The Land the World Forgot
Newsday, 21 December 2003
Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall, by Andrew Meier
Norton, 511 pages
Why would anyone want to live in Russia? Western writers have been asking this condescending rhetorical question for centuries. Cursed with a long history of violence, political repression and inferior cuisine, Russia has attracted a host of influential Western chroniclers of doom and gloom. A century and a half ago, the marquis de Custine concluded that traveling to Russia “is a useful journey for every foreigner; whoever has well examined that country will be content to live anywhere else.”
Andrew Meier’s “Black Earth,” which comes swathed in a mourning-black dust jacket, appears on the surface to continue this bleak tradition. The violence is there, from the mountainous reaches of Chechnya to the dimly lit streets of St. Petersburg. The repression is there, too, in the shady politics of Russia’s most recent strongman, Vladimir Putin. And, of course, the bad food. On one flight, Meier can’t determine whether chicken or fish is being served. “Chicken, I guessed, from the hair.”
But what distinguishes Meier’s book from many of its predecessors is the author’s deep passion for Russia and its people. Meier, who reported on Russia for Time magazine throughout the 1990s, is a keen-eyed journalist and a talented writer. While he showcases many interviews with Russia’s most powerful politicians and businessmen, he is most compelling when talking with Russians quite a few rungs down the social ladder: a bereaved mother in Chechnya, a drunken businessman on a boat cruise, a police detective on remote Sakhalin Island. Here he manages to bring into focus the human dimensions of Russia’s painful transition from communism. And when one of his traveling companions asks the inevitable question – “How can they keep on living here?” – Meier tries to answer the question honestly, with no hint of condescension or self-congratulation.
This is true even in the book’s darkest moments. Its chapter on Chechnya is among the finest (and most terrifying) accounts of a land scarred by seemingly perpetual violence. Among the many massacres that have punctuated Russia’s war against Chechen separatism in the past decade, Meier focuses on one. On Feb. 5, 2000, Russian forces entered the tiny village of Aldy and slaughtered at least 60 civilian inhabitants, including old men and children; Chechen guerillas had passed through the area days earlier, and Russians were exacting their revenge.
Remarkably, without losing sight of the perpetrators’ humanity, Meier reconstructs the crime in gruesome cinematic detail. One Russian soldier shoots his gun into the ceiling of a home to convince his commander that he has killed the woman inside. Another soldier pleads for understanding. “What do you want me to do?” he asks a Chechen woman. “My men shoot old men? Well, sometimes old men and young children carry things hidden on their bodies that blow up when you get too close. You know it yourself.” And she did, as Meier explains. Out of fear of being raped by Russian soldiers, she would later come to tape a grenade to her waist for two days.
The rest of Meier’s book, which chronicles his travels through Russia’s most remote regions in the north and far east, is inevitably paler in comparison. Yet it amplifies many of the main themes Meier explores in his chapter on Chechnya: the casual violence that permeates modern Russia, the graft and corruption of its political elite and the average Russian’s stoic acceptance of it all. The weight of history often seems to immobilize Russian citizens, as Meier discovers when he investigates life in the mining town (and former gulag encampment) at Norilsk, north of the Arctic Circle. Traveling 1,300 miles up Russia’s second longest waterway, the Yenisei, Meier discovers heirs of camp survivors stubbornly remaining in a crumbling town with spare amenities and even sparer hopes. Piles of human bones are daily unearthed by construction bulldozers, a grim reminder of Norilsk’s bloody origins. And yet the criminals of the old regime have never been called to account. “In a nation economically, socially and ideologically adrift,” Meier explains, “reopening old wounds is not a priority.”
Particularly, it might be added, when so many fresh wounds need tending to. In St. Petersburg, Meier finds that democracy itself is under fire by shadowy forces beyond the reach of the law. The 1998 murder of Galina Starovoitova, the popular liberal Duma deputy, embodies many of these threats. Who ordered the hit? Organized crime? Disgruntled former Communists? Russia’s own secret police? As Meier makes clear, the line separating these forces is troublingly fuzzy. But he adds little of substance to what has already been widely reported of Starovoitova’s assassination. In a lengthy interview with Vladimir Kumarin, one of the city’s criminal bosses, we learn that Kumarin drinks chamomile tea and disapproves of the portrayal of mobsters in Rusian films. But when asked who killed Starovoitova, Kumarin answers simply, “I don’t know.” Meier lets his denial hang in the air like a denunciation. Most readers will likely be wondering why Meier couldn’t scare up some anonymous source to back up the insinuation.
But perhaps this is an unfair criticism of a book whose main strength is its impressionistic sense of color and place rather than intellectual rigor. Meier rarely tries to quantify his observations, but he gives a vivid and persuasive account of mood and opinion, which seems overwhelmingly pessimistic.
At times, indeed, the pessimism seems unduly placed and even unhistorical. “How do you explain a state in decay?” he asks plaintively in his opening chapter. “How do you explain a country where the death of an ideology has displaced millions?” There is a weird sense in these words, throughout the book, and even in the book’s subtitle, that Russia has entered a uniquely evil moment after the “fall” from some prelapsarian golden age.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The grim realities of modern Russia are, as Meier’s own reporting makes clear, a direct legacy of its Soviet past, and quite often (as in the case of Chechnya) a simple continuation of a long-established policy of colonial brutality.
What has changed, of course, is that such stories rarely make it into our newspapers nowadays. “My dear Andrei,” says a shady character employed by Meier to ferry him into Chechnya. “I wish you a pleasant stay in the land the world has forgotten.” “Black Earth” might not convince Westerners that living in Russia is a pleasant experience, but it might forestall an even worse fate for its citizens: being forgotten.