Joshua Yaffa joins the podcast to discuss his new book Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia. He is a correspondent for The New Yorker based primarily in Moscow, Russia.
‘What would you prefer? Would you prefer that this boy, Vasya, die because he couldn’t get dialysis? Would you prefer that this girl, Katya, die from her shrapnel wounds that she suffered during the war that was obviously not her fault? Right? Like would it be better if I held my nose and refuse to engage in these compromises so these kids died? Would you be sort of happier, so you could write about how awful the bloody Putin regime is?’
Joshua Yaffa explaining the perspective of Russian humanitarian Elizaveta Glinka
- Who was Dr. Liza?
- The types of compromises must Russians make with the state to pursue their dreams
- The role of the Russian state in the arts through the story of theater director Kirill Serebrennikov
- Legal challenges for business owners in Russia through the experience of zookeeper Oleg Zubkov
- The limited space for human rights activism in Chechnya through the experience of Heda Saratova
Joshua Yaffa is a journalist who bridges the divide between the academic study of Russia and its portrayal in the media. He has written for The Economist and now writes for The New Yorker. I reached out to Joshua to discuss his recent book Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia.
Joshua’s book is unlike most of the literature on Russia available today. It takes a nuanced look at Russian society through portraits of real life people who have found it necessary to make compromises to pursue their careers. What surprised me most about the book was how the characters came across as relatable despite their many differences and their distinct stories. So, this is a conversation about Russia, but it’s also about universal experiences.
Now before we begin I want to thank any first time listeners. Please consider subscribing to the podcast if you haven’t already and check out the website at democracyparadox.com. As always you can reach me at email@example.com. But for now… this is my conversation with Joshua Yaffa…
Joshua Yaffa, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Happy to be here.
Well, Joshua, your book was unlike any that I’ve come across on Russia. It offered portraits of extraordinary people, but ones who became very relatable as you told their stories. For me, the most compelling story was really about Dr. Liza. Can you briefly tell her story and how it fits some of those larger themes from the book on ambition and compromise?
Sure. Thanks for the very generous introductory words about the book. That’s very nice to hear. Dr. Liza indeed is one of the characters who resonated with me the most. Elizaveta Glinka is her full name and she came to prominence in Russia in the 2000s for her work, first, with the terminally ill in launching one of the first hospice care facilities in Russia. Before, from Soviet times into post-Soviet Russia, those with terminal illnesses were essentially written off by the healthcare system. And in a way, even perhaps you could say by society or at least sent back, say to their relatives, to die alone without much real care or empathy at least in any kind of organizational institutional way. And so, Dr. Liza was one of the first people to bring hospice care to Russia.
She was inspired by her own time in the US. She lived in the United States in Vermont for a while with her Russian American husband Gleb who was a lawyer. And in Vermont, she was exposed to the idea of hospice care and care for the terminally ill. And she took that experience with her upon her return to Russia. And from her time working with the terminally ill, she began working or administering to the homeless, feeding the homeless, and providing medical care to them at what became a rather famous or popular weekly mission to Paveletskaya, one of the main train stations in Moscow. And for both of those activities, she became a renowned figure or respected figure for doing what hadn’t really existed in Russia before: tending to and administering to the needs of communities that were really out of sight out of mind.
Especially in the mid-2000s oil boom, go-go years of Moscow when Moscow was its most kind of flush and exuberant. And it didn’t have much kind of time or energy to think about those left behind. But Dr. Liza did and that made her, as I said, a popular figure. A revered figure. Even a saintly figure people began to say. And from there this sort of brought her into the attention of the state who was attracted by her popularity, attracted by her moral authority. And she was invited to join the Kremlin Human Rights Council, a state body that exists inside the Presidential Administration that episodically throughout its history can actually achieve maybe some kind of targeted self-contained good. It can kind of soften the fangs of the regime. It can’t quite remove them.
But nonetheless, Liza was always guided by this idea that if she could do some real good for concrete people, she was obligated to try and do so and obligated to take on whatever compromises might be required. And that really reached its apex with the onset of the war in Donbas and Eastern Ukraine in 2014 when Russian backed kind of would-be faux separatist mounted insurgency which quickly was revealed to be essentially a Russian backed kind of proxy campaign in Eastern Ukraine. But nonetheless did have very real victims, very real innocent victims of that war. Children, for example. People who were already injured, had sort of long-term illnesses, dialysis, things like that. That needed constant medical attention that obviously became difficult or impossible when Donbas turned into the center of a war zone.
