The BookBrowse Review

Published January 22, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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

Hardcover (14 Jan 2020), 368 pages.
Publisher: Tim Duggan Books
ISBN-13: 9781524760595

From a leading journalist in Moscow and correspondent for The New Yorker, a groundbreaking portrait of modern Russia and the inner struggles of the people who sustain Vladimir Putin's rule.

In this rich and novelistic tour of contemporary Russia, Joshua Yaffa introduces readers to some of the country's most remarkable figures—from politicians and entrepreneurs to artists and historians—who have built their careers and constructed their identities in the shadow of the Putin system. Torn between their own ambitions and the omnipresent demands of the state, each walks an individual path of compromise. Some muster cunning and cynicism to extract all manner of benefits and privileges from those in power. Others, finding themselves to be less adept, are left broken and demoralized. What binds them together is the tangled web of dilemmas and contradictions they face.
Between Two Fires chronicles the lives of a number of strivers who understand that their dreams are best—or only—realized through varying degrees of cooperation with the Russian government. With sensitivity and depth, Yaffa profiles the director of the country's main television channel, an Orthodox priest at war with the church hierarchy, a Chechen humanitarian who turns a blind eye to persecutions, and many others. The result is an intimate and probing portrait of a nation that is much discussed yet little understood. By showing how citizens shape their lives around the demands of a capricious and frequently repressive state—as often by choice as under threat of force—Yaffa offers urgent lessons about the true nature of modern authoritarianism.

Chapter 1
Master of Ceremonies

In the final days of 1999, just as he had each December for several years, Konstantin Ernst prepared to film the presidential New Year's address. Ernst, then thirty-­eight, with a face of cheerful, perpetual bemusement and a floppy mane of brown hair that nearly covered his shoulders, is the head of Channel One, the network with the country's largest reach, a position that grants him the stature of an unofficial government minister. He is not only the chief producer of his channel, but also, by extension, the director of the visual style and aesthetics of the country's political life—­at least the part its rulers wish to transmit to the public. The New Year's address, delivered at the stroke of midnight, is a way to do exactly that: a way for a Russian leader to impart a sense of narrative to the year past and offer some guiding clues and symbols for the year to come. The tradition took shape in the seventies, under Leonid Brezhnev, whose rule stretched on for so long that his droning, puffy-­faced New Year's addresses all blended together. Gorbachev tried to instill a sense of discipline and purpose in his New Year's appearances, even as, with each passing year, the country was in a state of slow-­motion disintegration.

Boris Yeltsin, who took power in 1991, continued the tradition. And so, on December 27, 1999, three days before the new millennium, Ernst and a crew from Channel One made their way to the Kremlin to film Yeltsin's address ahead of time, to have everything ready in advance per long-­standing practice. By the late nineties, Yeltsin, once a feisty, charismatic advocate of democratic reform, had entered a spiral of decay of both body and spirit, becoming an enervated shell of his former self. He was still capable of episodic vitality, but was largely weakened and chiefly concerned with leaving office in a way that would keep him and his family safe and immune from prosecution. The country was only a year removed from a devastating financial crash that had led the government to default on its debt and saw the ruble lose 75 percent of its value; at the same time, Russian troops were fighting their second costly war in a decade in Chechnya, a would-­be breakaway republic in the Caucasus. Ernst watched as Yeltsin sat in front of a decorated tree in the Kremlin reception hall and spoke a few saccharine words into the camera, the standard appeal to unity and patriotism and the opportunities of the new year—­including, as Yeltsin mentioned, the upcoming presidential election in the spring that would determine his successor.

After he finished, as the Channel One crew was packing up, Yeltsin told Ernst that he wasn't satisfied with his address. He said he didn't like the way his words had come out, and he was also feeling hoarse—­could they rerecord a new version sometime in the coming days? Ernst said yes, of course, but they should hurry, since there wasn't much time left before the new year. Yeltsin proposed the thirty-­first of December; Ernst pleaded for an earlier appointment, reminding him that given Russia's massive size and eleven time zones, the clock strikes midnight in Chukotka—the first place the president's address is aired—­when it is still the early afternoon in Moscow. Fine, Yeltsin said, come on New Year's Eve at five in the morning.

