Book Launch -- Black Earth: A Journey through Russia after the Fall
At a recent Kennan Institute book launch, Andrew Meier, contributor, Time Europe, and former Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center, discussed his new book, Black Earth: A Journey through Russia after the Fall. Meier spent nearly a decade as a journalist in Moscow, where he frequently met with the criticism that "Moscow-based journalists don't really know Russia." In response to this criticism, he traveled to the far ends of the country, stopping in St. Petersburg, Chechnya, Norilsk in the far north, and the island of Sakhalin just off of Russia's eastern coastline. In Black Earth, Meier tells his stories of these places and the people who live in them.
Meier explained that he wanted his book to belong to a somewhat different genre than that of the memoirs that foreign correspondents almost inevitably write at the end of their tenure in Moscow. He noted that Black Earth is not the story of his own experiences in Russia, but rather a picture of Russia itself. Meier also commented that although the research for the book was done in Russia, he did most of the writing in the U.S., and this helped him to avoid becoming too close to his subject and maintain a balanced perspective.
Meier provided a sampling of his journey in Russia by reading a few excerpts from his book. He began with an excerpt from his travels in Chechnya. He explained that Russian troops frequently conduct "mop-up" operations in the republic, entering a village, demanding that residents show their documents, and often arresting young men. He told the story of one such operation, passed on to him by a Chechen woman from the village of Aldy. The Russian soldiers who were rounding up the villagers were drunk, violent, and so out of control that their own commander was more afraid of them than he was of the Chechens.
Meier also read an excerpt about Norilsk – a desolate city of over 100,000 located deep in the Arctic tundra and formerly a Soviet prison camp. In Norilsk he met former prisoners and the children and grandchildren of prisoners. Life in the far north is very difficult and many people have moved away, but Meier found that some residents also take great pride in their city and feel a sense of accomplishment for having helped build this island in the tundra.
Speaking of his time in St. Petersburg, however, Meier focused on the city's disappointed hopes. St. Petersburg, he explained, had seemed well positioned to take full advantage of the Soviet collapse and become a prosperous center of commerce and culture. Instead, the city grew decrepit and corrupt and became famous as the "criminal capital" of Russia.
Meier's final excerpt focused on Moscow and the dramatic changes Russia has experienced since the time of perestroika. When he asked about the changes of the past and the possibilities for the future, Meier found a mixture of hope and despair. He noted that he was continually surprised by his Russian friends and contacts and their assessments of the state of their country.