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'Putin Country' Offers A Glimpse Inside 'Real' Russia


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We've read a lot in recent years about the aggressive foreign policy of Russian President Vladimir Putin and about protests in Moscow against his crackdown on human rights activists and independent journalists. Our guest, former NPR foreign correspondent Ann Garrels, says if you travel into the interior of the country, you'll find Russians beset by a shaky economy and widespread corruption who are nonetheless fiercely loyal to their controversial authoritarian president.

Her new book is based on years of reporting on a region in central Russia where she says attitudes toward the West soured after the hardships and chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ann Garrels served as NPR's Moscow correspondent and reported on conflicts in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Earlier in her career, she was Moscow bureau chief for ABC and a State Department correspondent for NBC. She's earned many journalistic honors, including a George Polk Award and the Edward R. Murrow Award. She spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Ann Garrels, welcome to FRESH AIR. You decided a long time ago - in 1993 - that you wanted to do some reporting on a place in Russia far from Moscow. Why?

ANN GARRELS: Well, it became clear to me as I was traveling around Russia as a Moscow-based correspondent that Moscow was not Russia. It was moving forward fast and furiously. There was money there. I mean, everything was focused in Moscow.

But meanwhile, the rest of the country was struggling in very different ways. And it's as if you were, you know, covering America from New York. So i wanted to find one place where I could get to know people well, follow them over time, and I chose Chelyabinsk.

DAVIES: And you've been going there for more than 20 years. How did you choose Chelyabinsk?

GARRELS: (Laughter) Oh, it was a very scientific method. I threw a pencil at the map in my office and it landed on Chelyabinsk. And my fate was sealed 'cause there - I could've chosen any number of industrial cities across Russia. But Chelyabinsk turned out to be the perfect microcosm.

DAVIES: Chelyabinsk is both a city and a region. Tell us a bit about what it was like in the Soviet era. What was the economy based on?

GARRELS: Well, Chelyabinsk, as you say, is a region. It's about the size of Belgium, and then the capital of the region is also called Chelyabinsk, lest we all get confused. And in the Soviet period, it was totally closed to foreigners because it was largely a military, industrial city and region. And what's more, it's the home of the Soviet nuclear program - basically the equivalent of Hanford in Washington or Oak Ridge, Tenn., in the states. And there are two so-called nuclear cities, which to this day remain closed, not just to foreigners but to Russians who don't live there and don't have passes to go in.

DAVIES: Right, and that's in the region, not in the capital of Chelyabinsk.

GARRELS: That's in the region, not in the capital.

DAVIES: A lot of the people worked in huge state-owned factories and lived in state-owned apartment buildings, right?

GARRELS: That's right. It was a pretty grim place. It had basically grown exponentially during the Second World War because it was beyond Hitler's air force. So a lot of the industry that had been in the western part of the country was moved to Chelyabinsk. There was never enough apartment buildings. People were living in dugouts, working in factories. It was really quite an extraordinary experience - and living in dormitories with, you know, 10 families to sort of one large room.

Eventually, after the war, there was improved living conditions, but it was never a really beautiful place. And the factories were all downtown because - these spewing factories - because there was no public transportation. People had to walk there. People didn't have cars. So the downtown is just littered with these factories.

Now, a lot of those factories, once the Soviet Union fell apart and the subsidized economy blew up, sort of fell into private hands. These people didn't have any real feeling for the plants. They pillaged them for whatever they could. And the workers were left with nothing.

DAVIES: A lot of this book is about the experience of the '90s when the Soviet Union had collapsed Boris Yeltsin was the president. And it was this period in which industry was privatizing and, you know, we in the West saw him as a democratizing and modernizing force.

And you make the point that for most Russians it was a far more harsh experience. In general terms, what happened?

GARRELS: Well, in general terms, it's exactly as you say. We thought that what was going on with Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin was, you know, exciting and wonderful. But for the people who were living through it, everything they knew was destroyed. The way they lived, where they worked, what they had to do to get by - everybody suddenly became an expert in currency exchange. as soon as they got paid - if they ever got paid - they turned it into dollars because the ruble was losing value by the second.