Ernst and his crew set up their equipment the night before, and returned before dawn on the morning of the thirty-­first. Valentin Yumashev, Yeltsin's son-­in-­law and confidant, quietly handed Ernst the text of Yeltsin's new address. Ernst tried to contain his shock: Yeltsin was about to announce his resignation, departing the presidency in sync with the close of one millennium and the dawn of another. His successor would be Vladimir Putin, a politician whom most Russians were just getting to know: Putin had risen from bureaucratic obscurity to become head of the FSB, the post-­Soviet successor to the KGB, and had been named Yeltsin's prime minister four months earlier. Even as Yeltsin's administration sputtered to a close, he was still capable of the dramatic, unexpected flourish—­no one in his government, let alone the country at large, expected him to leave office before the end of his term. Ernst told a production assistant to enter the text into the teleprompter without letting anyone else in on the news. It should come as a surprise to everyone. At ten in the morning, Yeltsin entered the reception hall, took a seat, and began to speak.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Between Two Fires by Joshua Yaffa. Copyright © 2020 by Joshua Yaffa. Copyright © 2020 by Joshua Yaffa. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

A comprehensive investigation of the murkiness of morality in Putin's Russia, a society where the rules are ever changing, state-sanctioned violence is a constant threat, yet opportunity abounds if you know how to play the game.

Print Article Publisher's View   

It was thought by many that the fall of the Soviet Union would transform Russia from a totalitarian dystopia into a Westward gazing liberal democracy. As investigative journalist Joshua Yaffa makes clear via his well-honed set of micro-biographies, the death of the Soviet Union changed the government, but not how its citizens were trained to interact with it. In Russia, the state remains the supreme authority. All Russian citizens must interpret and evolve with its every whim in order to survive, or in fortuitous circumstances, thrive. Yaffa argues that it is the Russian populace's acquiescence to the corrupt state that keeps Putin in power, partly complicit in their own oppression.

The Russian state is a capricious, if not downright schizophrenic, actor in this book. Since its invention in 1991, the state has frequently shifted its rules and methods of governing society with little warning or logic. For example, in the past three decades Russia has gone from pro-West and capitalist to nationalist, from an atheist state to embracing Orthodox Christianity. In Russia, everything is controlled by the state, including media, non-profits, business, religion, and the arts. Without state approval, a Russian citizen has zero chance of their goals, dreams or ambitions coming to fruition.

Russians are well-suited to surviving such an unpredictable governance system, as they endured a frequently violent Soviet state for seven decades. Yaffa argues that after a brief period of chaos post-Soviet Union, the populace allowed Putin to build a similarly violent state apparatus under a different name. He explains:

"…the most edifying, and important, character for journalistic study in Russia is not Putin, but those people whose habits, inclinations, and internal moral calculations elevated Putin to his Kremlin throne and now perform the small, daily work that, in aggregate, keeps him there."

In this vein, what sets Beyond Two Fires apart from myriad other books on contemporary Russian society is that Yaffa largely eschews analyzing the state or Putin directly. Instead, he focuses on the actions of everyday citizens. His approach results in a powerful and emotional look at the role Russians themselves play in maintaining the paranoid, unpredictable, and frequently violent state destabilizing their lives. To survive:

"[Russians] adapt to social reality, looking for oversights and gaps in the ruling system, looking to use the 'rules of the game' for [their] own interest, but at the same time—and no less important—[they are] constantly trying to circumvent those very same rules."

Yaffa pounds home this point in a series of interesting micro-biographies depicting a variety of Russians trying to do the right thing within the confines of the state. For each, he delves into the moral compromises many of them have made and how they, or loved ones around them, manage to cope with their decisions and actions.

Though relatively short, the biographies are surprisingly in-depth, the result of many one-on-one interviews with actors directly involved in each person's story. Most characters/episodes get their own chapter. Yaffa sprinkles contextual nuggets about Russian history, particularly Russian imperialism in Chechnya, Ukraine, Siberia and modern-day Syria, throughout the biographies to orient the reader.

The sheer variety and depth of people investigated in this book is astounding. Yaffa begins with an analysis of the rise of one of Russia's chief propagandists – Konstantin Ernst. He then moves on to Chechnya, outlining how a human-rights organizer morally justifies working for Putin's hand-picked Chechen leader, President Ramzan Kadyrov – the person responsible for the inhumanity meted out on those she was helping. From Islamic Chechnya, the book switches to an Orthodox priest in Russia who was outspoken about corruption in the church and paid the price for it. Next is the story of a disillusioned zookeeper in the Crimea, followed by a trip to remote Siberia where a former prisoner and guard work together to build a Soviet prison camp museum commemorating the abuses of the Soviet Union. The biographies conclude in the Bolshoi Theater, where Yaffa analyzes the rise and fall and semi-rise again of one of Russia's best contemporary theater directors – Kirill Serebrennikov.

