Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Book Review: 'Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin's Russia' by Joshua Yaffa

Russia has always been a mystery. How is it that Russians put up with so much, and come back for more? From their perspective, this is largely the way life is, and it is the West that is perverse. In Joshua Yaffa’s Between Two Fires, Russians have improvised a Darwinian adaptation to dictatorship. They have developed what he calls wiliness that helps them survive and sometimes even thrive.

The book is a collection of personality profiles, very long, magazine-length stories of people with public images. They are from all walks of life, from a wild animal farm owner in Crimea to a theater producer/director, to a freethinking (ie. conservative) Orthodox priest, to a saintly doctor whose devotes her life to rescuing injured children from war zones. She has plenty to choose from.

Yaffa is an American who was always fascinated with Russia. He moved there and became a reporter. This has given him massive privilege in the form of contacting people out of the blue, interviewing them, following up, and networking with people they talk about. Not something mere mortals get to do, pretty much ever. The result is intimate portraits, featuring mistakes, tragedies, near misses, and sometimes even resounding success. It’s all about the compromises and adaptations everyone in the book is forced to make to survive. He traveled far and wide, from Moscow and St. Petersburg to the Gulag and Siberia and down to the Black Sea to meet and befriend these people.

Life in Russia is full of traps. This is because the state oversees (and arbitrarily regulates) almost everything. It rigs the rules to allow itself to stop, incarcerate or remove anyone, for any reason, rational or not. A cultural icon was arrested on many charges, including pocketing money intended for a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that never took place. Presenting the court with newspaper articles and rave reviews from the performance, he was told that newspaper articles do not prove the play was actually performed. This is the kind of conundrum that pretty much everyone in the book faces. They go with the flow, find sponsors to influence their enemies, use bribes, expose – or at least threaten to expose – bribes, and wait patiently. Fewer are sent to the Gulag these days, but there is a chapter featuring some men who survived to talk about it.

A lot of lives have been influenced by the invasion of Ukraine. It has upended millions of plans, hurt business and split families. Some who welcomed Russia as a distinct improvement now rue the day. Ukraine was corrupt, but Russian administration (and particularly justice) is as crazy as fiction can get. The state of war and the international embargo have not helped.

The administration of Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya is also chilling. Survival there deserves a medal, as Yaffa shows with a woman who is managing to pull it off, playing people off against each other, while keeping a relatively clean profile toward the lord and master in Grozny.

Even though nearly three quarters of the economy is driven by the central government (up from a third before Putin), Russia is not really socialism personified. Kleptocracy would be more accurate. Their positions are everything, and they can see all too clearly what would happen if they fell out of favor. Those in power owe their wealth to the government and their relationship to it, and they quickly obey every order that comes down to them. Doesn’t matter how many lives they shatter. They know exactly what would happen if they fell from grace.

It is a very tense and tight web, and everyone has to walk on eggshells. It’s a way of life Russians have become accustomed to since the era of the tsars 300 years ago. There is even a word for it: prisposoblenets – someone who contorts to fit the demands of the times.

Even at the street level, Russians have adapted. They refuse to pull over for screaming ambulances, because they know the rich bribe ambulance drivers to take them across town like super-taxis beating the all-day traffic jams. They know perfectly well not to trust the media, that they can see for themselves is lying or avoiding anything not pro-Putin, and that their elections are rigged by simply refusing to register non-compromised candidates who qualify. Foreign charities have been closed down because Putin insists any group taking donations and grants is directed by their state – because that’s how he runs Russia.

And precisely because no one can trust the media, Yaffa’s book offers deep background and insight totally unavailable to the person on the street. If you read Between Two Fires, you will know more about what’s going on in Russia today than most Russians do.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.