They then - and many people weren't - were no longer being paid in money. They would be paid in absurd goods that somehow it - because it had become a barter economy in the '90s. And they would be paid in ridiculous crystal vases, which nobody wanted to buy. And they would have to go out on the roads and try and flog them somehow. It was nuts. I mean, the social services fell apart.

I mean, I spoke to teachers who would sell produce from their gardens. And many men simply couldn't deal with the ignominy and sort of took to their couches and drank. Women were really the ones who saved the day in the '90s. They sort of put all pride aside and went out and did whatever they had to do - going to China, buying cheap goods, coming back with them - whatever it took.

DAVIES: But for a long period of time, people were really in desperate straits. And it seems that there were a lot of predatory employers and lenders and corrupt officials. And one of the...

GARRELS: It was really scary.

DAVIES: Yeah. And one of the interesting things you write about is the way it affected Russians' attitudes towards the West because this was a time when people in the West were so excited about Russia joining, you know, the community of democratic nations. Nongovernmental organizations were moving into the country to assist in building the new country.

And you write about a woman who was an engineer at one of these factories. Her name, I think, was Tamara Mairova.


DAVIES: And she was sort of emblematic of the way some people interpreted this experience and their attitude toward the West. Tell us about her.

GARRELS: Well, on the one hand, I mean, she certainly saw her own factory being plundered by the bosses, who illegally - basically - privatized it and then sold off whatever they could. You know, but I asked her - and she - but she blames the West for the privatization and for the push for the fast privatization of the country.

And I said, yeah, but it was the Russians who were corrupt. And she said, yeah, but you taught us how, and so she basically blames the West, and many did, feeling that as the process went on and the Yeltsin years went on and Yeltsin became less and less coherent, more publicly appearing drunk, disappearing for long periods of time - they were embarrassed by him.

They didn't understand where their country was going. They saw themselves as dependent on aid from the West. I mean, hospitals that I visited in Chelyabinsk throughout the '90s were dependent on, you know, getting antibiotics from Western donors, X-ray sheets - that sort of thing - plates. It was ignominious. All of a sudden, you know, Russia was a poor, begging nation.

And this - when Putin came in, two things happened. One is that he benefited from the sudden spike in oil prices, and Russia is a huge oil exporter. So there was an influx of money into the budget. And also Putin gradually began to talk about sort of how great Russia is.

Now, I mean, you know, people criticize him for all - correctly - for all sorts of things, but, you know, think of America now with Trump.

You know, we - Americans who feel they don't know where their country is going or that the country is, you know, not what they would like it to be, no longer great - well, it was sort of the same syndrome in Russia.

DAVIES: And he brought stability.

GARRELS: And most importantly, for a good 10 years, Russians lived with each passing year dramatically better than they had before.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Ann Garrels. Her new book is called "Putin Country: A Journey Into The Real Russia." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Anne Garrels. You may remember she was a reporter for NPR for many years. She's written a book about a Russian city and region near the Urals in Central Russia. It's called "Putin Country : A Journey Into The Real Russia." You begin the book by describing the collapse of the Russian economy in the '90s and then coming back to Chelyabinsk, this region that you focus on near the Ural mountains in, I guess, 2012. How had it changed? What was different?

GARRELS: Well, I was just struck by new buildings - new apartment buildings - most of my friends had redone their apartments. There were shops. There were restaurants. And the restaurants all had foreign names like the Wall Street Cafe. There was Pretty Betty's, a hamburger joint, where the waitresses all wore what were believed to be sort of 1950s American waitress outfits with bobby socks and sneakers. It was - there were fancy restaurants with Italian names. You could buy any kind of food you wanted in the supermarkets. It was totally different now.

DAVIES: And you mentioned a bunch of American words had crept into the Russian vocabulary?

GARRELS: Oh, everything - I mean, you know - a manager - (imitating Russian accent) manager. Oh, my God - that was another one. You'd suddenly hear a totally non-English speaking Russian say, oh, my God - OK?

And this drove nationalists in the Parliament in Moscow crazy. And even as anti-Americanism and xenophobia and a growth in, you know, the push for Russian nationalism and people looking for Russian pride, the flood of foreign words has continued.

