28 August 2020
Teresa Cherfas reviews Joshua Yaffa, Between Two Fires, ISBN 9781524760595 (New York, Penguin Random House, 2020)
Joshua Yaffa’s Between Two Fires takes its name from a Russian proverb, and epitomizes the conundrum of living in Putin’s Russia today. The fires in question are two extremes: at one end, dissidence, defiance and civil disobedience, at the other, conformism, compromise and collaboration with the regime. The book follows the life stories of several individuals who had to choose between them – and live or die with the consequences.
Yaffa takes as his starting point the search by Soviet sociologist Yury Levada to identify the new Russian personality type that had risen from the ashes of Homo Sovieticus. Levada was frustrated to discover that “the person who rose to the surface was not a fabulously liberated hero, but someone inclined to adapt to what is required of him in order to survive”. He named this not altogether surprising new Russian species ‘The Wily Man’ in an essay published in 2000, the year Putin came to power. For Levada, the ‘wily man’ was more lasting and universal than Homo sovieticus: he “not only tolerates deception, but is willing to be deceived, and even … requires self-deception for the sake of his own self-preservation. (…) He adapts to social reality, looking for oversights and gaps in the ruling system, looking to use the ‘rules of the game’ for his own interest, but at the same time – and no less important – he is constantly trying to circumvent those very rules.”
Yaffa adopts Levada’s ‘wily man’ as his matrix, setting out to place the men and women whose stories he relates somewhere on the scale of ‘wiliness’. These people’s lives provide the narrative thread to his book as they navigate their course between the two fires of Putin’s Russia.
First up is Konstantin Ernst, CEO of Channel One Russian State Television. Ernst made his name as a pioneering and innovative programme-maker who set a new standard for frank television reportage and honest debate in the glory days of Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost’. He then sided with Vladimir Putin when the latter made state control of broadcast television a priority in the early days of consolidating his power. The choice left Ernst and many of his erstwhile media colleagues on different sides of the barricades in the battles that followed.
His crowning glory was supposed to be the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, but the world’s eyes were diverted from the Games to Ukraine, Kiev’s Maidan protests and all too soon to the Russian annexation of Crimea. Ernst presided over the official state television’s news bulletins, as they brought home lies and false narratives in their reporting of Crimea, the war in Donbass and the downing of passenger plane MH17. This alternative reality became the quintessence of Putin’s regime. But had Ernst really changed or was he just pursuing the same career he always had, executing regime policy, whether glasnost’ or false narratives? As one of his friends told Yaffa, Ernst is a statist, ‘ultimately an aesthete, not a liberal’.
From Ernst, we backtrack to Chechnya and the war that began on Yeltsin’s watch. Yaffa tells the story of Heda Saratova, a Chechen woman who took huge personal risks to save young Chechen lives threatened by Russian military action. She worked closely, for a while, with Natalia Estemireva at the Chechen branch of Memorial. Estemirova was a thorn in the side of the Chechen authorities, and paid the ultimate price: she was abducted in July 2009 and a few days later her body was found, riddled with bullets and dumped in a field. For Saratova, this was a warning she could not ignore. Having begun her mission as a firebrand in the underground opposition, she realised that to stay alive she either had to go into exile or fall in with the fiefdom of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Saratova chose the latter. Many in her circle now shun her but grudgingly concede that she has remained effective. By staying alive and playing by the rules of the game, she continues to lobby successfully for the safe extradition of young Chechen men and women fallen foul of their own society and regime.
It is little wonder that few outside Russia have heard of Saratova, whilst Estemirova and before her Anna Politkovskaya are legendary figures of courage and moral strength. Does that make Saratova a ‘wily woman’ or simply a pragmatist who chose life over the threat of exile and assassination?
Yaffa then journeys to the Crimea in the period before and soon after the Russian annexation. He focuses here on the story of a safari park entrepreneur and his passion for the wild animals he has acquired, his embracing of the new political reality and his slow disillusionment.
Next he takes us to the Russian North to tell the story of a Russian orthodox priest, whose criticism of the hypocrisy of the Orthodox church, allied to his own personal humility and charisma, gave him a following the envy of the more conformist priesthood. Unfortunately, he was murdered before Yaffa had the chance to meet him by a mentally unbalanced parishioner who had come to the priest’s house looking for alms and sanctuary.
Later, we are in the Urals city of Perm, the site of the last operational Gulag prison camp. Turned into a memorial museum by the last director, its fate hangs in the balance. Yaffa finds it is now run by a regime bureaucrat who is trying both to keep it open but also relevant. For a while the original museum’s dissident founders tried working together with the state and its appointee, but when they rejected further compromise, they were shut out of the museum’s management. This story is a paradigm of what is at stake when the space between the two fires narrows.
And finally to Moscow. Yaffa’s first story is about a woman who single-handedly kickstarted a charity for the poor and homeless, but who, in her wish to go further and further in pursuit of her own charitable causes, accepted the state’s overtures to co-opt her. Ironically, that compliance led to her death, not in a jail or a stairwell, but in a plane crash. She was on a flight to Syria as a member of a humanitarian delegation organized by the Russian Ministry of Defence when her plane crashed killing everyone on board.
Yaffa’s second Moscow character is Kirill Serebrennikov, the talented theatre director who flew too close to the fire of co-option by the regime, and was burned. Accused of embezzling state funds, he was convicted in June 2020, fined and given a suspended sentence. Serebrennikov’s trial was one of many Putin-era show trials that have come to define the Putin years.
As Russian sayings go, Between Two Fires is very relatable – just think ‘between a rock and a hard place’ or ‘Scylla and Charybdis’. And the phenomenon it describes is familiar too. What makes it alien to most of us are the methods of the Russian state and the singular consequences of defying them. Yaffa points this out, but only towards the end of his book:
People in all countries face difficult moral choices. To be a functioning adult in the world, we all must balance competing sets of expectations and pressures with our own understanding of self. We negotiate the constraints and demands placed on us by our bosses, our parents and friends, internet commentators, the unfamiliar and intimidating people seated next to us at dinner parties. But in the United States and most other countries in the West, such forces emanate from all manner of places: the mores of your social group, your corporation’s human resources department, the unrelenting pressures of the marketplace. And none of them can put you in jail.
In writing Between Two Fires, Yaffa follows a path well trodden by Moscow correspondents. Perhaps the best is Yaffa’s own editor at the New Yorker, David Remnick, whose Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, won a Pulitzer in 1994. Yaffa’s book is very readable with a wealth of narrative detail and insight. But events have overtaken his ‘wily man’ paradigm and more urgent books on Putin and Putin’s Russia have grabbed the limelight. Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People is one, which makes Yaffa’s book feel minor key and quietly observed.
The Russia story feels like it has moved on since Yaffa defined the scope of his book. Its insights may shed some extra light on events making headlines right now – the mass protests in Khabarovsk, the fate of Lukashenko and the people of Belarus, the poisoning and probable neutralisation of Aleksei Navalny – but it is perhaps more a book for those already interested in what might, by comparison, seem like the minutiae of Russian life.
Throughout Russia’s history, its people have held a mirror up to us all. How many faced with the same situations would have been brave enough to act as the bravest did? How many of us would become ‘wily’ men and women if our choices were the same?
With Orban in Hungary, the victory of the Law and Justice Party in Poland and Donald Trump hanging on in the White House, reading Yaffa’s book reminded me more than anything of Peter Pomeranstev’s observation that Putin’s Russia was but a glimpse of the future everywhere and that nowhere is immune.