Oct. 16, 2020
"I think … Russian society continues to change and mature in many respects. There are growing levels of trust between citizens—growing demand for an honest and sincere politics in which the citizen and the voter is respected by the authorities. I think that all points to a maturation process among society."
This is how Joshua Yaffa, the New Yorker’s Moscow correspondent and former New America National Fellow, frames his analysis of the Russia we see today—a country driven by the persistence of wiliness and its role in the Putin era. Yaffa’s new book, Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin's Russia, offers a powerful moral and ethical analysis of ambition in Russia, synthesizes interviews with a handful of Russian citizens who, taken together, represent the nuances of pursuing and achieving success in the Putin era. Rather than sift through the daily happenings of Putin’s Dresden years or the complicated web of Russia’s information censorship apparatus, Yaffa turns to conversations with individuals ranging from the Channel One’s infamous Konstantin Ernst to the lesser-known—yet similarly ambitious—owner and operator of a wild animal park in Crimea.
Yaffa luxuriates in the fascinating, contradictory details of these stories, while simultaneously wrestling with the philosophical questions that undergird them. What price must be paid in achieving personal, professional, or political success in Putin’s Russia? Who is willing to pay them? And what mark do these payments leave?
I spoke with Yaffa in August about these questions, and more.
The following interview below has been edited for clarity and context.
Q: What motivated your desire to write Between Two Fires? Were there questions you set out to answer, or at least address?
As part of my life and writing in Russia, I noticed a topic repeatedly came up among friends and colleagues: Moscow’s urban beautification projects and initiatives of the early 2010s, which continue on today. As a result of the initiatives, Moscow became a much more pleasant, livable, cosmopolitan, and attractive city. In the middle of this, I started to observe a very interesting debate over the moral and political permissibility of joining up with these city-led projects. The mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin, is a very loyal member of Putin’s inner circle, he carries out the party line in a top-down way, as it concerns big-level politics. Still, Sobyanin has a certain vision for a modern, functioning, and advanced city, and has been able to execute that—in particular, the self-contained realms.
As I say in the book, the debate was essentially “Can and should people who are otherwise opposed to, or find the Putin system writ large distasteful, go work for this localized manifestation of it to do something that actually really would benefit citizens of the capital?” The extension, then, is "By doing so, are you doing something virtuous or are you essentially being co-opted to keep in power and put a slightly better face on a system you otherwise find politically and morally reprehensible?" No one ever had a stark, black-or-white answer to the question, and this difficulty in answering it became very interesting to me. And it became the one topic I didn’t ever manage to write about head-on.
Once I started to be aware of this notion of compromise and the debates around it, I was increasingly interested and drawn to these kinds of conversations because of their ultimate “unsolvability.” As that interest grew, I could also see that there wasn’t an obvious or smooth way to address those questions in the articles I was writing, so there was this growing body of material that I was interested in and didn’t have an outlet for.
Q: How did you go about identifying the people that you thought would best illustrate the morally dubious or complicated situations that feature so prominently in Between Two Fires?
A: Some of them came to me even before I had the idea for the book, and certainly before the book’s structure emerged. Konstantin Ernst, for example, the head of Channel One, I had already written about for the New Yorker in 2014, on the eve of the Sochi Olympic games. Ernst was the general producer of the opening ceremonies, which was acknowledged as quite a beautiful and successful event—even by people who are otherwise opposed to the Putin system. I wrote about Ernst back then despite not initially knowing much about the duality that is at the core of his professional persona: Being, on the one hand, this edgy, art-house auteur, and, on the other hand, a very loyal statist and foot soldier in the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. Once the book took shape and I understood what the main questions would be, it took all of a few nanoseconds to remember Ernst and decide that he would have to be a key character in the book. That’s one extreme—of someone who came to me outside of the book itself.
On the opposite extreme are people that I was looking for, whose life and experience would narrate and illustrate a particular aspect of the Putin state that I wanted to write about. For example, the Russian Orthodox Church and its increasingly symbiotic relationship with the Putin state. For that chapter, I wanted to find an individual priest whose life would both tell and reflect the issues of compromise, so I essentially had to do a casting call. I reached out to friends and colleagues and people who were closer to the “Church universe” to get suggestions and advice and eventually, I ended up with Father Pavel Adelgeim, who—because he was killed in 2013—I was never able to meet. I was, however, able to speak to his widow as well as many of his parishioners. Father Adelgeim, was on the opposite end of the spectrum from Ernst—he was someone who was very much the result of a purposeful casting process.
