In Putin's Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia's Eleven Time Zones

In Putin's Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia's Eleven Time Zones

by Nina Khrushcheva, Jeffrey Tayler


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In Putin’s Footsteps is Nina Khrushcheva and Jeffrey Tayler’s unique combination of travelogue, current affairs, and history, showing how Russia’s dimensions have shaped its identity and culture through the decades.

With exclusive insider status as Nikita Khrushchev’s great grand-daughter, and an ex-pat living and reporting on Russia and the Soviet Union since 1993, Nina Khrushcheva and Jeffrey Tayler offer a poignant exploration of the largest country on earth through their recreation of Vladimir Putin’s fabled New Year’s Eve speech planned across all eleven time zones.

After taking over from Yeltsin in 1999, and then being elected president in a landslide, Putin traveled to almost two dozen countries and a quarter of Russia’s eighty-nine regions to connect with ordinary Russians. His travels inspired the idea of a rousing New Year’s Eve address delivered every hour at midnight throughout Russia’s eleven time zones. The idea was beautiful, but quickly abandoned as an impossible feat. He correctly intuited, however, that the success of his presidency would rest on how the country’s outback citizens viewed their place on the world stage.

Today more than ever, Putin is even more determined to present Russia as a formidable nation. We need to understand why Russia has for centuries been an adversary of the West. Its size, nuclear arsenal, arms industry, and scientific community (including cyber-experts), guarantees its influence.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250163233
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/19/2019
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 536,352
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA is the author of Imagining Nabokov and The Lost Khrushchev, and a Professor of International Affairs at New School University, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times among others.

A contributing editor at The Atlantic and the New York Times Notable author of Facing the Congo, Angry Wind, and River of No Reprieve among others, JEFFREY TAYLER has reported on Russia and the former Soviet Union for Foreign Policy, Harper’s Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic, and more. He lives in Moscow.

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The Amber-Tinted Gaze of an Empire

Time Zone: MSK-1; UTC+2

When Kant assumes that something outside of us, a thing-in-itself, corresponds to our ideas, he is a materialist. When he declares this thing-in-itself to be unknowable, transcendental, other-sided, he is an idealist.

— Vladimir Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism

Kaliningrad, formerly the German city of Konigsberg, has often been called Russia's western door, yet this door is not always a welcoming one. From here, the country's exclave (officially, the Kaliningrad Oblast, or region) that borders Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea, the empire gazes with suspicion at anyone who may doubt its superiority and strength.

We arrived late one cool, clear-skied April afternoon at Kaliningrad's shambolic, undersized airport — an architectural remnant from Soviet times when it was a "closed" city (off-limits, that is, to nonresidents, owing to its strategic significance as the Soviet's westernmost military outpost) and had just a handful of visitors. We found ourselves greeted with distrust. As we walked off the runway and entered the terminal building, stern blue-uniformed border guards brusquely took all the passengers' passports. The guards divided us into two lines, one for foreigners, the other for Russians. One guard detained Jeff, an American citizen, and led him up to a "detention" office — a room on the second floor that was empty, save for a fluorescent light and a desk. The guard handed his detainee over to his two colleagues, who questioned him about why he had come to Kaliningrad and the people on his contact list for the city.

"What do you think of Putin?" one of the officers demanded, his doughy face, slack paunch, and diminutive stature belying the seriousness of his expression. His comrade noted down Jeff's answers. The short man's questions were coming at a rapid pace.

"What are you doing here?"

"How is it that you speak Russian?"

"You say you're writing a book about Russia. About what, exactly?"

"Where are you staying in Kaliningrad?"

"Who's accompanying you?"

"What flight are you taking out of here, and on what date?"

The Western press was reporting that Russia, in apparent violation of a decades-old arms control treaty signed with the United States, had been busy stationing nuclear-capable intermediate-range Iskander missiles in the oblast, so such scrutiny was to be expected. Yet the guards relented when they learned that Jeff was a frequent foreignpolicy commentator on the Russian airwaves and was married to a Russian.

Then the officers asked him to call Nina, a Russian citizen, and have her come up for her own cross-examination.

Easier said than done. The airport officials, when she had asked for directions, did not know where the apparently "secret" facility was located. Impatient, the border guards finally sent the American subject of their interrogation down to find her himself.