And Dr. Lisa felt compelled to help those people, especially children injured in the war, those with illnesses. And she did so by entering into a kind of, not exactly a pact. I don’t think it was ever spoken about overtly, but nonetheless, an implicit pact with the Kremlin through the Presidential Human Rights Council by which she gained access to all sorts of state resources to evacuate sick and injured children from the Donbas war zone to bring them into Russia. To get them places at Russian state hospitals. To have them undergo otherwise quite costly surgeries and other medical procedures. But in doing so her part of the bargain, as it were, was to lend her credibility, to lend her face to a Kremlin PR campaign.
That was intent. Not only in denying Russian culpability for the war, but to actually, perversely, present Russia and Putin specifically as a humanitarian actor. You know, ‘Look at Russia. We’re helping to get victims of this awful war out of this war zone.’ As someone said to me, someone who was close to Dr. Liza at the time. Liza gave not just Putin, but other officials in the Kremlin a kind of indulgence in the old papal sense or kind of Roman Catholic sense. A chance for those who were very much responsible you could say for the continuation of the war in Donbas. A chance to kind of buy their way out from their sins by helping Liza evacuate these children and getting them into hospitals.
And so, it was a real moral dilemma and a compromise of a very concentrated form. And again, as you say, compromise is what I was interested in in writing my book and I think you’re right in pointing out that Lisa lived a very dramatic and acute version of that dilemma.
There was a story in the book that really caught my attention of the type of compromise that we’re talking about where she was in this almost hot zone where it was incredibly dangerous in the Donbas region. Where her life and the life of the people she was working with were In immediate danger. And the way that she was able to get out of this situation was to be able to call on a Russian military helicopter to come and evacuate them. And the person that she was working alongside felt very uneasy about the fact that it was a Russian military helicopter. I just felt like it showed how close to the proximity of power she was within all of this.
It wasn’t just an implicit connection. I mean, it was a very direct connection with the state that she had. Well, when she wanted to gain additional resources, more planes, more places whether buses or trains to get people from the war zone into kind of Russia proper, places in hospitals, she wasn’t shy at all about going to her really high place Kremlin interlocutors and asking them directly. And I think as far as I can tell from talking with people close to Liza at that time, consciously understanding that without fully admitting to herself. That’s the other interesting part. Right? Consciously understanding the game that she was playing without ever kind of overtly, to herself, admitting the transactional nature of this compromise.
But I do think she understood that the state gained something from its proximity to her halo, as it were, and in exchange, Liza was able to get the kinds of resources like a medical evacuation plane in a war zone that really only one kind of institution or one actor was able to provide: the Russian state. And I certainly understand those who found this arrangement questionable to the point of distasteful. That’s not a kind of mysterious or strange response.
I understand it very well that there’s something, indeed, untoward or maybe even something stronger than that. Right? Really morally reprehensible, some would say, in going to the very people who were responsible for this war – at least bear a good deal of responsibility for it. Maybe not a hundred percent, but certainly their fair share, then asking them sort of on the margins, ‘Can you help this poor child? Can you get this kid, an operation?’ That, something was lost in that trade. Right? That Liza wasn’t coming out ahead in that exchange.
But I also, at the same time understand her response which was, ‘What would you prefer? Would you prefer that this boy, Vasya, die because he couldn’t get dialysis? Would you prefer that this girl, Katya, die from her shrapnel wounds that she suffered during the war that was obviously not her fault. Right? Like would it be better if I held my nose and refuse to engage in these compromises so these kids died? Would you be sort of happier, so you could write about how awful the bloody Putin regime is?’
You know, I think there was something a little too… On the one hand, Liza maybe was letting herself off a bit too easily, but on the other hand, I think her critics were, also in a way, letting themselves off too easily from the real moral conundrum that Liza was standing before when real concrete lives were in the balance. For Liza, this wasn’t a theoretical question. It was a very practical question. Right? Liza, I don’t think thought in theoretical terms, or as her husband, Gleb, said to me, she didn’t think in political terms. She didn’t think in terms of kind of political structures. That was all amorphous to her. I think genuinely amorphous to her. What she saw was someone in need and thought, ‘How can I help that person?’
Well, what’s fascinating about her case, her story, is that it’s impossible to question her motives. Her motives were undoubtedly pure. But at the same time, because of the means that she went about accomplishing those results. She’s not completely innocent, but, at the same time, she wouldn’t have accomplished these almost saintly accomplishments, delivered these results unless if she would allow to herself to become somewhat muddied in the Russian state. You know, allowed her innocence to escape herself. It’s a fascinating story for that reason.
