For more than 20 years, Anne Garrels took National Public Radio listeners to the world’s conflict zones, including Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Baghdad. She has an especially long track record in Russia, the subject of her new book, Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish in March. Garrels graduated from Harvard with a B.A. in Russian in 1972 and served as Moscow bureau chief for ABC News until 1982. She’s been traveling there regularly since the breakup of the Soviet Union made it possible for her to return.

After Garrels retired from NPR in 2010, she began spending three to four months per year in Chelyabinsk, the “real Russia” of her subtitle—a provincial city on the southern edge of the Urals. Garrels profiles Russians there (with her customary insight and empathy) who generally support the authoritarian regime of President Vladimir Putin, preferring order, however repressive, to the anarchy of the 1990s.

“You have to realize that many Russians were totally shocked by what happened to them,” Garrels says, seated in the sunlight-flooded, bookshelf-lined office of her home in northwestern Connecticut. “They wanted to live like the West, but that meant people didn’t have enough food. The West, in their view, was telling them what to do and how to do it, and the results were oligarchs and corruption. The Western news coverage was all Moscow-centric, about the opposition and those seeking democracy. These people were my friends, but the liberal intelligentsia is not representative of the country. It became clear that it was important to get the hell out of town, and I wanted to choose one place where I could get to know people in all different spheres of life, where I could really document the changes.”

What Garrels found in Chelyabinsk was not just a desire for security and stability but a longing for the restoration of national pride and stature that strikes her as familiar. “Imagine if America had gone through what Russia went through: all of a sudden, a great unchallenged superpower is a beggar,” she says. “In fact, look at what Americans are doing now! They feel threatened, uncertain, the world is changing around them, and you have demagogues like Donald Trump.”

The high-pitched rhetoric favored by Trump and Putin needs to be countered, Garrels says. “Putin plays into Russian resentments and a sense of inferiority by talking about being a great nation again and about a ‘spiritual revival’ in lockstep with the Orthodox church, while on this side of the pond there’s a lot of hyperbole, exaggeration, and hysteria about the Russians—that’s dangerous. One reason I wrote this book was to try to understand: Why did this happen?”

Garrels’s commitment to spreading the word about the insights she gained in Chelyabinsk is the reason she is sitting down to talk about Putin Country as both she and her husband, former CIA officer J. Vinton Lawrence, face major surgery. He has been home from the hospital for three weeks, recuperating from treatment for acute leukemia before returning for a potential bone marrow transplant. She has lung cancer and in two days will endure a five-hour-plus operation. “I’m paying for my sins, of course: I’m an ex-smoker,” she says, grimacing. “You’d sit in Baghdad and say, ‘There’s nothing here that can give me pleasure except a cigarette,’ and you would grant yourself that ridiculous pleasure. But my cancer has not metastasized, and while it will be dramatic surgery on Wednesday—ribs removed, part of the chest wall, nasty—it’s possible that it will be as close to a cure as I can get.”

Asked if she would prefer that I not mention any of these extremely personal details, Garrels says simply, “It’s the reality.” She has a dedicated journalist’s commitment to telling the truth, however unpleasant, and is frustrated when her fellow Americans choose to ignore the lessons of stories she reported at considerable risk. “Here are politicians saying once again, ‘The military will solve ISIS, just go in and bomb the hell out of them.’ Well, sorry: it’s not that easy, and there are repercussions. Nobody wants to go back and look at Iraq, because it’s embarrassing to see what a disaster it was; it’s shocking how we went in with so little information, so little knowledge. Talking to ordinary people in Iraq, in the days leading up to the invasion and even more clearly in the months and years after, made me understand how miserably the United States had failed. You could predict the rise of ISIS from their alienation.”

Garrels’s first book, Naked in Baghdad, closed with the end of the U.S. invasion and was “just a snapshot,” she says. “Other people wrote far better books as events unfolded and it became clear what was going on.” She’s similarly measured in her assessment of her work in Moscow for ABC’s World News Tonight. “People like [New York Times correspondent] Hedrick Smith were writing groundbreaking books about the Russians while network correspondents were standing in Red Square with furry hats,” she remembers. “I was given an opportunity to change that, and although I wasn’t doing anything print journalists hadn’t been doing long since, I did it for TV and I did it with pictures, and there was a power to that.”

After Garrels left the Soviet Union, she covered the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua for ABC. Despite the ferocity of these conflicts, they were far safer for those covering them than today’s wars are, she says. “In those days we wore T-shirts saying, ‘Don’t shoot, I’m a journalist’! There was a certain sense that we were needed—that we could cover both sides. Now journalists are increasingly targeted, because we’re no longer needed by the parties. ISIS has access to the Internet, they have their own propaganda machine; to them we are either a liability or a source of money [from ransom].”

Long before that sinister development, Garrels moved from television to radio. “Once I came back to the States I had to deal with television in a more normal way, competing for a slot in a half-hour program,” she recalls. “I started listening to NPR and thinking, hmmm... So I took a 75% pay cut and became incredibly happy. At the time, nobody had ever gone from television to NPR, and everybody was enormously suspicious; it was like, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ Over time, many of my colleagues in the networks have said, ‘God, I’d love to be able to do what you’re doing!’ ”

Garrels loved it for more than 20 years, until she “burned out” on being a foreign correspondent and decided she “didn’t want to go back to Washington and cover a building.” It was more important to be home with her husband in Connecticut, she decided. After what she describes as “our annus horribilis,” she’s particularly glad she made that choice. “At this point, we’re just going day by day,” she says. That makes sense: addressing earthshaking events on a day-to-bay basis with grace, courage, and humanity has always been Garrels’s specialty.

Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at PW and the American Scholar, reviews books for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Daily Beast.