The Revolution Will Be Compromised

Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia BY Joshua Yaffa. New York: Tim Duggan Books. 368 pages. $28.

The cover of Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia

Vladimir Putin’s Russia lends itself to being seen in Manichaean terms. Commentators at home and abroad like to picture a desperate struggle between the centralized state and a righteous but comparatively powerless coalition of prodemocratic forces. This black-and-white view goes back at least to the Soviet era, when small groups of dissidents who celebrated “living in truth” and refused to surrender to the hated regime found an eager audience among Cold Warriors. Their enduring romantic vision has shaped much of the Western discourse about Russian politics, at the cost of much-needed nuance and sober assessment.

Joshua Yaffa’s Between Two Fires is the rare book by an American journalist that undercuts this tidy binary. Yaffa isn’t interested primarily in Putin’s misdeeds, but rather in the responses of ordinary people to the society he’s shaped. He seeks the compromisers in contemporary Russia. Neither bought-and-paid-for regime apologists nor abject refuseniks, his subjects are “fiercely proud and brilliant men and women—activists, economists, journalists, business owners—who believed the best, if not the only, way to realize their vision was in concord with the state.” These people, Yaffa believes, embody a cultural role well-established in Russian tradition: the “wily man” who tells his bosses what they want to hear to gain space to pursue his own individual and social aims. This figure is in part a tragic one: The wily man (or woman) relies on both deception and self-deception, and the “illusion of freedom” he possesses is won at the cost of solidarity.

Yaffa learned about the wily man while living and reporting in Moscow for the New Yorker. The concept, though an idiosyncratic coinage of the sociologist Yuri Levada, seemed to echo the ways the Russians he encountered thought about themselves: beset by temptation, prone to fateful compromises with power. Between Two Fires is made up of individual profiles of prominent figures who have found various ways to navigate these compromises. An especially poignant story is that of Heda Saratova, a Chechen human rights activist who got her start saving lives and publicizing war crimes during the brutal Russian campaign against Chechnya’s separatist movement in the 1990s. As Putin came to power, Russian policy began to shift away from direct rule and toward collaborating with the Chechen warlord Akhmad Kadyrov (and, after his 2004 assassination, with his son Ramzan). Saratova was forced to pursue her career in a steadily more dangerous environment. Ramzan Kadyrov aggressively targeted independent human rights activists and journalists critical of the regime; he is linked to the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 and activist Natalia Estemirova in 2009, among others. Unlike Politkovskaya and Estemirova, who became martyrs for the cause of human rights, Saratova heeded the threat to her and her family. She began to work with Kadyrov and the human rights organizations his government formally and informally controlled, drifting closer and closer to the position of official mouthpiece and apologist for the state’s abuses. While Saratova argues that she has been able to use her influence to help certain people—like the families of Chechens suspected of having gone abroad to join isis—her former allies have come to see her as “one more voice in Chechnya whose purpose is to justify the actions of Kadyrov” (as the journalist Elena Milashina puts it). Saratova’s efforts at triangulation—the result, as Yaffa stresses, of being left with few other options—have cut her off from her activist community and left her at the mercy of the hostile and mercurial Kadyrov. Yaffa presents her as not just a compromising but also a compromised figure, whose efforts have helped to cement the regime she once struggled against.

Other figures Yaffa profiles seem to have compromised more successfully. He devotes a chapter to the TV impresario Konstantin Ernst, whose collaboration with the state has given him influence and a degree of autonomy. It helps that Ernst’s ambitions were never especially radical: Though in the 1990s he acquired a reputation for originality as a producer for the oligarch Boris Berezovsky’s Channel One media empire, he was not defined by his political beliefs. When Channel One was absorbed by the state under Putin, Ernst, then CEO, remained in his post and was able to realize creative visions of which he had hitherto only dreamed. The most prominent of these was his spectacular opening ceremony for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, an airborne fantasia recapitulating Russian history and culture since the nineteenth century—albeit one that carefully avoided the potentially controversial events of recent decades. While Ernst’s role in shaping regime propaganda has cost him friends in his former artistic circles, Yaffa sees him as someone who successfully compromised with the regime to gain some creative autonomy, enough to preserve “his particular vision of creative standards” and to (usually) avoid being merely a propagandist. Though Ernst is occasionally forced to rein in his artistic impulses in the service of the regime’s political goals, the cost, to him, seems well worth paying.