Right. What Lisa’s position was, was that it was a kind of privilege, if you will, for those who held their noses at what the Putin regime was doing in Ukraine. That’s all correct she would say, or let’s assume that’s all correct she would say. Right? She very conspicuously didn’t take a position in the war which is something else that her critics very much seized upon. There is a point perhaps in a conflict which is war is politics by other means. So, if that’s the case, then to kind of deny the political in war is almost a kind of political act. You’re sort of inherently taking one side or the other, but that’s all way too much of an abstraction for Liza.
As she saw it and told others, that to kind of think in purely abstract political terms is the kind of privilege that she didn’t have as someone who was interested and motivated in the saving of individual lives. And so, yeah, she, this is me talking, not her, but had to get her hands dirty. She had to kind of get in the mix and, find solutions. And finding solutions isn’t as clean as standing off on the sidelines and moralizing. We should say how Lisa’s story ends which is that in 2016 she boarded a military transport aircraft flying from an air base in Southern Russia to Syria. She was accompanying a Russian defense ministry so-called humanitarian mission to Syria. She was going to bring medicines and meet with Syrian doctors. Ask what supplies they needed very much.
This was an example of the state borrowing her image as a humanitarian to put that kind of spin on the Russian military campaign in Syria. After the war on Ukraine, Russia, first, through an air war, but later ground troops entered Syria on the side of Bashar Al-Assad, and wanted to put a humanitarian spin on that intervention. And what better way to do that than have Dr. Liza go and hand out medicines and the like. And she felt compelled to go. That was a case where people close to her said she didn’t necessarily want to go. That already felt like a kind of extension of her mission in a way that she knew. was a stretch. But she felt like these are the people who give her so much in terms of opportunities to save lives and provide necessary care to people in Donbas.
So, it’s a case where she had a hard time saying no. That military aircraft tragically crashed shortly after takeoff from Sochi into the Black Sea killing everyone on board including Dr. Liza. And so, we can say in a deeply tragic and really horrific way, her proximity to the state, in an elementary sense was the thing that put her on that plane. She wouldn’t have been on that military aircraft if she hadn’t gotten in so deep in terms of her relationship with Russian officials and the Russian state. Of course, the fact that it horrifically dropped out of the sky is a terrible random act of fate that sort of nobody or nothing, was in control of, but nonetheless, her presence on that plane was a result of this deepening and increasingly complicated relationship she found herself in with the Russian state.
Now, Dr. Liza is just one of many characters that you discuss in your book who make compromises to be able to pursue their goals and their dreams. And as I said before, these are extraordinary characters, but at the same time, their experiences feel very relatable as you read about them. What do we share in common with their experiences?
I think everything. In the sense that the underlying dynamic of wanting to achieve something starting out with understandable, even virtuous goals, and along the way encountering, not even necessarily roadblocks, but just the complications of life and other actors. It doesn’t have to be the state. It could be, you know, your bosses at work. It could be the Twitter mob. I mean, it doesn’t matter whatever countervailing forces you come across along the way. To be a functioning adult in the world is to understand how to navigate those complications and to make compromises where you need to. You’d actually be something of a sociopath if you pursued only your goals and ambitions in some narrow, strict way and were unwilling to modify them whatsoever to take on the kind of considerations of others or the sort of objective circumstances in which you found yourself.
So, I think there’s something just human and universal and normal in the fact that to be alive or to at least want to achieve something in this life and to have some ambition and energy and idea of what you’d like to accomplish for yourself in society. Well, that means having to take into account all range of factors that may modify in some way those initial goals or you have to take into consideration new realities, new contexts, and have to think about, ‘Where am I willing to compromise? Where am I willing to soften or modify or change those goals? Where am I not? What’s the point where I actually will say no? You know, that’s a matter of principle for me. I won’t bend on that.’
But in other cases, to be able to bend. I mean, that’s a really universal set of circumstances that maybe is felt more acutely in some ways in Russia, because I do think in Russia, the role of the state is much larger. So, the fact that the state occupies this kind of unifying or universal role where kind of no matter where you turn you come up across the state and the state’s interests and the state also has rather unified interests. In other words, the centralization of power under Putin over the last 20 years and really perhaps historically in Russia’s political culture means that there is a great deal of unanimity or kind of uniformity in what the state asks of you on the local level and what it asks of you on the national level.
I mean, the pressures against a schoolteacher or theater director in Vladivostok may resemble very much those in Moscow, because the state under Putin has really begun to march to one beat at least when it comes to its sort of large strategic mission and questions of ideology and so on. So, given the state presence in so many fields, whether it’s humanitarian work like in the case of Dr. Liza, theater like in the case of Kirill Serebrennikov, a theater director, the Russian Orthodox Church which has also become very much intertwined with the Russian state. The state just penetrates a lot of aspects of life that the state doesn’t necessarily intrude in the same way in a place like the United States.
