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Summary and book reviews of Between Two Fires by Joshua Yaffa

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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About this Book

Book Summary

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 ...

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Reviews

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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...continued

Full Review Members Only (806 words).

(Reviewed by Ian Muehlenhaus).

Media Reviews

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.

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Beyond the Book

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.

...

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