On the Origin of Species: reviewing Between Two Fires by Joshua Yaffa5 min read

 In Culture, Review, Russia

What does it take to succeed in Russia? Wits, talent, and wiliness – or so claims Joshua Yaffah, the author of Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia. The Wily Man, according to Yaffa, drawing on the work of pioneering Soviet sociologist Yuri Levada, understands that he (or she) lives in a totalitarian society, and that personal success hinges on winning favour from those in power. The Wily Man

adapts to social reality, looking for oversights and gaps in the ruling system, looking to use the ‘rules of the game’ for his own interest, but at the same time—and no less important—he is constantly trying to circumvent those very same rules.

At its core, wiliness is about compromise – to make compromises with others, and to allow oneself to be compromised. To be wily is to sacrifice a part to save the whole, to give up something you like to hold on to something you love. It is an essential competency in Russia, and has been for centuries. Wiliness can be found in poetry of Pushkin, the fiction of Solzhenitsyn, and the day-to-day lives of some of Russia’s most successful artists, activists, politicians, and even doctors. 

Between Two Fires is an anthology of biographical profiles of prominent figures in Russian cultural and political institutions. Some of these profiles have appeared in other sources, such as the New Yorker, for which Yaffa is a Moscow correspondent. I’ve long admired Yaffa’s writing about Russia, and especially his ability to capture the microscopic and the systemic in one frame. He is able to connect personal gestures to political movements, to take a sentimental outburst, freeze it in time, and trace its origins back through the decades. 

The most enjoyable profiles in Between Two Fires are those which weave gracefully between the personal and political. In “King of the Pride”, Yaffa profiles Oleg Zubkov, who is most easily described as the Crimean Tiger King. Zubkov founded a chain of zoos in Crimea before the region was annexed by Russia, in 2014. Despite having pledged loyalty to the Russian Federation, he spends hundreds of hours in court each year fighting against the newly reformed regional administration. Zubkov is both a larger-than-life character and a cautionary tale; his experiences mirror the shock of disillusionment that awaits most Russians brave enough to fight against their government.

One of the unexpected joys of Between Two Fires is the opportunity to judge Yaffa’s subjects not only by your own moral standards, but by the standards they set for themselves. Yaffa is generous in allowing his subjects to speak for themselves, to reason and rationalize their actions, but he provides merciless context. Each chapter becomes a small trial, each reader, a judge – and, as in an actual Russian trial, there is rarely an assumption of innocence. More often than not I found myself rejecting Yaffa’s implied call for ambivalence and leaning more into one fire than another. 

For example, it’s easy to compare the cases of Heda Saratova, the Chechnya-based human-rights defender, and Elizaveta Glinka, the celebrity humanitarian doctor. Both women find themselves unable to complete their missions without government resources. But whereas Glinka becomes a peripheral figure in the Putin administration, making only occasional public appearances with government officials, Saratova charges head-first into her role as an enabler for the regime of Ramzan Kadyrov – and a snitch to boot. Glinka’s story suggests restraint, a sense of as-much-as-necessary for the greater good, whereas Saratova comes across as having abandoned wiliness and embraced a scheme of naked self-interest.

Likewise, there is a gulf of difference between Konstantin Ernst, the CEO of Russia’s Channel One, and Kirill Serebennikov, the theatre and film director. Ernst has done more than offer appreciation to those at the top – he is the top. Essentially a de facto member of the Putin government, Ernst, like Putin himself, doesn’t need to be wily. Serebrennikov, on the other hand, like every artist in Russia, is at the whim and mercy of government funding. Yaffa acknowledges that “Ernst was ultimately a statist, who recognized and accepted the state’s primacy, whereas Serebrennikov was just happy to use the state’s resources to carry out big and ambitious projects.” But this is an understatement – Ernst doesn’t merely recognize the state’s primacy, he shapes the state and the government to which Serebrennikov is subservient.

One of the more unusual chapters in Between Two Fires is “The Last Free Priest”, a profile of the late Father Pavel Adelgeim. Adelgeim, a lifelong Orthodox clergyman and victim of Soviet repression, became a target of the newly reformed Russian Orthodox Church when he challenged the legitimacy of their entire governing structure. Adelgeim was many things, but he was not wily. He did not compromise on his vision, he did not try to exploit loopholes, he did not trade quid for quo – and he flourished. Father Adelgeim’s congregation grew and thrived, and his sermons made their way across Russia and beyond. In a sense, the story of Father Pavel Adelgeim discredits the entire Wily Man hypothesis: here is a man who refused to play the game, and still won. 

The more you read Between Two Fires, the less recognisable the Wily Man becomes. Yaffa interprets the term broadly, and it’s hard to imagine, on a scale of Adelgeim to Ernst, anyone who isn’t wily. As a work of social analysis, Between Two Fires feels too vague to be useful. But as a collection of profiles, Between Two Fires is invaluable for its eye-opening, empathetic approach to story-telling. 

Between Two Fires was published by Penguin Random House in 2020.

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