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

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

Joshua Yaffa. Random House/Duggan, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-1-5247-6059-5

Modern Russians strive to serve several masters—conscience, self-interest, and an overbearing government, among them—in this searching, vividly reported debut from New Yorker Moscow correspondent Yaffa. Russian sociologist Yuri Levada’s theory of the “wily man”—a personality type focused on coping with a repressive state that, though it can’t be defeated, can be manipulated for personal gain—provides the framework for understanding Russian society under President Vladimir Putin’s soft authoritarianism, Yaffa contends. He probes this dynamic in profiles of people pursuing worthy goals through unavoidable yet sordid compromises: a liberal television news producer who bends his talents toward glorifying Putin; a human rights activist who stifles criticisms of the Kremlin-backed government in Chechnya so she can help individual victims of the regime; a saintly doctor who tries to save medical refugees from the separatist war in Ukraine by soliciting aid from—and praising—the Russian officials who sponsored the war. Yaffa’s account unfolds like a great Russian novel as shrewdly observed characters wrestle with subtly ironic dilemmas. “One must know when to cower from the state’s blows,” he writes, “and when to slyly ask for a favor.” This superb portrait of contemporary Russia is full of insight and moral drama. (Jan.)