Between Two Fires
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 "Unforgettable . . . This is a book about Putin's Russia that is unlike any other."--Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Say NothingIn 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.

Between Two Fires Details

TitleBetween Two Fires
Author
LanguageEnglish
ReleaseJan 14th, 2020
PublisherTim Duggan Books
ISBN-139781524760595
Rating
GenreNonfiction, Politics, Cultural, Russia, History, Travel

Between Two Fires Review

  • David Wineberg
    January 1, 1970
    Russia has always been a mystery. How is it that Russians put up with so much, and come back for more? From their perspective, this is largely the way life is, and it is the West that is perverse. In Joshua Yaffa’s Between Two Fires, Russians have improvised a Darwinian adaptation to dictatorship. They have developed what he calls wiliness that helps them survive and sometimes even thrive.The book is a collection of personality profiles, very long, magazine-length stories of people with public Russia has always been a mystery. How is it that Russians put up with so much, and come back for more? From their perspective, this is largely the way life is, and it is the West that is perverse. In Joshua Yaffa’s Between Two Fires, Russians have improvised a Darwinian adaptation to dictatorship. They have developed what he calls wiliness that helps them survive and sometimes even thrive.The book is a collection of personality profiles, very long, magazine-length stories of people with public images. They are from all walks of life, from a wild animal farm owner in Crimea to a theater producer/director, to a freethinking (ie. conservative) Orthodox priest, to a saintly doctor whose devotes her life to rescuing injured children from war zones. She has plenty to choose from.Yaffa is an American who was always fascinated with Russia. He moved there and became a reporter. This has given him massive privilege in the form of contacting people out of the blue, interviewing them, following up, and networking with people they talk about. Not something mere mortals get to do, pretty much ever. The result is intimate portraits, featuring mistakes, tragedies, near misses, and sometimes even resounding success. It’s all about the compromises and adaptations everyone in the book is forced to make to survive. He traveled far and wide, from Moscow and St. Petersburg to the Gulag and Siberia and down to the Black Sea to meet and befriend these people.Life in Russia is full of traps. This is because the state oversees (and arbitrarily regulates) almost everything. It rigs the rules to allow itself to stop, incarcerate or remove anyone, for any reason, rational or not. A cultural icon was arrested on many charges, including pocketing money intended for a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that never took place. Presenting the court with newspaper articles and rave reviews from the performance, he was told that newspaper articles do not prove the play was actually performed. This is the kind of conundrum that pretty much everyone in the book faces. They go with the flow, find sponsors to influence their enemies, use bribes, expose – or at least threaten to expose – bribes, and wait patiently. Fewer are sent to the Gulag these days, but there is a chapter featuring some men who survived to talk about it.A lot of lives have been influenced by the invasion of Ukraine. It has upended millions of plans, hurt business and split families. Some who welcomed Russia as a distinct improvement now rue the day. Ukraine was corrupt, but Russian administration (and particularly justice) is as crazy as fiction can get. The state of war and the international embargo have not helped. The administration of Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya is also chilling. Survival there deserves a medal, as Yaffa shows with a woman who is managing to pull it off, playing people off against each other, while keeping a relatively clean profile toward the lord and master in Grozny.Even though nearly three quarters of the economy is driven by the central government (up from a third before Putin), Russia is not really socialism personified. Kleptocracy would be more accurate. Their positions are everything, and they can see all too clearly what would happen if they fell out of favor. Those in power owe their wealth to the government and their relationship to it, and they quickly obey every order that comes down to them. Doesn’t matter how many lives they shatter. They know exactly what would happen if they fell from grace. It is a very tense and tight web, and everyone has to walk on eggshells. It’s a way of life Russians have become accustomed to since the era of the tsars 300 years ago. There is even a word for it: prisposoblenets – someone who contorts to fit the demands of the times. Even at the street level, Russians have adapted. They refuse to pull over for screaming ambulances, because they know the rich bribe ambulance drivers to take them across town like super-taxis beating the all-day traffic jams. They know perfectly well not to trust the media, that they can see for themselves is lying or avoiding anything not pro-Putin, and that their elections are rigged by simply refusing to register non-compromised candidates who qualify. Foreign charities have been closed down because Putin insists any group taking donations and grants is directed by their state – because that’s how he runs Russia.And precisely because no one can trust the media, Yaffa’s book offers deep background and insight totally unavailable to the person on the street. If you read Between Two Fires, you will know more about what’s going on in Russia today than most Russians do.David Wineberg
    more
  • Trevor Groce
    January 1, 1970
    I was swept away by the complex portraits of conflicted individuals facing compelling conflicts that make up this book. The author has clearly spent a great deal of time interacting with most of the subjects he details, and with close associates of those he was unable to meet. It was a breath of fresh air to read humanizing accounts of Russians navigating challenges in their politics and culture, really viewed from a much different angle than what we've seen in American news over the past I was swept away by the complex portraits of conflicted individuals facing compelling conflicts that make up this book. The author has clearly spent a great deal of time interacting with most of the subjects he details, and with close associates of those he was unable to meet. It was a breath of fresh air to read humanizing accounts of Russians navigating challenges in their politics and culture, really viewed from a much different angle than what we've seen in American news over the past several years. From religion to art to warfare, terrorism, and humanitarian work, the book is filled with insights into a spectrum of issues faced by Russians across various walks of life. It's a tremendous read for anyone interested in a more detailed look into contemporary Russian life, and an eye-opening introduction to individuals who have faced dilemmas that may have startling relevance for our own lives, whether in politics or business or media.