Q: I want to get a little bit more into the idea of the presposoblenets, or wily man, which is one of the core themes and ideas in your book that ties the various interviewees together. There is the basic idea of Homo Sovieticus, that Levada introduces as this archetype for the distinct and unique individual that the Soviet Union creates. He argues that the totalitarian nature of the Soviet state produced a person who was most likely to survive and thrive by virtue of resourcefulness and distrust, and — equally importantly — by “grafting themselves onto the state”. And then after the collapse of the USSR, Levada starts to see a return of some of the personal and sociological traits coming back in the form of the wily man. How direct of a line do you draw between the wily man of Russia in 2020 and the similar traits of Homo Sovieticus in the USSR?
A: I think there’s absolutely a connection. Levada certainly saw one, and as someone who’s very much under the sway of Levada’s analytical lens for making sense of contemporary Russian society, this wily man idea creates the analytical prism through which I go about reporting on characters who make up the body of the book. As Levada saw it, the wily man was an updated version of Homo Sovieticus—kind of a Homo Sovieticus 2.0 I think it’s important to understand that the wily man is a figure of great disappointment to Levada—he and his researchers were quite optimistic in the late 1980s that, as the Soviet Union faded from the scene, so too would the resultant pathologies of Homo Sovieticus.
But ten years on, when Levada wrote the wily man essay in 2000, he could see that many of those traits had put down new roots and were reproducing themselves.
Because of the way that the Putin system is structured, almost all paths to realizing ambitions run through the state apparatus. Wiliness becomes a requirement, or at least a strongly desired trait.
The wily man picks up on many of the traits of Homo Sovieticus while doing so in a more post-modern environment, even in a post-ideological environment—an environment of chaos and confusion and anarchy, which Russia certainly was in the 1990s coming into the early 2000s. Gone were these kind-of formal structures of the Soviet state. Nonetheless, there was a real, formal need to act as if you believed or were obedient to these Soviet symbols. In post-Soviet Russia, there isn’t that kind-of external ideological core or requirement—it’s a different environment. The double-think practiced by the wily man is a bit different from the double-think practiced by Homo Sovieticus, but for all intents and purposes the wily man really is the direct genealogical descendant of Homo Sovieticus.
Q: Do you think the wily man theory got updated over the last five or ten years? Do you think that something like the protests at Bolotnaya, or the Putin-Medvedev switcheroo, or any of the intervening events of the last 20 years or so necessitate an update, or is the wily man just maintaining his or her wiliness despite the shuffle that might be happening?
A: I think it’s definitely changing and Russian society continues to change and mature in many respects. There are growing levels of trust between citizens—growing demand for an honest and sincere politics in which the citizen and the voter is respected by the authorities. I think that all points to a maturation process among society. You especially see that with younger generations. The epilogue of the book is all about the so-called Putin generation—a whole generation aged 20 years or younger who knows no other president than Putin. This generation doesn’t seem to be all that revolutionary—they don’t want to burn down the system that has provided them with lives of relative stability and comfort. But, they do seem to expect the state to function in a more honest, straightforward, and genuine way. They don’t want to find the workarounds, deceits, and loopholes that the wily man relies on to navigate relations with the state and eke out a private space or some advantage for himself or herself. They want the state to essentially just work as it should and deliver on its promises.
So, the wily man is, I think, a durable sociological creature, but that doesn’t necessarily mean eternal, and it certainly doesn’t mean fixed in the sense that it can’t evolve and accentuate particular traits and de-accentuate others.
Q: I want to highlight the examples of Dr. Liza (Glinka), and Heda Saratova, who each saw a specific response from liberal circles once they started to creep closer to toeing the Putin line. What form does this ostracization or pressure take in a practical sense?
A: The pressure comes from both sides, and first and foremost, it’s the state apparatus that has the most levers of power—there’s more to be potentially gained and lost by opposing the state system and the individuals who represent it. That’s where, on the one hand, potential opportunities lie, but it’s also the side that controls the repressive apparatus. Both the benefits from the carrot and the pain of the stick, when administered by the Russian state, are greater than anything the “liberal scene” in Moscow could potentially offer or threaten. That said, I think these tribal bonds within society are very strong in Russia—there’s a high degree of social solidarity, but that also means there can be a high degree of judgment, pressure, expectation of conforming to the unwritten rules of that tribe within society. I don’t want to speak too uniformly, but I think that Russian liberals can be much more emphatic and decisive when speaking about the “wiliness” of someone from within that circle than I might be as an outside observer. Being outside of this very pressurized reality, I have less of a responsibility when it comes to guarding the parameters of the acceptable and the unacceptable.