DAVIES: It was striking, as you read through the book and you move through different aspects of Russian life, how corruption seemed embedded everywhere - what school you could get your kid in, whether you could get real medical care. I mean, what was the scale of this?

GARRELS: You want medical care, and you want to see a doctor in the socialized health system, you've got to pay. And, I mean, one woman looked at me and said, I'm embarrassed that I am perpetuating this system of corruption, but my grandchild needs good medical care and the only way for me to see a good doctor is to pay.

Education - if you want to get your kid into a good school, you pay. If you want to buy a piece of property and get permission to build, you pay - every step of the way. And people are just accustomed to it. They've almost - they've almost stopped fighting it.

DAVIES: You tell a wonderful story about a guy who was a forensic scientist - a pathologist - who had done a lot of work uncovering graves of victims of massacres in the Stalinist era, and the government shut him down because they really didn't want to focus on that. Just tell us a little bit about him.

GARRELS: Alexander Vlasov is an extraordinary guy. As you say, he was by training a forensic scientist. He worked with Memorial, the human rights organization that was uncovering and documenting the abuses of Stalin and the horrors of the gulag. And he worked with them to collect bodies and show them how to - the volunteers - how to pack up these bodies that they found in deserted gold mines.

But as you noted, I mean, overnight the KGB decided that this was not a good idea because they were finding out that the bodies of people who had been killed well into the '40s - shot or killed with a bayonet - and that there were children amongst the skeletons. And so overnight, all of the bodies disappeared from Vlasov's lab, and the mines were shut down, closed over, mowed down, and, you know, bulldozed over. And to this day, he believes there are thousands buried there. But nobody has dared to continue the excavations.

So he set up his own independent - the first - forensics lab. And people would come to him often - often - families, for instance, of soldiers who were beaten to death in what is called dedovshchina, which is the hazing of new recruits in the military and continues and is very brutal - and several of the parents of kids who died under suspicious circumstances.

And Vlasov began to work on cases - private cases like this - doing lots of different kinds of investigations. And gradually, amazingly, he says, judges who initially just dismissed him out of hand began to listen to him - but only on cases that were not politically sensitive. He never made any headway on the cases of beaten conscripts. That was way too politically charged.

DAVIES: And in the end, he decides to open up a private funeral parlor - to become a funeral director, in effect. Tell us a bit about that.

GARRELS: Well, he was not in favor with the authorities, and he was only making about $6 a month at that point - I mean, as the ruble lost value - as a government forensics expert. So he - what else would - he looked around and thought, well, how can I make some money? And he decided the funeral business.

People were still dying, but factories had once - which had once paid for the funerals - now were more worried about their own survival. And people were left to pay for funerals themselves. They were left to dig their own graves, build their own coffins. And as he said, it was pretty ignominious. So he started a funeral business.

There were gradually people who were amassing a lot of money - mainly Mafia types in Chelyabinsk - who wanted very elaborate funerals. And he would actually travel to Italy to buy quite extravagant coffins and then create elaborate sculptures for their graves.

DAVIES: So there was a real market for this man, Alexander Vlasov.

GARRELS: Oh, he became - he made a fortune. But precisely because it was such a lucrative business, the authorities began to go hmm (ph), and they started demanding monthly payments. And when he - I mean, he paid a little bit. But then they asked for more and more and more, and he refused.

And eventually, he was driving somewhere. And he heard a ker-thunk, and there was a grenade under his car, but happily it hadn't been taped on very well. However, then later when he still didn't get the message, his deputy was murdered as he left the office. So the message was clear. And at that point, Vlasov got out of the business.

DAVIES: You describe how widespread the corruption is. I think even in higher education, there's widespread cheating and, you know, there's bribery there, probably. You have an astonishing statistic here that one-third of the government's budget is believed to go to corruption. This is actually a Russian government statistic of some kind?

GARRELS: Absolutely, I didn't make that up. They gave it to me.

DAVIES: So how do people regard the Putin government if - I mean, this is clearly a tremendous burden on the economy and on, you know, entrepreneurship. Do they blame President Putin for any of this?

