russia's more remote areas. The author has an obvious talent for drawing people out and getting them to tell their stories. Unfortunately the book doesn't ring true as a complete survey of the modern Russian experience. The author is obviously a journalist, pushing himself toward the extremes, trying to find the story. He fails to mention that in the less remote areas of Russia there are much more pleasant places and happier people. Its incompleteness aside, this book really is a well written and fascinating book about places that most of us will never see.