    more
  • Marks54
    January 1, 1970
    Few phrases are more common in the popular media that those exhorting individuals to “make a difference”, “contribute to society”, and other ways to “achieve something” while “helping others” at the same time. If you hear messages like this too frequently, it is easy to get a little cynical. It is hard to make a real impact. It is hard to really contribute to helping others. It is hard to both strive towards individually motivated accomplishment and self-fulfillment while at the same time Few phrases are more common in the popular media that those exhorting individuals to “make a difference”, “contribute to society”, and other ways to “achieve something” while “helping others” at the same time. If you hear messages like this too frequently, it is easy to get a little cynical. It is hard to make a real impact. It is hard to really contribute to helping others. It is hard to both strive towards individually motivated accomplishment and self-fulfillment while at the same time succeeding in going outside of oneself and working on the behalf of others. These sentiments are enduringly popular in the self-help tradition but difficult to find in practice. Despite youthful intentions, the tendency to accommodate oneself to the exigencies of real life is clear and the threat of “selling out” is well understood.But we all like to think that self-fulfillment and helping others are possible and not mutually exclusive.Now imagine that one thinks of these ideas in a totalitarian state, which controls most resources and exerts near complete influence on the ability of individuals to pursue their dreams and their more specific initiatives. Suppose that you are in Putin’s Russia and you want to pursue your dreams and help the needy and make a difference. Don’t forget the long history of totalitarian rule in the USSR, which brought us the GULAG and the KGB (now FSB). There is a temptation to consider the choice as one between staging a protest on principle and ending up in jail (or worse) or else acquiescing in tyranny. Many might wish to leave and go to the West, but more may wish to stay in the country they have grown up in and with the family and friends they know. The world cannot be divided neatly between government bureaucrats and police on the one side and a few noble protesters. Where is everybody else? What about people who have principle and think and yet do not wish to directly confront the state and all the costs that doing so with bring them? Where are they?Journalist Joshua Yaffa writes about these people in “Between Two Fires”. He introduces the idea that there is such a thing as public opinion in Russia and that the people think hard and carefully about their situations. He introduces this by relating the notion of “The Wily Man” as a archetype of modern Russian society. He then proceeds through a series of chapters that present some of the many problems facing Russia (and in the news in the US), focusing each chapter around one or two key individuals who find themselves trying to accomplish something in the face of extremely trying circumstances, torn between their strong individual perspectives and values and the demands of the newly strengthened Russian state and all that goes with it.The subjects of the book are not caricatures but come across as real people. They Include: a leader of Russian media, an activists in Chechnya, a dissident Orthodox clergyman, a physician helping the homeless and children injured in the Donbas war, and others. All of them thread a path between political and social extremes where mistakes can be very costly and where the standard of appropriate and safe behavior is constantly changing. Mr. Yaffa does not pull punches in illuminating their choices and their positions.While each chapter is well developed and rich in details and themes, the parts of the book fit together nicely and I felt little sense of excess repetition or overkill. All of the cases were interesting. Yaffa provides his own perspective, of course, but it is measured and reasonable. The writing is superb. There are a few maps but few pictures. It is worth the effort to look these individuals up on the web and see more of their stories and their pictures.I enjoyed the book and did not want it to end. I highly recommend it.
    more
  • Biblio Files (takingadayoff)
    January 1, 1970
    Nancy Pelosi told Donald Trump that with him it all leads back to Putin. In Russia, just about everyone finds that is true in their own lives. Joshua Yaffa, an American journalist, has spent much of the 21st century reporting on Russia, which means reporting on Putin, who came to power in 2000. Between Two Fires explores the lives of the general manager of the most popular television station in Russia, a theater producer, a Chechnyan aid worker, an orthodox priest, a high school student, and Nancy Pelosi told Donald Trump that with him it all leads back to Putin. In Russia, just about everyone finds that is true in their own lives. Joshua Yaffa, an American journalist, has spent much of the 21st century reporting on Russia, which means reporting on Putin, who came to power in 2000. Between Two Fires explores the lives of the general manager of the most popular television station in Russia, a theater producer, a Chechnyan aid worker, an orthodox priest, a high school student, and others. Yaffa finds that everyone is political in Russia, even those who don't think they are. And to someone who remembers the repression of the Soviet Union, Between Two Fires paints a picture of today's Russia that looks very much like the old days.
    more
  • Scott Martin
    January 1, 1970
    (Audiobook) This work is a good telling of life in Russia, noting how the country has transitioned from the time of the Soviet Union and the current reign of Putin. The author talked with various people from all levels of life and the government, focusing on Crimea, Ukraine, Chechnya and Russia proper. He notes that people find different levels of success and failure within the new Russia. Yaffa incorporates the rise of the Orthodox Church, moving out of the shadows to be a viable political and (Audiobook) This work is a good telling of life in Russia, noting how the country has transitioned from the time of the Soviet Union and the current reign of Putin. The author talked with various people from all levels of life and the government, focusing on Crimea, Ukraine, Chechnya and Russia proper. He notes that people find different levels of success and failure within the new Russia. Yaffa incorporates the rise of the Orthodox Church, moving out of the shadows to be a viable political and social force. He also notes how people can support the regime, even if they do not profit by it. In some respects, Russia is evolving into a place that would appeal to many on the American right, where the church and "traditional" values are finding themselves at the forefront of political and social life. Even for those who would try to do good for humanity cannot escape the political nature of life in Russia and that eventually, all will have to make a decision whether or not they will back the current regime. At the end, it is telling that many may not like Putin, but if given a choice between Putin and something new and unknown, they will take the known. The chaos of the immediate post-Soviet Russia still scars the nation and that drives much of the thinking of the people and the government. Hence the drive to find order, even at the expense of freedom and liberal values. Few would like some of the leaders and those in power (see Chechnya), but to maintain order, Russia will make its deals with those less-than-savory individuals. The reader does a solid job with the work. Either format would be good for reading. Provides a good insight into Russia from the fall of the Soviet Union to the present day of the time of Putin. Worth the time to read.
    more
  • Venkatesh
    January 1, 1970
    This book is pretty much examples of people in Russia making moral choices or 'compromises' to be able to be able to achieve some goals that are important to them. They're deep dives on specific people and situations, without condemnation or judgement. How do you judge someone for being wilfully blind to be able to save lives (as a doctor or a human rights worker)? How would I do in even attenuated versions of these circumstances?The epilogue isn't the greatest, it declines to pass judgement This book is pretty much examples of people in Russia making moral choices or 'compromises' to be able to be able to achieve some goals that are important to them. They're deep dives on specific people and situations, without condemnation or judgement. How do you judge someone for being wilfully blind to be able to save lives (as a doctor or a human rights worker)? How would I do in even attenuated versions of these circumstances?The epilogue isn't the greatest, it declines to pass judgement (which is fair) but doesn't offer a framework for how to think about those choices and ends pretty abruptly.Some other stuff - Masha Gessen's "The Future is History" provides context that makes this really pretty rich; as do parts of Lenin's Tomb (specifically the discussion of generational transitions and of the transitions that happened when Novy Mir was first available freely and then what happened a few years later). I think a story that tracked NTV broadcasters / protesters from 2001 when they promised in the rain to the outcomes in this story would be really powerful...
    more
  • Miguel
    January 1, 1970
    Between Two Fires focuses on six or so characters who lived or are living in Putin’s Russia (or former Soviet Union) as we get a glimpse into the personal hardships of everyday Russians (and Ukrainians) and their thoughts on their lives and the trajectory of the country. We also are given a wider view of individuals dealing with the endemic corruption but as well the aspirations of those living in the modern Russian State as driven by Putin and his cronies. Most are very sympathetic characters Between Two Fires focuses on six or so characters who lived or are living in Putin’s Russia (or former Soviet Union) as we get a glimpse into the personal hardships of everyday Russians (and Ukrainians) and their thoughts on their lives and the trajectory of the country. We also are given a wider view of individuals dealing with the endemic corruption but as well the aspirations of those living in the modern Russian State as driven by Putin and his cronies. Most are very sympathetic characters and in most instances the reader is quite taken with their plight (although less so for the Crimean safari owner). At its best Yaffa evokes other writers who have written so eloquently on Russian life and politics such as Masha Gessen and Timothy Snyder.
    more
  • Ietrio
    January 1, 1970
    This is an emotional fairy tale that tries to convince you of the author's dogma. Is there some truth? Maybe, but it is probably irrelevant. The rest is cheap drama (the planes are screaming) about nobodies and how Yaffa has seen in his crystal ball what was going on a particular day.
    more
  • Deborah Shaw
    January 1, 1970
    The author explained well the reason individuals in Russia deal with the politics of their country the way they do. It also made me consider even more what is happening here in our own country.
  • Sasha
    January 1, 1970
    First I would like to state that I have received this book through goodreads giveaway in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank the author for giving me this opportunity and honor in being able to read this book. When I received this book I began reading it at once. This book was a very interesting read. It pulls you in and keeps you wanting more. I would recommend this book to others. It is a very good read
    more
Write a review