Between Two Fires stands a rank above most publications of its genre because of its effective shoe-leather reporting. Not content with analyzing media coverage or online debates, Yaffa has sought out and interviewed both his central characters and their friends, enemies, and former supporters. The result is a richly layered work that captures both the moralism and the cynicism of contemporary Russian discourse. One of his figures, the near-angelic humanitarian Doctor Liza (Elizaveta Glinka), drew on the state to support her avowedly apolitical projects for helping the homeless and sick. Here Yaffa was unable to go straight to the source: Doctor Liza had perished in a military plane crash en route from Sochi to Syria in 2016. Instead he met with figures from throughout her social world, from her husband, Gleb, to Mikhail Fedotov, the (now former) head of the Kremlin’s human rights council. The result is a complex portrait of a woman who was “ennobled by her generosity and care for others” but whose unwillingness to confront political questions led her to become ensnared in an apparatus of propaganda and exploitation that led ultimately to her demise: Her trip to Syria had been a carefully arranged PR move to promote the regime’s intervention in the conflict there.

Yaffa presents Putin’s Russia as a place where success depends on compromise with a state-corporate complex responsible for heinous crimes; while people elsewhere might need to be wily, the sheer dominance of the state means only Russians are wily in an existentially defining way. This perspective echoes that of his pro-Western liberal informants, for whom the moral stakes of compromise are clear. The ethical high ground is on one side; the power to put one’s values into practice is on the other. In the end, it is the state that thwarts the compromiser, “making an otherwise acceptable concession feel impossible through its turn toward repression and smothering control.” It turns out that for Yaffa, compromise was a temporary feature of the system, taking advantage of a window in which the state had not yet fully reverted to totalitarian decrepitude. As repression grows, he argues, society will revert to the paradigm of oppressor and dissident. Looking toward Russia’s future, he predicts that “a growing civic consciousness” will put an end to “doublethink, the wily man’s oxygen.”

Yet some of Yaffa’s characters tell a different, more nuanced story. They see liberals themselves as compromised, socially and economically powerful but tainted by association with the West. In an anecdote in one chapter, Yaffa describes a director named Yuri Bykov, who created a blatantly propagandistic TV show targeting his former liberal friends. Bykov tells Yaffa that he feels torn between regime apologism and endorsement of “Western intentions toward Russia”; for him, caving in to either side represents a form of compromise. Likewise, Ernst feels that Western media is “no better than” Russia’s. Yaffa dismisses this “relativist prism”: “it would be impossible to convince him that today’s CNN or BBC doesn’t translate its respective state’s fundamental positions and interests to the same degree that Channel One does.” Perhaps not, but both represent interests whose commitments have little to do with the pure pursuit of truth, even if one allows a wider spectrum of opinion to be expressed. Bykov and Ernst’s cynicism comes not only from the dominance of the state, but also from a justified sense that the alternatives on offer are no more appealing than doing Putin’s bidding.

Rather than buttressing a narrative of Russian uniqueness, such moments might have served as an opportunity to reflect on the similarities that link wily people in Russia to their counterparts all over the world. After all, the need to triangulate between unappealing choices is the basic condition of life under capitalism: Do you work for the State Department or the Koch-funded think tank that critiques it? Do you work at Walmart or the local grocery store run by a racist xenophobe? Levada’s wily man is good at making these kinds of decisions in a way that preserves a semblance of day-to-day integrity; rather than being a Russian exception, perhaps he should be seen as one form of the hustling, entrepreneurial subject so widely celebrated in the age of neoliberalism. By finding profitable ways to adapt to a mercilessly competitive environment, Yaffa’s Russians are becoming more and more like the rest of us.

Greg Afinogenov is an assistant professor of Russian history at Georgetown University.