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Black Earth: A Journey through Russia after the Fall
Claire Marsden

As Russia welcomes a new president and the world watches with bated breath to see how Dmitri Medvedev will perform in the shadow of Vladimir Putin, I return to a book that examines Russia and its people during Putin’s early years at the country’s helm.

“Black Earth: Russia after the Fall” by American journalist Andrew Meier plots the authors “travels across Russia’s length and breadth,” but, above all, tries to make sense of a plaintive question asked by the grieving parents of a twenty-year-old Russian soldier killed in Chechnya: “Can a country survive without a conscience?” This question provides the premise for this thought-provoking depiction of modern-day Russia.

Meier, who lived and worked in Moscow for close to a decade, makes an epic journey that echoes the travels of Anton Chekhov 100 years earlier. Meier reaches out to all corners of the country and its people. In a style that is both probing and brutally honest, he brings to life the experiences of the diverse people he meets. He does not shy away from lingering questions about Russia’s totalitarian past or about the glaring economic inequalities of Russia’s capitalist present. Nor does he flinch when discussing the bizarre and corrupt nature of business here or the insatiable appetite for lucre that is poised to consume the stark beauty of the oil-rich Far East.

What right does a foreign journalist have to paint such a bleak picture of modern Russia? For one, his knowledge of the language and the country gives him far greater scope than the many sofabound commentators who readily offer their analysis. His deference to his subjects — whom Meier allows to tell their own stories in their own words — help produce a lively, grim, honest portrait.

Whether or not they agree with his comments and trust his judgments, few expats residing in Moscow will fail to recognize and smile, if perhaps a little morosely, at Meier’s poetic descriptions of familiar everyday scenes:

“I crossed under Tverskaya, angling through the commuters and venders, cops and Rollerbladers in the underground passageway. The labyrinth led to three metro stations. It smelled of beer and tobacco and the long-stemmed roses that filled the kiosks even in the depths of winter. A year earlier a bomb had ripped through the crowds here, killing thirteen and wounding more than a hundred. A small plaque marked the spot. ... At the far end of the passageway the concrete wall above a bank of pay phones was stickered with ads: ‘Become a dancer in Turkey’; ‘Buy an engineer’s diploma’; ‘Get your children off heroin’; ‘Lose 5 kilos in 7 days; ‘Avoid the draft’. — Claire Marsden

Black Earth: A Jourmey through Russia after the Fall by Andrew Meier, W.W. Norton, 2005, 516 pages

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