Nina found it hard to take her interrogator seriously, given his resemblance to the Pillsbury Doughboy. But then it dawned on her — this clever, persistent young man had overcome his looks to turn himself into a duty-bound Guardian of the Motherland, though, as it turned out, a polite and apologetic one. Nonetheless, his questions were still intrusive, a point-by-point verification of all the answers Jeff had given; the guard treated Nina as if she were Jeff's minder, as they would have done to most women seen with foreign men during the Cold War. They paid particular attention to his feelings about Putin.

"Does he approve of him? Do you?"

"Sometimes," she answered.

The point came, though, when she had had enough.

"Why all these questions?" she asked. "Kaliningrad isn't a closed city anymore, right?"

"Of course not," he replied. "We're very sorry. You see, this American is a foreigner. You do understand, don't you?"

Nina nodded, recalling similar interviews by American border officials when she first arrived in New York almost three decades earlier. And now, with relations between the two countries worsening by the day, a guarded approach to Western visitors was back in vogue again.

Jeff, for all intents and purposes a Muscovite now, didn't bat an eye at such a suspicious reception. Nina, living in New York, was choking with disgust.

"I feel violated," she said, shaking her head.

Finally we made our way out of the terminal. From the various souvenir stalls and a medley of amber amulets and portraits of varying dimensions made in his image, Vladimir Putin's stern gaze was fixed upon us with icy distrust. In addition to the amulets, the stalls held an array of amber bracelets, statuettes, and portraits of the double-headed eagle — Russia's coat of arms.

Amber, colloquially known as Baltiyskoye zoloto ("Baltic gold," except that it is fossilized tree resin), was everywhere on display, crowding shelves in the terminal's cluttered arrival hall. Artisans had turned the oblast's signature treasure into a local strategic resource on a par with oil and gas but utilized it to glorify the nation's president and insignia of state. It is, of course, a valuable resource. Nine-tenths of the world's supply of this unique substance originates in the oblast; Kremlin insiders hold a monopoly on its trade, worth more than a billion dollars a year.

Annexed by the Soviets after World War II — in Russia most commonly known as the Great Patriotic War — the Kaliningrad Oblast had previously belonged to the seven-hundred-year-old East Prussian region of Germany. Konigsberg was the region's serene redbrick capital. Renamed Kaliningrad in 1946 to honor the just-deceased Soviet prime minister Mikhail Kalinin, the ceremonial head of state under Lenin and Stalin, the city became the capital of the Soviet Union's westernmost territory. Yet, apparently, some young people nowadays do not even know the origins of its name. We asked a twenty-five-year-old resident if he knew who Kalinin was, but, flustered, he admitted he did not. In any case, Kaliningrad's history is fraught with contradictions: the city has retained a Soviet functionary's name but has removed its hulking Lenin statue from its main square. In its place, municipal authorities have erected an obelisk to the Great Patriotic War. Nobody here would argue with that.

We took a taxi into town, approaching its skyline of mostly ten-story concrete apartment blocks and then trundling down often mud-splattered, potholed, and at times unmarked roads busy with slick, foreign-made cars. Some cars — especially BMWs, Audis, or Volkswagens, bore bumper stickers that read as an exhortation to attack: ON TO BERLIN, AGAIN! That militancy — Russians had defeated Nazi Germany and now use their automobiles to relive the victory — also displayed deep insecurity and evoked a sad, telling irony: they prize German automobiles above their own. The war had dealt cruelly with the city: the old cobbled German streets and quaint, gingerbread German houses remain intact almost exclusively in the Amalienau and Maraunenhof districts. Elsewhere, Kaliningrad, two and a half decades after the demise of the communist state, is Soviet and gray.

A Soviet war trophy of sorts, the Kaliningrad Oblast was, oddly, never formally transferred to the communist government; although Germany has never officially demanded its return, it has never renounced it, either. Perhaps, because of this, the fear of "re-Germanization" looms. Today, the Kremlin uses the exclave's very ambiguity to ratchet up anti-Western rhetoric.

But what does the fear of "re-Germanization" mean, exactly? Germanization in Kaliningrad — as understood by Russians — is the belief that Germany is eager to relocate ethnic Germans back to Kaliningrad, actively and aggressively infusing the territory with German culture. If such were to occur, it would surely be as bad as the Nazi occupation, the state insists. This fear of "re-Germanization" isn't novel; it was a constant undercurrent in Kaliningrad's Soviet history. And even though people here frequently travel to the Baltics, Poland, and Germany on long-term Schengen visas and witness little evidence of this "threat" while there, in a country where the state is so imposing, how does one disregard the propaganda? The Western menace is often discussed on television and the harrowingmemory of Nazism is never allowed to quite fade into historical oblivion. And, the argument goes, just about the only thing protecting the country from this threat is Putin.