GARRELS: Amazingly not - or at least, the majority. His popularity ratings remain very high. In some ways, most people lived so much better between 2000 and 2010 that they were willing to forgive him a lot of that and not blame him for it. I mean, Putin made Russians feel good about themselves and began to - they could feel pride in their president.

It was no longer Boris Yeltsin, you know, drunkenly getting off a plane in Germany and conducting the orchestra while he tottered on his feet. This was a man who - he won the Chechen War and the Second Chechen War. He brought stability. People began to live better. He talked about Russia's greatness, and it's amazing how he has gotten away with corruption.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with former NPR foreign correspondent Anne Garrels. Her new book is called "Putin Country." After we take a short break, she'll tell us about her visit from the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB. And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album by Cuban pianist Aruan Ortiz. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with former NPR correspondent Anne Garrels. Her new new book "Putin Country: A Journey Into The Real Russia" is based on reporting she's been doing since 1993 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when she was NPR's Moscow-based correspondent.

She wanted to follow the citizens of the new Russia by focusing on how life was changing in one region. She chose Chelyabinsk. She's returned many times over the years and is trying to understand the popular support for Russian's authoritarian president Vladimir Putin.

DAVIES: Your 2012 visit to Chelyabinsk ended precipitously.

GARRELS: (Laughter).

DAVIES: What happened?

GARRELS: Well, all of a sudden, at about 5 in the morning, I got a call. And it was the front desk of the hotel - and said that two gentleman were there to see me. And I thought it was, in fact, my driver. We were going out of town to do an interview. And I - I mean, I was registered openly in the hotel and had been interviewing officials and whatever - and whoever else.

And I went outside, and it was clearly not my driver. And it was clearly - basically two people from the successor agency to the KGB known as the Federal Security Service, and they said that I had to go with them. They just wanted to check some paperwork.

As it turned out, it was not quick. I sat there all day, and I was finally taken to the head of migration. A rather handsome man with really steely blue eyes told me to sit down and said that I would be leaving Chelyabinsk within a day and that I should leave Russia within three. And I said - for what reasons?

And he tapped the file and said - what happened in 1982? I said, well, 1982 was a long time ago in a country that no longer exists, the Soviet Union. And what, pray tell, are you talking about? He would not discuss this further and said you know, it's so sad we're not as democratic as you, and you can't have a lawyer. So you better leave. And that was sort of the end of the discussion.

Of course, the reference to 1982 was that I had been a correspondent for ABC in the Soviet Union and was expelled in '82 although, subsequently, I was allowed back into the country once the reforms began. And I'd been there, you know, hundreds of times (laughter) since and as an accredited correspondent for several years, so the whole thing was baffling. But it was chilling. And that evening, when I went to see some Russian friends, they were all sort of going well, he probably wanted a bribe. And then, when I told them the way it had all worked out, they said oh, I guess not.

And they began to get worried. OK, the security services were interested in me. They didn't like me. Now, what was going to happen to those people who I had been talking to? And I could see them getting nervous. And it was just so sad because this wasn't the way it was supposed to be. In the '90s, you couldn't stop people talking. You know, fear disappeared. But fear was returning again. And, you know, people whose names - who had said oh, of course you can use my name, all of a sudden got in touch with me and said - no, it'd be better if you didn't use my name.

DAVIES: Do you know if any of the people that you spoke to suffered repercussions from their contact with you?

GARRELS: Well, I know that friends have been called in and warned that I am a spy, although on one occasion the security agent said - but she's a very nice woman.


GARRELS: But, however, it was clear that he was warning this particular person off and that really I was a spy. After all, what - I mean, his reasoning was - what would a pensioner be doing in Chelyabinsk? Why would she pay the money to be here? He couldn't believe I was writing a book about his region and his city. There had to be an ulterior motive.

DAVIES: This just don't add up (laughter).

GARRELS: But so far, not because of me, per se, but many people I got to know had been getting funding. They had NGOs doing human nights work, prison - documenting conditions in prisons, whatever. And they got money from either the National Endowment for Democracy or, you know, you name it. And they have all now, especially in the last few months, been called foreign agents.

