Forget John le Carré. Monty Python would have found the storyline preposterous.

Cup of tea, Mr. Litvinenko? (Alexander Litvinenko: Russian ex-spy living in London and singing to the British secret service.) Darjeeling? English breakfast? Polonium-210?

A British inquiry fingered Russian President Vladimir Putin in ordering the radioactive hit. Maybe, but no one doubts that Putin's reach is long and rudely consequential.

Putin might have sent a minion to Chelyabinsk, for instance, near the Urals, to gather a spoonful of soil for delivery to the assassins. Any Chelyabinsk soil would do, it is all irradiated. Chelyabinsk is Russia'sHanford, birthplace of their nuclear program, perhaps "the most contaminated place on the planet." It is where retired foreign correspondent Anne Garrels, an old hand at reporting on the New Russia, went to rub shoulders with the citizens, see how they were faring, away from otherworld Moscow, and to write "Putin Country." She chose Chelyabinsk the right way: She threw a sharpened pencil at a map. There.

While Chelyabinsk qualifies as a superfund site, life goes on. Why live here, Garrels asks? "It's our home; we are loyal to this place." Geographers call it topophilia, the elemental pull of place. Still, the interviewee continued, "since no one is going to buy our houses, where are we supposed to go?" A radioactive house is a hard sell. Though Garrels sticks to Chelyabinsk's purlieus, it becomes clear that the Russian landscape is sacked: dead forests, yellow rivers, mine tailings everywhere.

Now the Russian economy is tanking — there goes law, credit, wages, diversification, hospitals — as energy prices slump and sanctions respond to Russia's expansionism. It's every man for himself. Corruption! Extortion! Cronyism! Welcome back, comrades! Corruption is no stranger anywhere, but Garrels finds and draws — with a pencil as sharp as she threw at that map — a nation, out of cultural blindness, turning its back on AIDS and special-needs children, alcoholism and bigotry. When she speaks about something a listener is familiar with, it rings true. Truth breeds trust, that rare and wonderful journalistic bird.

Garrels introduces human rights activists, doctors to the poor, crusading journalists, but she won't comfortingly whitewash Putin's popularity. The man and woman on the street want some damn stability, relief from a century-long trauma, and Putin is their man: like the warlord; like the Taliban. He promises Russian greatness, its pre-1917 history — the Russian Orthodox Church hailed Putin's 2012 presidential election "a miracle of God," proving the value of friends in high places — and a little national greatness goes far in the pride department.

The West? It's shafting Russia again with sanctions, and playing monkey with NGOs and promised loans. With such friends. … Sanctions always hurt the weakest first and most. Oligarchs have options.

Peter Lewis is the book review editor of Geographical Review.