There is this word and concept in Russian—rukopozhatiy—that essentially defines someone as “handshakeable” or “unhandshakeable.” I think that’s a very potent idea within Russian liberal communities—someone who is handshakeable can be unhandshakeable, oftentimes because they’ve breached the group norms about wiliness. It’s interesting to think about why someone like Serebrennikov, who, at the height of his powers, cooperates with the state and basks in its largesse to put on a number of festivals and programs with state support. Why does he remain someone who is handshakeable throughout his career while others—people like Dr. Liza—become unhandshakeable during the war in Donbass and Ukraine? There is an obvious part to the answer: war produces a heightened and fraught sense of right and wrong. Propping up a would-be faux separatist insurgency in Ukraine was much worse than whatever it might’ve been doing to manipulate or control the realm of culture inside Russia. Nonetheless, when we’re talking exclusively about the way that Russian liberals judged people who are or were peers within that community, it’s interesting to think about how someone like Serebrennikov managed to largely retain the support of that community and Dr. Liza became such a controversial figure.
Q: In the last week or so there have been protests in Khabarovsk, which is about eight time zones away from Moscow. You can be further still in Russia—it’s a very large country as we all know. I know there is also this age-old “Moscow and St. Petersburg and then everything else” dynamic as well as other ways in which the regions are different. My question within that: For whom is wiliness not as important? If you aren’t the kind of person that is seeking some higher level of professional success or social acceptance, do some of those pressures not shape your life as much? Can you just live your life and ignore the wiliness dynamic?
A: Largely, yes. Wiliness can always sneak up on you no matter who you are and no matter how much you’ve tried to avoid the political or professional career ladder because wiliness very much is a necessary, or at least helpful, trait for the ambitious in Russia. That’s why the word “ambition” features in the subtitle of my book—it’s very much tied up with those who have ambitions, whether they’re political, business, creative, or humanitarian ambitions. Because of the way that the Putin system is structured, almost all paths to realizing ambitions run through the state apparatus. Wiliness becomes a requirement, or at least a strongly desired trait.
The inverse is also true: If you’re someone who doesn’t necessarily aspire to move up the ladder, then yes—there will be fewer occasions where wiliness will be necessary, but it doesn’t mean you’ll never have to draw on it. An example that comes up fairly often, especially in the regions, is petty corruption with the traffic police and the dilemma in paying a small bribe to get out of an annoying or awkward situation in the moment. Even if you’re someone who is morally opposed to corruption and believes that it lies at the core of what has caused and is causing the rot of the Putin system, do you really want to spend an evening at the police station or worse? Or are you just going to pay that small bribe and get out of the situation, end it right there, and get on with your life?
That’s a dilemma that can be faced by someone who has no greater aspirations or ambitions in high-level politics or anything else. I think that that is an example of wiliness and shows that it can be required or encountered on all levels of society and social interaction.
Q: To wrap up, I have a more media or journalism-focused question, and that’s just the idea of covering Russia as a journalist. Broadly speaking, how do you see the space for more ideologically motivated journalism in Russia? In 2020, is there space for perspectives that might have featured more prevalently in the past, or is it really a place more for describing events exactly as they are—a more reporting-based approach?
A: I’m very much of that school—to report things as I see them and as I understand them and do the best job I can of translating what I am observing to the reader with maximum fidelity. At a place like the New Yorker, that’s actually part of the equation. I think the reader is coming to the New Yorker to see a somewhat more idiosyncratic take on the news. They’re there for a personal touch and experience—subjective experience filtered through the writer, having the author be the proxy for the reader in exploring the world.
In a way, it’s easier at the New Yorker because it’s just okay to indulge that, but in general I personally would reject an opinion you can hear in Moscow. Namely, that I myself—and us American and Western reporters in Moscow more generally—are guided by an anti-Putin, anti-Russian ideology. I really reject that out of hand. I love Russia, for starters—I have a great fondness for the country and its people, so the notion that I’m somehow anti-Russian seems demonstrably wrong on its face. As for being anti-Putin, I don’t really have an axe to grind against the man. In doing my job and trying to understand what’s going on inside Russia—and certainly what’s going on in Russia’s relations with the world at-large and particularly the United States—I didn’t invent out of my ideology Russia’s annexation of Crimea or its support for the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine or the interference in U.S. political presidential elections. Those are all real stories that justifiably dominated headlines and demanded journalistic attention, and I’d like to think that I did my best sober, professional job in making sense of those events and translating that to readers.
I think there’s something fundamentally and correctly confrontational about journalism done right, whether it’s in the U.S. or Russia, so it would be strange if correspondents were overly conciliatory to the Putin state, just like it would be strange if journalists were overly conciliatory to the Trump administration or the Obama administration before that. To the extent that my work has that adversarial quality to it, it’s not because I have it out for Putin’s Russia, it’s just because that’s what it means to be a good journalist.