‘Between Two Fires’ focuses on heroic citizens in Putin’s Russia

New Yorker correspondent Joshua Yaffa’s collection of profiles highlights the challenges, and risks, of confronting the government.  

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia” by Joshua Yaffa, Tim Duggan Books, 356 pp.

Joshua Yaffa’s vivid depictions of extraordinary Russians’ heroic efforts to do something for their communities show that his subjects are not “stuck” in a tough spot, as the title of his new book, “Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia,” might suggest. Instead, almost all take principled action despite the risks.

Yaffa is a correspondent for The New Yorker whose beat the last several years has been Ukraine and Russia. “Between Two Fires” is essentially a collection of feature stories loosely tied together by a title inspired, as Yaffa describes it, by a Russian proverb about “the condition of being stuck in the middle of two opposing forces bigger than yourself. Making it out the other side is just about the best outcome available.”

The first portrait, of Konstantin Ernst, the chief executive of major network Channel One Russia, seems the lone departure from the theme, as he represents one of the fires trapping the others. Ernst “acknowledged that viewers of Channel One may get less than a full picture of the world – but the omissions are essentially irrelevant. ‘People will always find out what is genuinely important,’ he said. ‘And about what is not so important, well, maybe not.’” Amid Channel One’s polluted rivers of governmental propaganda, Ernst’s ambition is to float conventional TV shows that keep a large portion of viewers tuned in and pacified.

Everyone else featured in Yaffa’s always-engaging book has a complicated story. These are people who have taken risks to do good for their communities, as they make their perilous way along paths that are blocked or booby-trapped by the state. For example, in “Notes on Camp,” volunteers start a museum to honor victims of the Gulag, but as the Putin years wear on, local and federal officials become nervous that the exhibits make it too plain that the Soviet Union was guilty of enormous crimes against its own citizens: “society can remember and mourn victims of political repressions, but discussing the perpetrators is off-limits; that chain of guilt, if fully examined, would lead uncomfortably back to the state and those who serve it.” And so the museum’s creators are forced out and replaced.

Likewise, the story of Father Pavel Adelgeim, in “The Last Free Priest,” is a tale of an individual whose show of resistance brought him trouble. After repeatedly pointing out the Russian Orthodox Church’s cosy relationship with the post-Soviet government, Adelgeim is imprisoned, and even after his release, authorities hound him. He establishes a school and is beloved by parishioners, but his criticism of the church continues and he is demoted. In 2013, he is murdered by a young man who is described as “troubled.” 

Another hero is Elizaveta Glinka, modern Russia’s Florence Nightingale, boldly helping the despised and persecuted homeless living at train stations. She rescues wounded or sick children trapped between Ukrainian and Russian forces, and she eventually dies on her way to help the children in Syria. She asked for, and insisted on, help for victims and got it from kindhearted citizens as well as from guilt-ridden oligarchs, according to Yaffa. 

Another theme that Yaffa explores is that of compromise with Soviet authorities. Compromise is a useful idea only if his subjects understood their actions in that way. For example, Heda Saratova, one of the women who, at mortal risk to herself, publicized the Russian destruction of Chechnya in the 1990s, later became an official in the region. She decided: “A less antagonistic and more cooperative relationship with the authorities might allow her to help more people. ‘Yes, that means I will have to close my eyes to some things,’ she knew.” Here, she’s willing to admit explicitly to compromise.

I wish that Yaffa could have channeled more of his New Yorker colleague Masha Gessen’s decisive, no-holds-barred approach, but he does not reference her articles and books, nor her analysis of Soviet resistance to academic sociology in “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.” She argues that the country’s lack of sociological analyses was a crucial deficiency. Yaffa himself tries to model some of his insights on sociologist Yuri Levada’s descriptions of Russian “types,” among them the “wily man.”

Yaffa’s best chapter is about a “wily” character indeed, Oleg Zubkov, a wild-animal park proprietor in Crimea. The irrepressible Zubkov regrets his naivete: “He began to fear that Crimea had made a mistake in joining Russia, and that the blame was his as well – he was among those who had acted rashly, even foolishly, caught up in the emotive swirl of the moment. … ‘Four years later, I know the actual state of affairs – that the Russia shown on television and the Russia of real life are two different countries,’ he told me. He had voted for one, and ended up in the other.”

Bob Blaisdell has written about his Russian travels in the Monitor, the Moscow Times, and Russian Life. His “Creating Anna Karenina: Tolstoy and the Birth of Literature’s Most Enigmatic Heroine” is due out in August from Pegasus Books. He teaches English language and literature at the City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.

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