The next day was rainy and cool — typical Baltic weather. Maxim, the enterprising, thirtysomething son of a Moscow acquaintance of ours, kindly offered to give us a tour of the city and the surrounding towns. We drove out in his slick black Audi through morning traffic into the rain-sodden fields and forests of the countryside, briefly stopping at the military hamlet of Pionersky, our first encounter with Putin's specter on this trip. Rumor has it that the Russian president, who visits frequently, stays in a villa behind a tall green wall. We also dropped in on Svetlogorsk, an up-and-coming resort hardly renowned during the Soviet era. Then, the Soviets boasted of Latvia as their major Baltic vacation spot.

Maxim had previously worked as an engineer in the ports of Kaliningrad and Baltiysk (formerly the German town of Pillau) but now finds himself employed by the Chinese, preparing their soybean oil containers for shipping. These two ports shelter Russia's Baltic fleet and have, since the Soviet era, formed the epicenter of the region's military-oriented economy. Maxim told us that he was disappointed to have lost his state-related job recently owing to the Kremlin's shift of resources toward the Crimean Peninsula.

Crimea — in 988 it became the cradle of Orthodox Christianity for Kievan Rus, the original protostate for both Russia and Ukraine — had been officially Russian since 1783, when Empress Catherine the Great seized it from the Crimean Khanate, then a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire. In the Soviet Union Crimea remained under the Kremlin's jurisdiction, but in 1954 Nikita Khrushchev, who succeeded Joseph Stalin after his death, transferred it to Ukraine, which was, just like Russia, one of fifteen Soviet Republics within one country, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). There were many reasons for that transfer, administrative and economic, but uppermost was the desire to overcome Stalin's legacy of central control. Khrushchev thought of Ukraine and Russia as equal nations; he assigned historical primacy to ninth-century Kiev, not to Moscow, which until the 1100s was just an obscure village in the woods.

But following the Euromaidan protest movement in Kiev that led to the 2014 overthrow of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin ally, Russia annexed Crimea with a stealth invasion. Announcing the annexation in March 2014, Putin insisted that "in people's hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia." He thereby vilified Khrushchev — by whose action Russia was not "simply robbed, it was plundered." The speech set up a dichotomy that now stands at the core of Russian identity: strong-hand rulers like Putin or Stalin — those who collect Russian lands — standing against reformers like Khrushchev or Mikhail Gorbachev, who give them away. Kievan Rus, too, was eventually torn apart — Great Russia versus Small Russia ("Malorossiya," an old Russian name for Ukraine).

Arguing that for sixty years the Crimean dream has been to return under the wings of Mother Russia, the Kremlin had to deliver on its promise to improve life on the peninsula. The minimum monthly cost of living on the peninsula has been around 14,000 rubles ($240), which is more than half the average salary and 10 percent higher than that of Russia's southern regions bordering Crimea. Moreover, the price for upgrading or rebuilding the peninsula's economic and social infrastructure has been calculated — so far — as anything from $10 billion (300 billion rubles) to $85 billion (3 trillion rubles). And since Crimea lacked an overland connection to Russia (one of the reasons for Khrushchev's transfer), Russia constructed a bridge across the Kerch Strait, which consumed funds (almost $4 billion) that would have gone to other regions of the country. The bridge opened last year, shortly after Putin's triumphant win in presidential elections and his inauguration; its opening was, as one would expect, a grand affair, with Putin the first to cross it — in a giant Kamaz truck, an event broadcast throughout the country. The almost twelve-mile-long steel structure — the longest bridge in Europe — physically reunited Russia and Crimea. Or "Russia's birthplace," as Putin called it in his remarks.

To build that bridge and accomplish everything else it planned to do, the Russian government had been awarding contracts to Crimean businesses to keep them afloat as they went through the transition from Ukrainian to Russian sovereignty. And even though the military has been aggressively returning to the Kaliningrad exclave — as a strategic territory inside the West it has recently become one of Europe's most militarized places — the city's ports, which had once been thriving shipping centers, have slowly been abandoned as commercial entrepots and taken on an important status as military installations. Replacing the Baltics, Crimea has become the new Russian showcase.