This book's power lies in its exhaustive evidence that all Russians, regardless of background, are cursed by the state's authority. All face moral and existential dilemmas at different points in their lives and must choose how to navigate them without running afoul of the authorities. Yaffa's focus on unique individuals and how they have squirmed their way through life makes Between Two Fires far more visceral than a standard non-fiction work about life in contemporary Russia. He gives Russian totalitarianism a bottom-up treatment and humanizes the banal terror and moral ambiguity of everyday decision-making in a totalitarian society. Surviving modern Russia is an Orwellian endeavor requiring constant vigilance, for as Yaffa says:

"One must know when to cower from the state's blows and when to slyly ask for a favor."

Reviewed by Ian Muehlenhaus

New York Times
Yaffa draws on Soviet and czarist history and literature to describe the persistence of a national archetype — the “wily man,” as a leading sociologist puts it — shaped by the need to survive through adaptation to a repressive system. The book glosses over some of the fundamental reforms of the 1990s, which ended when Putin came to power. But the calculus of compromise Yaffa describes enables him to get to the heart of how the current regime has returned Russia to its traditional political culture.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[S]earching, vividly reported... This superb portrait of contemporary Russia is full of insight and moral drama.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Gripping, disturbing stories of life under an oppressive yet wildly popular autocrat.

Author Blurb Evan Osnos, author of Age of Ambition
Joshua Yaffa's portrait of a people is a triumph—a brilliantly original, deeply literate path through the moral struggles and calculations of a modern Russia he knows in his bones. He is allergic to the caricatures of the ruler and the ruled, and is, simply, a beautiful writer, with the humane, tragicomic eye of a novelist and the tough-minded rigor of the best journalists.

Author Blurb Anne Applebaum, author of Red Famine and Gulag
Joshua Yaffa shows how people choose—sometimes consciously and other times not—to adapt, change and otherwise 'make do' in an authoritarian state. This is the real story of how modern authoritarianism works and even thrives, by manipulating the motivations of the regime's most capable and ambitious citizens.

Author Blurb Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia and author of From Cold War to Hot Peace
In Between Two Fires, Joshua Yaffa brilliantly captures the complex choices and compromises that Russians make to survive, thrive, or remain true to one's principles in Putin's Russia. Through captivating storytelling, Yaffa drills deep into profiles of a very diverse set of Russian personalities, capturing with nuance the contradictions of contemporary Russia.

Print Article Publisher's View  

Russia's Government Resigns: What Does it Mean?

Vladimir Putin and Dmitry MedvedevOn January 15, 2020, Vladimir Putin proposed constitutional changes that would diminish the power of future Russian presidents. Notably, the change would also increase his ability to control Russia from behind the scenes when term limits force him to step down in 2024, when he will be 71.

A little context. Before becoming the most powerful individual in Russia, Vladimir Putin was a little known FSB (formerly KGB) agent. Out of the blue, in August 1999, Russian President Boris Yelstin orchestrated the resignation of his prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, and hand-picked Putin to replace him. Then, in an extraordinary move five months later, Boris Yelstin resigned as Russian president and anointed Vladimir Putin as his chosen successor.

Fast forward 20 years, and Putin remains President. (There was a four-year respite from 2008-2012 when, due to constitutional term limits, Putin swapped roles with then prime minister, Dimitry Medvedev. It is widely speculated that Medvedev was a lame duck, with Putin making all the major decisions behind the scenes. Putin ran for president again after Medvedev's single term and won.)

Putin remains widely popular throughout Russia, with a current approval rating over 60%. Though there is a parliament (the Duma), he runs Russia as he chooses, with the Duma and courts acting as rubber stamps for his decisions.

Putin has consolidated his authority via three tools: the media (which is now almost entirely state controlled); the Orthodox Church (with which he has established a close partnership); and the economy, which in recent years has been a weak spot due to sanctions and a massive fall in the price of oil. Paranoid of foreign influence, he has effectively banned all foreign NGOs and media, or made it exceedingly difficult for them to operate within Russia.

