Compromise and Ambition
Where do we draw the line between politics and the other parts of our life? It’s funny how anybody focused on politics distinguishes only between the political and everything else. The compartmentalization does not extend into economic, religious, and other social aspects of the world. For the political thinker the line is simply between politics and everything else. Of course, even this basic distinction becomes difficult. The political thinker finds ways to describe any aspect as either a cause or effect of politics or government.
A recent book from Joshua Yaffa blurs this line in unanticipated ways. He examines the lives of contemporary Russians as they make compromises to pursue their goals and dreams under Putin’s autocratic regime. Many of the portraits do not involve political figures. They include an artist, zookeeper, priest, and bureaucrat. But their ambitions draw them into the orbit of the Russian State in one way or another.
In many ways, Yaffa describes universal experiences every reader will understand and recognize from their own life. A persistent theme is the idea of compromise. Despite popular portrayals of idealists, nobody finds themselves free from compromise. People find they must make sacrifices and choices, but these decisions are rarely all or nothing. Sometimes a compromise is made due to responsibilities at home, while others might involve pressures from the market or an employer. However, Yaffa shows how the state plays an outsized role in these compromises in Russia.
It’s important to understand the characters in Yaffa’s book are not necessarily political, or rather they do not define themselves as such. For example, Kirill Serebrennikov pursued a career in the Avant-Garde world of theater and film. His work is rarely political, but its production depends on financing from the state. As a result, he found himself subject to criminal prosecution over the use of state funds. However, Serebrennikov did not use those funds for personal benefit. Rather the Byzantine rules regulating finances forced him to break the letter of the law simply to keep his theater afloat.
Of course, the circumstances never mattered. The Russian government had decided Serebrennikov was an enemy so it prosecuted him for financial irregularities. But Yaffa shows how fickle even this shift in state policy was, because the final chapter concludes with Serebrennikov released on a suspended sentence.
Perhaps the natural inclination of many readers is to wonder why intellectuals like Serebrennikov accept support from the state. However, the Russian economy has made the middle-class dependent on its support. Bryn Rosenfeld’s recent work describes how “a middle class dependent on the state may in fact be a source of autocratic resilience.” Indeed, the growth of the middle class in Russia has largely depended on the resources of the state. So, the traditional sources of opposition find themselves dependent on the status quo for their own positions in society.
At the same time, Yaffa offers stories readers will find mirror their own lives. People make decisions in life that make it difficult to change direction. The sources of personal identity in the modern world depend greatly on the position and station in life. So, a change in career involves more than a risk in the sources of personal income. It also involves a transformation in how a person thinks about themself.
Perhaps very few people face the moral complications of somebody like Heda Saratova. However, many will recognize how career choices made at an early age lead to lives vastly different than the idealistic notions of one’s youth. Somebody who pursues writing for the love of literature may find they write technical manuals in middle age. They did not imagine this is where their career might lead, but it also does not mean they dislike their job or their station in life.
Heda Saratova described herself as a human rights activist in Chechnya. Indeed, she began her career during the Chechen Wars when human rights work drew attention to the misdeeds of both the Russian military and the Chechen resistance forces. However, after Ramzan Kadyrov centralized his authority under the acquiescence of the Russian government, most human rights workers found little space in such a repressive environment.
Nonetheless, Saratova did find a place for a form of human rights work through collaboration with the Kadyrov regime. Her work drew intense criticism from the human rights community. Many saw her work as a legitimation of Kadyrov’s widespread abuses. Still, Saratova justified her work through small victories. Indeed, she also found a sense of importance and pride in her newfound role. Perhaps too much pride as she began to focus more on her own station than the assistance she delivered.
I came across Yaffa’s remarkable book over the summer during a deep dive on Russian politics. This was the period when I read Timothy Frye’s Weak Strongman, Kathryn Stoner’s Russia Resurrected, and Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People. Of course, I had also read quite a few books and articles on Russian politics and history even earlier. But Yaffa’s book was unlike any other. It offered a commentary on Russian society that involved politics without becoming political.
After interviewing Timothy Frye for the podcast, I mentioned some of the other books I was reading on Russia. He was more than enthusiastic about Yaffa’s book and even mentioned he assigns it for classes he teaches on Russian politics. Perhaps this is what I found most remarkable about Between Two Fires. It bridges the gap between academic and journalistic accounts on Russia. Yaffa writes for the general public, but simultaneously receives respect from academics for the sophistication of his work.
For his own part, Joshua does not consider his book about Russia. He believes it was a prism to understand something universal about people that he found in his experiences in Russia. Still, he offers a broad portrait of Russian life and experience. The chapters span multiple geographic locations including Chechnya and Crimea. The characters include personalities from many different walks of life. Indeed, these are remarkable depictions. Yet the most remarkable thing about these characters is how much the reader finds they share in common.
Joshua Yaffa joins the Democracy Paradox to discuss Russian society and the people he describes in his book Between Two Fires.
Catherine Belton (2020), Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West
Catherine Fieschi and Paul Heywood (2004) “Trust, Cynicism and Populist Anti-Politics,” Journal of Political Ideologies
Timothy Frye (2021) Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia
Julie Hemment (2020) “Occupy Youth! State-Mobilized Movements in the Putin Era (or, What Was Nashi and What Comes Next?),” in Ruling by Other Means: State-Mobilized Movements
Marlene Laruelle (2020) “Making Sense of Russia’s Illiberalism,” Journal of Democracy
Paul Robinson (2019) Russian Conservatism
Bryn Rosenfeld (2020) The Autocratic Middle Class: How State Dependency Reduces the Demand for Democracy
Kathryn Stoner (2021) Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order
Igor Torbakov (2015) “A Parting of Ways?: The Kremlin Leadership and Russia’s New-Generation Nationalist Thinkers,” Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization
Joshua Yaffa (2020) Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia