Nina Khrushcheva signs copies of "In Putin's Footsteps" at the New York Public Library
As the first book ever checked out of the New York Public Library’s main Stephen A. Schwarzman Building was Russian, it was only fitting that the library presented author/educator Nina Khrushcheva (also Former Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s great-granddaughter) Thursday evening (Feb. 21), on the occasion of the publication of her latest book In Putin’s Footsteps—Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones (St. Martin’s Press).
Co-written with journalist Jeffrey Tayler, In Putin’s Footsteps is an account of a remarkable road trip undertaken by the two in the summer of 2017, in essence following in the footsteps of Putin, who traveled to more than a score of countries and a quarter of Russia’s 89 regions to connect with ordinary Russians following his landslide election as president in 1999.
Putin had hoped to address citizens in each of Russia’s 11 time zones successively at midnight with the same rousing New Year’s Eve address lauding the nation’s greatness and restored pride--but scrapped it after realizing it was an impossible goal for one night. Khrushcheva and Tayler, then, sought to see if Putin’s observations then still held true today.
Khrushcheva’s appearance at the library was part of its Author Talks series, and was in the form of a conversation with Susan Glasser, staff writer at The New Yorker and co-author, with husband Peter Baker, of Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution. Glasser hailed In Putin’s Footsteps as “a terrific guide and introduction to the Russia Putin wrought,” as well as the Russia that preceded him and will outlive him. She also noted that since much writing about Russia is rooted in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Khrushcheva’s travelogue serves as an enlightening “corrective.”
Khrushcheva conceded that it was “a kind-of wacky idea” to travel through 11 time zones—not to mention the biggest country in the world, which essentially occupies an entire continent.
“It’s not like you can hop in a car and go to the Grand Canyon!” she said, and noted that while Russia “continues to be an empire,” very few people have actually experienced the country as a whole—herself included.
“But it’s really not that difficult,” Khrushcheva suggested. “It wasn’t like Thelma and Louise [but] remarkably easy to travel. It only seems like a horrible thing to get out of Moscow and St. Petersburg.”
Herself a Moscow native who is professor of international affairs at New York’s New School University and the author of Imagining Nabokov and The Lost Khrushchev (about her grandfather Leonid Khrushchev, oldest son of Nikita Khrushchev, who died mysteriously during World War II), she noted that while people might think that beyond the city limits of the main cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg “there are wolves and bears and people killing each other,” it’s really “very pleasant” out in the sticks, where five-star hotels and good eating is now commonplace.
“It was an incredibly enjoyable trip,” she said. “It was also important for me as a privileged Muscovite who never traveled that far away from Moscow and St. Petersburg. I felt honored to see the depth of Russia.”
She gave Putin credit for making the rest of Russia “more comfortable,” as became somewhat known during last year’s 2018 FIFA World Cup, which took place in 11 cities (including Moscow and St. Petersburg).
Khrushcheva learned, then, that there is now much more to Russia—and available for Russians--than its two big cities. But the country remains vast, still suffering from an identity crisis.
For it’s “one part Europe, and the other side [extending] to the Pacific Ocean—so that plays a number in your head! Are you the West? Or in-between?”
Rather, Russia is the Unwest, said Khrushcheva, that it, “the West that doesn’t want to be the West--but every single reference is western: We are only what the West is not.” At the same time, she said Russia is “a very western country,” a dichotomy she ascribes as “coherently incoherent.”
Glasser pointed to the book jacket illustration of the Russian back-to-back double-headed eagle coat-of-arms (comprised of tiny photos of scenes from the journey) and noted its antecedents in the symbol of the Byzantine Empire—and Russia’s long-held self-styling as “the Third Rome.” Khrushcheva recognized the inherent weakness in the symbol, in that by looking east and west, it therefore cannot look ahead.
The double-eagle, for Khrushcheva, also represents Russia’s split personality. She invoked the lasting concept of the unique “Russian soul”—characterized in In Putin’s Footsteps as “spiritual endurance, persevering patience, belief in miracles, and material sacrifice”—as well as its continued fixation on power, as key to the understanding of Russia under Putin.
“It is a country that never surrendered the idea that power is central, power is everything,” she said. “If you are powerful, you’re respected.”
Even in remote and nearly uninhabitable Siberian Gulag villages where people suffered enormous hardship, “it’s hard for them to not want Russia to be a strong country,” said Khrushcheva. “Even there people worship Russian strength and power.”
In fact, she noted, Joseph Stalin, who instituted the Gulag system of forced labor camps where hundreds of thousands died, has enjoyed rehabilitation in “the official historical memory,” as she calls it in the book, while official recall of the reformers who followed—Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and of course, her great-grandfather--has been virtually erased.
“In many ways Putin is seen by people as a descendant of Stalin,” she said. “People have forgotten the Gulag and the suffering.”
Still, she said, “Russia is changing,” though because of its size “it is hard to imagine a fully democratic mentality” taking hold. And while “Putinism is not going anywhere,” his disapproval ratings are higher than ever.
“Putin thought that bringing in the World Cup would be great for him, but it was more about beer and drinking together--and the fact that Moscow and the other cities were well-prepared,” said Khrushcheva, crediting Putin in that respect. “But in the end, it turned out that it was about people, that you don’t need to bomb anything or even win anything, but be great hosts and be loved for that—and that you don’t need the Kremlin to be great.”
But she finds that Russia is “not moving forward in any way,” and is at a crossroads as the U.S. withdraws from past treaties and agreements.
“Before the borders close and we’re in a new Cold War or whatever we’re in—the restaurants are amazing,” she said with delight, noting that Russia’s atypically indigenous “baking culture,” which had been destroyed during the Soviet era when bread was scarcely available, had resurfaced with the return of distinctly Russian “pastry places—the kindest places you can imagine.”
And “the coffee shops are out of this world!” Khrushcheva proclaimed, then topped it by enticingly announcing, “I was riding a camel above the Arctic Circle!”