And while it - they won't be sent to prison for that, they could well have to pay fines. It's a name which will put a lot of people off. Russians will know that they are not the kind of people that they should support so that they will have trouble raising money at home. So if all - one thing leads to the next.

DAVIES: Why were you expelled from the Soviet Union in 1982? You were a correspondent for ABC at the time.

GARRELS: There were reports in the Russian - Soviet press that I was possibly a spy. And - so that didn't look good. And then on top of which, I had a car accident through no fault of my own. It was a dramatic accident. Two drunks ran out in front of my car. And so one thing led to another. And they - the Soviets demanded that ABC withdraw me.

They did not want to expel me because, in those days, there was a tit-for-tat - that if Russia expelled me, then the U.S. would expel one of the Soviet correspondents. And the Soviet correspondents were, indeed, mainly spies. So I refused to leave and - so finally, I was escorted out of the country.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Anne Garrels. Her new book is "Putin Country: A Journey Into The Real Russia."

A lot of countries have problems with overpopulation. Russia is just the opposite. The government is encouraging people to have children. Why is the country short of kids?

GARRELS: Aha - well, Russia is a huge territory, much of it not very population-friendly. But, you know, it's - the country has suffered both wars and the horrors of Stalinism and the gulag and the repressions and the murders - state-ordered murders. And you've had, since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the trauma of life in Russia, many have emigrated.

So you have a population that is about 150-something million for a country - that's less than half the U.S. population for a country much larger. They have a real problem down the road of being able to man the country.

DAVIES: And part of the issue is women are delaying childbearing a lot longer. Why?

GARRELS: Well, it's financially been a disaster for the last 20 years. While it got better from 2000 on, it was still iffy. And women now are able to travel. There are more interesting jobs. They complain that they can't find suitable men.

Many of my women friends, you know, just say, you know, we Russian women are just better than Russian men. And if I heard it once, I heard it a million times that because of the Stalin repressions - because of all the men who were killed in the first world war, then the revolution, then the second world war and those who were consigned to the gulags and died, that there's a depleted gene pool.

The best and the brightest were killed, and those that are left - now, I mean, I'm not saying that this is scientifically proven, but it's what many, many Russians believe - Russian women, especially - and even Russian men believe.

DAVIES: Anne Garrels's book is "Putin Country: A Journey Into The Real Russia." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Ann Garrels. You may remember her as a correspondent in Moscow and many other places for NPR. She has a new book about her journey inside Russia. It's called "Putin Country: A Journey Into The Real Russia."

You note that the changes since the '90s when the economy collapsed and there was so much dislocation that that was harder on men, in some respects at least on their egos and sense of self-worth, than the women.

GARRELS: Completely. Russian women would tell me again and again how their husbands were completely undone. They'd lost their jobs or they were going to work but not being paid. And these were engineers, people of considerable aptitude, and they were ashamed. And they - it was much harder for them to sort of take to the streets as traders and to just lose - you know, swallow their pride and support the family.

It was the women, for the most part, who were out there taking care. And I - many, many, many of my friends, their husbands suffered in that way and really never came back.

DAVIES: One solution that people have come up with is to pair women looking for a suitable partner with men from the West. And you describe going to a "get-together" - that's get-together in quotes - of Western American men meeting single Russian women at a hotel in Moscow. Tell us about this. Tell us what happened.

GARRELS: It was a very popular phenomenon in the '90s where American men would come looking for a beautiful Russian bride. And the women were quite extraordinary, many of them single mothers, fathers had disappeared. They were trying to support a family. And they came under the belief that, you know, American men were better than Russian men.

And the American men, those that I spoke to, were under the impression that Russian women were, you know, much more malleable, that they would be wonderful housekeepers and sort of - I mean, almost short of a sex slave.

And both were disappointed. I'm sure there were some wonderful matches made. But generally speaking, I went to several of these meetings, and the Russian women were pretty disappointed.

DAVIES: The other thing that you mentioned hearing from Russian women looking for suitable partners is alcoholism, which clearly is a serious problem in the country. How much of it did you see, hear about? What - do you have your own sense of why it's such a problem in Russia?

