BookBrowse Reviews Between Two Fires by Joshua Yaffa

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Between Two Fires

Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin's Russia

by Joshua Yaffa

Between Two Fires by Joshua Yaffa X
Between Two Fires by Joshua Yaffa
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  • Published:
    Jan 2020, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Ian Muehlenhaus
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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.

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

This review is from the Between Two Fires. It first ran in the January 22, 2020 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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