The cult of personality around Putin has been groomed over the past 20 years. Though his reputation benefits from his control of the media (recall the many topless pics of him hunting and traipsing through the wilderness), Putin is also popular for more tangible reasons. His early tenure coincided with massive economic growth and the end of the protracted Second Chechen War. Once his economy was secure, he invaded Georgia (in 2008) and annexed its northern territories. Seeing little to no repercussions, he invaded and annexed the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine (2014). Following that, he began waging a guerrilla war in eastern Ukraine (ongoing). Through economic and then military success, Putin's ascension is inextricably linked in Russians' minds with the country's rebirth from the ashes of the Soviet Union.

Unlike many of the world's most famous strong-arm leaders, Putin is a technocrat. He follows constitutional laws. When the law does not favor his position, he figures out how to change the law, often by simply asking the Duma. They have never failed to comply. And so, on January 15, 2020, during his annual broadcast to the nation, Putin proposed constitutional changes that would diminish the power of future presidents.

As currently written, the Russian Constitution places an inordinate amount of power in the president's hands. Not only will the Duma now have the power to approve presidential cabinet selections — which it currently does not — but the executive branch will be split into two joint powers – the presidency and the State Council.

The president will still have much authority, but the State Council will lurk in the background. It will also be written into the Constitution, fundamentally changing the political system. In typical Russian political fashion, the State Council's role is largely undefined. Unsurprisingly, the head of the Council is…Vladimir Putin.

Immediately after Putin announced his proposed changes, Russia's prime minister (Dimitry Medvedev) announced his and his cabinet's resignations. Pundits are still trying to determine why Putin suddenly forced his prime minister and long-time ally out of power. Several hypotheses have emerged.

The first is that Putin is preparing to retain control over the country while relinquishing the spotlight. In keeping with his modus operandi as a technocrat, he is reinventing the rules to meet his aims. This new shadow council will allow him to retain power without the day-to-day grind of the presidency.

Another, parallel line of thought is that Putin is worried about his legacy. He is revered in Russia for restoring the country's economy and putting it on the world stage again — perhaps not as a superpower but as a geopolitical player. Russia's economy (which, in terms of GDP, is currently smaller than Texas) has the potential to be one of the world's strongest, but it suffers from several structural shortcomings. First, when the state privatized most of its industries, they sold them to a small group that wields extraordinary power over the economy. Second, the state does not protect property rights well and corruption is rife. When business owners cross Putin, or are deemed a threat, they are often arrested and imprisoned on spurious charges. Third, its economy depends on commodity exports (oil, natural gas, steel and aluminum) and commodities are prone to booms and busts. Putin's next choreographed move, after Medvedev's shocking resignation, was to announce that he supported the largely unknown Mikhail Mishustin as the next prime minister. Few people outside of government have heard of Mishustin, as he is merely the head of Russia's tax service. (Kudos to those of you who can name the head of the IRS or the tax organization in your respective country!)

A second hypothesis is that by replacing an unpopular prime minister (Medvedev's approval ratings were under 40%) with an economic expert, Putin may be hoping the economy rebounds out of its decade of stagnation (due to sanctions and low oil prices). This would secure his place in Russian history books.

Showing just how much power Putin has, the Duma voted unanimously to confirm Mishustin's nomination less than 24 hours after Medvedev's resignation (January 16). It is the first time since 1996 the Duma voted unanimously for a prime minister — even Putin failed to receive a unanimous vote in 1999. From relative obscurity to prime minister in 24 hours? Many believe Putin is setting Mishustin up to be a puppet president in 2024.

Regardless of the reasons, it is difficult to dismiss the parallels between these events and Putin's rise to power. Twenty years to the month since Yelstin stepped down and announced Putin the heir apparent, Putin pulled a similar trick. Like Yelstin, he not only announced drastic changes, but named someone few had heard of to a position of power.

Russians are likely not overwhelmingly shocked by these changes. In most countries, the stock market would plummet during such unconventional transitions. Russia's markets dropped briefly but then shot up higher the next day. As Joshua Yaffa demonstrates in Between Two Fires, such changes are the norm in Russia. People either adapt quickly or brace for the potential scourge of state violence.

Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, courtesy of the Kremlin Presidential Press & Information Office

Filed under Society and Politics

By Ian Muehlenhaus

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