GARRELS: Well, it was the - alcoholism was a - it's a great escapism. And it's better than it was because many people now really can - or have been able to, until the - maybe the financial crisis now - you know, get a lot of job satisfaction, do something interesting, build a business. I mean, it's not easy but many have done this and taken advantage of the opportunities.

But, you know, for a - one interesting thing that - Putin basically made sure that the price of vodka did not go up during this most recent economic crisis with the drop in the price of oil because, you know, that might have been a real reason for protest if vodka prices went up and people's salaries were going down.

But generally speaking, people aren't dying of alcoholism quite as much as they were. And Russians are having more babies than they were. But it's - because Russia was losing a population of about a million a year, which it could ill afford. And Putin was doing everything possible to improve it - social services, maternity leave, support for, as they call it, multi-children families. But, yeah, many of my Russian women friends just look around and say, you know, but I just can't find a guy.

DAVIES: You know, a lot has been written about how the Putin government has persecuted and, in some cases, killed human rights activists and journalists. And I'm wondering, did you see that in Chelyabinsk, and did people seem to care?

GARRELS: The way - Putin has really been very clever about how he's done it. There has not been - I mean, yes, TV is totally state-run and it's state-message and xenaphobic, anti-Western, whatever. The Internet has remained relatively free.

However, you just start targeting a few - for instance, recently a young man has been prosecuted for saying God doesn't exist. The extremism laws are very vague. And if the government wants to, it can interpret those laws the way it wants, and the judges will cave.

So you don't have to sort of go out and arrest loads of people. You just have to scare and warn them that you cross the line and that's not going to be good.

DAVIES: Do people have nostalgia for the Soviet era?

GARRELS: Yes. I don't think the kids do. They don't remember it, but certainly the older generation have some nostalgia for it. You've got a mixture now.

They want certain freedoms. They want to be able to travel. They want to be able to determine where they live and how they live. They want to be able to make money if they can.

But there's - they do seem to be willing to give up certain freedoms to do all of that and to have a sense that it is a Russian ascendant again and that their views will be taken into account.

DAVIES: You know, I know that you - your interest in Russia goes back at least to college where you learned the language and developed an interest in the country. And then you - you know, you reported there in the '80s and have continued to do reporting there.

And the book - you know, there are certainly things that might lead to despair, but I can also sense your affection for the country and the people. And I'm wondering how you see its future.

GARRELS: I don't know. I can't answer that. I'm not particularly optimistic now. The opposition has - I mean, it's been crippled by Putin. But it's also crippled itself. And it's hard to imagine, given the constraints Putin has put on the system, that people will be able to emerge.

I worry that, you know, after Putin it could even be worse with more ultra-nationalists moving in. I mean, ultimately, you know, Russians are extraordinary, and there are still some extraordinary parts to Russia and their past and, you know, desire for education.

But they're sort of a little like Americans right now who are going after Trump and supporting Trump, I mean, who - Trump's saying, you know, we'll make you great again. Well, that sort of the syndrome that's going on in Russia. It's a dangerous one.

DAVIES: You were a correspondent for NPR for many years, and I'm sure many of our listeners remember you. I know that you and your husband are battling cancer right now. How are you and how do things look?

GARRELS: (Laughter) Thank you for asking. I went through surgery - through chemo, radiation and then surgery. And I'm in pretty good shape. I've now got a sort of Kevlar chest (laughter) which I'm getting used to.

DAVIES: It's lung cancer in your case, yeah.

GARRELS: Yeah. It was lung cancer in my case. And my husband, while I was being treated, all of a sudden was diagnosed with acute leukemia. And he's fighting for his life at the moment at Yale-New Haven Hospital. So, everybody, keep your fingers crossed.

DAVIES: Well, we will. We wish you the best, and thanks so much for speaking with us, Ann.

GARRELS: Well, thank you.

GROSS: And I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Ann Garrels is the author of the new book "Putin Country." She spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior news reporter. After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album by Cuban pianist Aruan Ortiz. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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