The Realist Bibliophile. A Review of Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia after the Fall

Meier's book delivers is a much better understanding of the Putin phenomenon.

Andrew Meier, Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia after the Fall (W.W. Norton, 2003).

Reportedly, when president-elect Ronald Reagan met with Colonel Alexandre de Marenches, the head of French external intelligence, following his election in 1980, he asked for advice.  "I can only tell you about people," the colonel replied.

This is the principle followed by Andrew Meier in his Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia after the Fall.  Time's former Moscow correspondent depicts the realities of post-Soviet Russia through the author's encounters with people; the stories and the anecdotes thus collected provide the backdrop for providing analysis on what has emerged from the rubble of the communist system.  By giving his subjects wide latitude to tell their own stories--Chechens, General Numerov, the Gulag survivor on his way by riverboat to Norilsk, the St. Petersburg "godfather," oil workers on Sakhalin island--Meier creates a literary space where authentic voices can be heard, instead of, as so many Westerners who write about Russia do, create "their" image of Russia first and then find the appropriate denizens to people it.

Meier's book helps to expand further the sense of a moral vacuum that David Satter, writing in the Summer 2003 issue of The National Interest, described; not arising out of a sense of immorality, but reflecting what happens when a society loses its moral and philosophical compass and is plunged headlong into change without the existence of mediating institutions.  Meier's observations and anecdotes reinforce what scholars have observed--that there is great potential for social capital (and here I would point the reader to the works of Christopher Marsh, among others)--but that the wreckage of the old order can inhibit the construction of the new.

One of the most important services that Meier's book delivers is a much better understanding of the Putin phenomenon, helping to explain the appeal of the Russian president as an average, patriotic guy who has a vision of a Russia restored. As he observes, "Putin had renewed Russians' sense of themselves. For a great many of his compatriots, he cured their identity crisis."

Black Earth is an enjoyable read, mixing the storyteller's skill with an academic's analysis.