Maxim, displaying all the staple attributes of Russian (actually foreign) "cool"— Ray-Ban sunglasses, Polo jeans, and a blue quilted Barbour jacket — told us that his father, a Kaliningrad-born naval officer, had made a fortune on deals with the armed forces during the Putin years. Although unable to advance his own career, Maxim was certainly benefiting from his father's success: he owned a nice car and traveled abroad frequently. The young man both criticized and supported the Kremlin, thereby evincing an attitude we would encounter elsewhere in Russia — people neither demonized nor deified Putin but viewed him and his administration in light of their achievements and failings.

"Putin is a smart man," Maxim said admiringly, as his Audi carried us through the austere Baltic landscape — here, mostly coniferous forest. The air was redolent of the calming scents of pine cones and the nearby sea.

He spoke at length about the Kaliningrad Oblast's status as Russia's paramount "strategic zone."

"Do you believe that the Germans are really planning on invading?" we asked.

He did not, but he understood why the Russian government needed to send such a message — to instill in the oblast's population a mind-set for potential confrontation, so that no one would be taken by surprise if the West did attack. This might seem like a far-fetched notion, but the dramatic deterioration of relations between the West and Russia following the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, and the buildup of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in the Baltic region, made it a justifiable concern for the Russian government.

Yet Maxim was disillusioned. Since the 2014 annexation, life had become so much more expensive in Kaliningrad that shopping for food in Poland was cheaper. The ports, once bustling with trade, were now less busy. If at times they were employed, it was for the purpose of impressing on German cruise ship passengers the purportedly formidable might of the Russian navy.

"Once the cruise ships dock," Maxim told us, "a submarine, already retired from the fleet, surfaces within their view. The tourists don't know it's been retired. It's just used to show off, to tell them, 'See what Russia can do against your NATO!' And the Germans are frightened," he added with a chuckle, "and start taking pictures."

Although Maxim only half believed in the threat supposedly emanating from NATO, an older taxi driver we later struck up a conversation with unquestionably did. "In Russia, with all the history we have had, why should we be afraid of NATO? Of the Germans?" he asked sarcastically. Such is the sentiment prevailing throughout Russia, as we would discover during our travels across the country's eleven time zones. Fears dormant for two decades have been reemerging with the renewed volatility in relations with NATO countries. In a country thrice invaded from the West in recent centuries — the last time in 1941, within living memory of so many Russians — the scars of war are real, the fear of it is hard to appreciate for those living with a more peaceful past.

The Kaliningrad Oblast, home to almost a million people, is now about 80 percent ethnically Russian, yet its Russian identity seems more fragile than elsewhere in the country. Perhaps this derives from a profound sense of cultural dislocation: through a program of coercion and promises, after the war the Soviet Union encouraged its peasants from central Russia to relocate as urban dwellers to the newly obtained exclave by way of tax credits and internal passports. Peasants didn't have such passports at the time, but urban dwellers did. They were also lured with a promise of comfortable homes and better supplies of food. Roughly 400,000 peasants moved to Kaliningrad between 1947 and 1950, to restart their lives and rebuild the city in the Soviet image.


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Table of Contents

Prologue: Solovki, the Soul of Russia
Introduction: In Putin's Footsteps
1. Kaliningrad: The Amber-Tinted Gaze of an Empire
2. Kiev: The Mother of All Russian Cities or the Threat to Mother Russia?
3. Arkhangelsk, Solovetsky Islands, Saint Petersburg, and Moscow: Kremlin Time, or Russia's Clock of Clocks
4. Ulyanovsk (Simbirsk) and Samara (Kuibyshev): Cities of the Mighty Volga
5. Perm, Yekaterinburg, and Tyumen: The Urals' Holy Trinity
6. Omsk: A Mixed Metaphor in Putin's Empire
7. Novosibirsk: A Story of Science and Serendipity
8. Ulan-Ude, Irkutsk, and Lake Baikal: Asian Abodes of the Spirit
9. Blagoveshchensk, Heihe, and Yakutsk: Roughing It
10. Vladivostok: Rule the East!
11. Magadan and Butugychag: From the Gulag Capital to the Valley of Death
12. Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky: The Very Far East
Epilogue: The Past of the Russian Future

Note on Naming and Renaming
Note on Translation and Transliteration

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