A bear with a sore head

  • Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall
    by Andrew Meier, W W Norton & Co Inc, 2005, 516pp.

Anyone who has lived for any length of time in Russia during the past decade will instantly understand why Andrew Meier wrote this book. Meier, who worked in Moscow for Time magazine from 1996 until 2001, probably spent most of his time there doing what most other reporters do: covering news, chasing the things that editors back home consider important, and mentally storing up, for future use, all of the strange scenes, surreal situations and bizarre personalities that reporters rarely manage to squeeze into their stories about the former Soviet Union.

Unlike most other reporters, however, Meier has managed to write all of his observations down, and the result is this fascinating book, which is part travelogue, part war reporting, part economic investigation.

In it Meier seeks to convey some of the real atmosphere of contemporary Russia, which is a far weirder place that most outsiders realise. Because Russia is a society simultaneously undergoing a series of revolutions – ideological, economic, demographic – its national self-definition changes from year to year, alternately proud, angry, defensive and embarrassed, and sometimes all at once.

For the same reason, Russia is a place of vast contrasts. It is possible in Russia to walk across a street and move from the developed world into the Third World, or to drive from the city to the country, and leave the 21st century for the 18th century. Oddest of all, perhaps, is the way that Russians seem to accept the absurdities of their country with complete equanimity. Given how much more absurd was the system that preceded the current one, perhaps this is not surprising.

Meier captures these contradictions eloquently, describing, for example, the Mayor of Moscow’s grand project to build a “City” within his city, a proper financial district – just like London. At the centre of the project – and one of the few elements actually to get built – was a large “shopping bridge”, lined with “glitzy shops offering Murano vases, Finnish cellphones, and Milanese dresses for preteens”. Although “capitalist” on the surface, this was, in true Stalinist style, actually a project carried out to satisfy the whim of one man, not the dictates of the market. As a result, billions of dollars went into the project, but the desired effect was never quite achieved. A friend once took me to eat sushi in a restaurant on the bridge, promising that the restaurant was guaranteed to be not only quiet, but totally empty. He was right.

Not every contemporary Russian paradox is so amusing, of course. In fact, the centrepiece of this book is Meier’s description of the tragic war in Chechnya. But here again, he describes not only the politics and the morality of the war, but what it feels like actually to be there, on the ground, asking questions in a very strange place.

He has a couple of shady guides, including one rumoured to be an “intermediary in the kidnapping trade”. He stays in an apartment that “had all the warmth of an IRA safe house”. But he also spends hours and hours interviewing the survivors of an infamous civilian massacre in the town of Aldy, near Grozny.

On February 5, 2000, Russian soldiers had sealed off the town and begun to shoot, killing men and women alike. They forced some into basements, and tossed grenades in afterwards. They shot others on the street. Described, in the Russian media, as a small “cleansing” operation, the massacre left at least 60 people dead.

But terrible cruelty in Chechnya is also accompanied by terrible chaos. One disgusted career officer told Meier that the head of the Russian chiefs of staff had been unable to land at the main Russian base in Chechnya, because dozens of drunken soldiers, angry that they hadn’t been granted a flight home, covered the landing pad with their bodies and prevented his helicopter from setting down.

From Chechnya, Meier travelled to Norilsk, a city in the far north built by Gulag prisoners, and then to Sakhalin, the oil-rich island in the far East. He also visited St Petersburg, the traditional “window on the West”, now the crime capital of Russia, to complete the circle. Everywhere, he hunted down key politicians, businessmen and crooks.

His final conclusions are not optimistic, but nor are they angry and negative. He never ceases to find Russia strange and fascinating. More importantly, he transmits that fascination to his readers, which is no small feat.