Sarah Hurst reviews ‘Between Two Fires’ by Joshua Yaffa

8 August 2022

By Sarah Hurst

Sarah Hurst reviews Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition and Compromise in Putin’s Russia by Joshua Yaffa (Granta, 2020) Paperback. 368pp. £9.99. ISBN 9781783783724. (Granta, London, 2020)

Reading this book five months into Russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine is almost painful. Joshua Yaffa, who himself was clearly enjoying his years living in Russia, attempts to explain why compromising one’s principles to work on behalf of Vladimir Putin’s regime might be a smarter move than defying it outright. As we now know, this has been a disaster, leading to catastrophe for both Ukraine and Russia and untold harm to the rest of the world. 

Between Two Fires is more like a thesis than a conventional journalistic work: in search of evidence Yaffa ignores anything that might undermine his premise. He starts with the theory of the wily man developed by sociologist and pollster Yuri Levada, a concept of a person in post-Soviet Russia who finds a way to work with the authorities while pursuing their supposedly benevolent or creative goals. This is the story of several of these wily men and women who eventually lose their entire moral compass by compromising time after time. Thanks to such collaboration Putin and his officials are able to bend the population to their will without resorting to the mass executions of the Stalin era. The counterfactual scenario in which Russians resist the regime en masse is barely considered.

Another questionable aspect of the thesis is that there exists in Russia a unique intelligentsia – indeed, other countries rarely describe the educated middle class in this way. The intelligentsia love culture and are of course compassionate about those less well off than themselves, and eager to help, but “stay outside politics” because they know better than to rock the boat. They enjoy restaurants, concerts, plays and parties, but despite being so intelligent or “wily”, they nevertheless end up in the same abyss as the drunk and stupefied residents of Russia’s impoverished regions.

Yaffa presents in-depth studies of various individuals – mainly in Russia’s elite – whom he at least to some extent admires, even though (or perhaps because) they have adapted to life under Putin. It’s hard to decide who is the most repugnant: Konstantin Ernst, who started out as a real journalist before taking control of Channel One and broadcasting vicious anti-Ukrainian propaganda, including a false report that Ukrainians crucified a boy in a town square; or Elizaveta Glinka (“Dr. Liza”), repeatedly described by Yaffa as “saintly”, who travelled to Donbas and Syria and illegally brought back children to Russia for medical treatment, while starring as an icon of the regime on state TV. 

The chapter on the saga of the Perm-36 museum dedicated to a Soviet prison camp is perhaps the most jarring one as it describes the elaborate process of figuring out what can and can’t be said about the repressions of the past, while failing to mention that political prisoners were being held in almost identical camps at the same time. There is no mention of Ildar Dadin, the Moscow protester who became the first person jailed under a new law banning multiple peaceful protests, and who was tortured in prison; or of the dozens of Ukrainians who were jailed after the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbas, including Oleg Sentsov, who spent five years in prison in Siberia before being exchanged. Nor is anything said about the assassination of Boris Nemtsov.

It’s also impossible to sympathise with Oleg Zubkov, a zoo owner in Crimea who enthusiastically welcomes the Russian takeover and hopes to get involved in local politics, only to find that he is repeatedly persecuted by the occupying authorities. The same goes for famous theatre and film director Kirill Serebrennikov, who believes he can make controversial productions with state funding but inevitably finds himself under house arrest on an embezzlement charge, swallowed up by the regime he believed he could work with. Like most Russian so-called liberals Serebrennikov has turned out to be a disappointment, making a film praising nationalist writer Eduard Limonov. And on May 19 this year Screen Daily wrote: “Dissident Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov came out defiantly against a boycott of Russian culture at a Cannes press conference today… describing the boycott as ‘unbearable’ and calling for an end to the sanctions on Roman Abramovich.” 

Yaffa’s words of admiration for some of the worst figures in Putin’s regime are disturbing. Vladislav Surkov “is a self-styled cultural sophisticate, whose tastes range from William S. Burroughs to Tupac Shakur,” Yaffa writes. “He and his deputies would regularly fly to Salzburg for the opera… He deftly created stylish youth groups and political parties. He arranged for a beloved Russian alternative rock singer, Zemfira, to perform at a pro-Putin youth camp in the countryside. In Moscow, he organized a regular evening of poetry and experimental theater with actors who trained with Dmitry Brusnikin, a director and pedagogue with a cultish following.” Yaffa says nothing about this cultural sophisticate Surkov being the architect of the war in Donbas. Putin adviser (now aggressive Duma speaker) Vyacheslav Volodin wanted “to help people in need as a way to remember and honor the misfortune of his family,” Yaffa claims, referring to the repression of Volodin’s “kulak” grandparents. 

Is there any point in reading this book? It might give some insight into how a warped society in which everyone competes to please the sadistic leadership sinks into full-blown fascism. How debating what can be said about the past is pointless if you don’t know or care about what’s going on in the present. How avoiding politics leads to being subjugated by it. Examining Putin’s Russia is an uncomfortable business, but even this flawed characterisation tells us something about how everything went so very wrong. 

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