The Portrait Of A People In Putin's Russia

Feb 20, 2014
Originally published on February 20, 2014 8:02 pm
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The Winter Games in Sochi have focused world attention on Russia in the age of Putin: huge state expenditures, contracts that benefit the president's cronies, complaints about shoddy workmanship, controversy over Russia's treatment of gays and lesbians.

Well, Gregory Feifer's new book, "Russians," fleshes out the country that Vladimir Putin leads; a country that Feifer covered for NPR, in fact. It's a country that Feifer feels in his blood. His mother is Russian and she is that great rarity: a war bride from the Cold War. His Russian mother met his American father when his father was working at the 1959 American exhibition in Moscow.

GREGORY FEIFER: My father, who was a graduate student studying about the Soviet Union went there to be a guide for this big moment of detente. And he lectured about the Ford Thunderbird. Thousands of Russians crowded around and he would talk about the horsepower and the chassis, and so on and so forth, and then take questions. A lot of the questions were from KGB plants, so, why do you lynch people in the States.

Then he got a question about American jazz from the voice of a young woman. He said he followed the chord of the microphone and there she was, and he immediately called a break and the rest is history.

SIEGEL: So your interest in Russia is your birthright here is what you're saying.

FEIFER: That's right. And I'm a product of detente so I'm very much for it.

SIEGEL: Well, let's talk about Vladimir Putin and Sochi. We've heard that Russia is spending somewhere around $50 billion to host the games. And some of that money, I gather, goes to Putin's oldest friend.

FEIFER: That's right. Seven billion or around seven billion, it's reported, went in construction contracts to his childhood friend and judo partner. This gives you an idea of the kind of corruption taking place in Russia. But this is the entire country. Now, a joke has a newspaper reporting Putin's latest reform program. Its main goal, the paper says, is to make people rich and happy. And then it says: See list of people attached.


SIEGEL: Now, you report this - I mean I laugh because people make jokes about these things in Russia. But, as you write, companies calculate what the cost of paying bribes is in Russia, and it's very high.

FEIFER: That's right, it's huge. And so this begs the question: Why two decades after the Soviet collapse do Russians continue to support the authoritarian Vladimir Putin? My approach in my book has been to look at Russians' daily behavior; their family lives, work, drinking. And what's clear to me is that although Russians' way of doing things may be seem chaotic to us, I think it's very successful in achieving its own aims. Now, these aren't Western aims. I think Russians' values and motives are different than ours.

SIEGEL: You mentioned drinking. You devote a chapter to drinking, which means a chapter about vodka, really. And you write that Russian drinking and I'm quoting here, "reflects a sense of pessimism about the ability to better oneself." What do you mean?

FEIFER: Look, this is the biggest country by territory in the world. A lot of this territory is uninhabitable. And, of course, as we all know, the winter is legendary. So this is a place in which it's very difficult to survive. And I think this has led to belief that the individual is weak. Acting alone you can't do very much. And I think that's reinforced this sense of Russian fatalism.

SIEGEL: It makes one wonder can Russia ever fit in as another big European country, as a country that's part of a community of nations that draw some principles from the Enlightenment; principles which seemed to be - by your description - just basically alien to a Russian view of the world?

FEIFER: I don't think that Russia is fated to be the way it is. I think that it is the way it is for very practical reasons. I'll give you an example. The conventional wisdom is that Putin rules according to a social contract. As long as living standards keep rising, thanks to the country's vast energy wealth, the Kremlin is more or less free to do what it wants. I don't think that's quite true.

I think that the glue binding Putin's regime to the people is corruption. Everybody pays bribes. If you own a corner shop, you'll have to pay the fire inspector, the building code inspector. So I think bribes have two purposes. They co-opt people because they give the authorities the ability to prosecute almost everybody. But they also give people a stake in the system.

SIEGEL: They implicate people in the system.

FEIFER: They implicate people, they sort of so its coercion. But we tend to explain away what we'd don't understand about Russia, by saying that there is this mystical Russian soul that's different and so we can't understand it. I don't happen to think that's true.

SIEGEL: You write about the conspicuous wealth of new Russians and the new oligarchs. And do you think that the typical Russian takes any pride in the phenomenal wealth of the oligarchs? Or it's all envy and resentment of what they've managed to get away with.

FEIFER: Both, because I think Russians do feel a tremendous amount of pride in their country. You can just look at the reaction to the Sochi Games. And yet, of course, they know what's going on. They see the corruption. They're very much a part of the system. So I rarely get into cabs these days in Moscow without steeling myself for what I expect to be a barrage against those corrupt, greedy jerks at the top who are plundering the country.

SIEGEL: Gregory Feifer, thank you very much for talking with us about Russia and about your book.

FEIFER: Thank you very much for having me.

SIEGEL: And the book is called "Russians: The People Behind The Power." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.