But the United States may be, you know, corporate pressures intrude just as much or social pressures. So, I don’t want to say they don’t exist, but indeed I do think that to the extent there is a unique factor about this dilemma of compromise in Russia is that once you reached a certain level of kind of success or ambition, you’re going to encounter the state and have to face the decision of, ‘Okay, what am I willing to do or compromise on vis-a-vis the state and what am I not?’
So, is the relationship with the state, is that really what makes this a Russian story? Is this what sets it completely apart from the experiences that we might have in the United States and Europe?
Let me put it like this. I think in why I chose this prism for writing my book, I didn’t choose this prism because I thought this story of compromise was somehow exclusively Russian. It’s not. It’s a universal kind of dilemma. It’s a universal set of strict circumstances. In other words, it’s not that this prism is exclusive to Russia. I just thought this particular tool could be fruitful for explaining Russia. There’s lots of ways into the Russia story. Lots of ways I could have chosen to frame the book. I thought this particular frame, although it’s not exclusive to Russia offers some particular illustrative insight into Russia by choosing this kind of avenue of storytelling.
At the same time though, the personalities that you describe in the book are nothing short of extraordinary. They’re fascinating to read about. If you had chosen more mundane characters, it wouldn’t be an interesting book to begin with. So, it makes sense to choose the most interesting characters you can.
Sure. And you’re right in that, I did not choose kind of everyday Russians. I chose people who were high enough in their kind of individual professional realms or they had achieved enough to really butt up against this question of compromise. Something was really on the line for them. They had risen high enough where they encountered this question of compromise and had to decide, ‘Did they want to go further?’ You know, were they going to decline certain opportunities? The question really in a sharp way revealed itself. And you do have to kind of reach a certain station in society for that question to reveal itself fully. So, my characters almost by definition had to be people who were in some way, as you put it, kind of remarkable or at least successful in their own fields for the question of compromise to fully reveal itself.
Do you believe though that they are representative in different ways of just the common everyday Russians at the same time?
Absolutely. The dilemmas of compromise they face are recognizable. And as I’ve said, universal, not just to Russia, but really to all of us who experience similar kinds of conundrums and dilemmas. So, this notion of where are you willing to bend? How can you use the state and its resources to pursue or facilitate your own goals and interests?
As we’ve talked about, those goals may be really virtuous ones. This is not about people looking to line their pockets in some corrupt way by making a deal with the state. No. These are people who want to achieve something often, right? There are characters in my book who also simply want personal profit and benefit, but there are also plenty who are trying to achieve something noble, I think, but the only road or the only path toward doing so is some sort of cooperation with the state. And I think that fundamental dilemma or that fundamental kind of arrangement is something that comes up over and over again in Russian life.
Let’s paint a picture of that. We’ve been talking about how the role of the state interferes with different parts of society. I think the least intuitive example would be how the state is involved in the theater and the arts. You told the brilliant story about one person, a character from that environment. How did that person find that they were interacting with the state to be able to accomplish their vision and their dreams?
Right. So, you’re talking about the theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov who’s quite a renowned, famous, not just in Russia, but increasingly abroad, director, someone known for his really extravagant avant-garde genre bending productions. And for awhile in the early 2000s, when the Russian state was interested in exploring, or at least being seen to be proximate to experimental avant-garde art forms, it was profitable or interesting for the state to be seen to be somehow cooperating with or collaborating with Serebrennikov. And so, it offered him an extraordinary amount of resources and Serebrennikov for his part, of course, found the offer very attractive. Here are these opportunities to stay in experimental theater festivals, to put on works that are really boundary pushing and avant-garde. What’s not to like?
He even directed the theatrical staging of a kind of surrealist, dystopian novel written by one of Putin’s top advisers. And that shows how close in some sense Serebrennikov got to the Putin state. That at least this particular advisor, Vladislav Surkov, was someone who was leading this effort to flirt with avant-garde experimental art, while, of course, very much remaining at its core, sort of top-down authoritarian system. So, Serebrennikov sort of benefited from that arrangement for a while. He was named the head of a state theater in Moscow where he went on to direct and stage really remarkable productions. Many of which I’ve seen.
But at a certain point, the mood of the state changed. This moment when the state thought there was something interesting or worthwhile or profitable for it to be seen to be catering to or in some way promoting or sponsoring experimental avant-garde art, that switched and a conservative revanche followed in which the state pursued an absolute opposite course. You had the state talking about traditional values, passing laws to ban so-called homosexual propaganda. I mean, all manner of really retrograde ideas and regulations and laws designed to create the absolute opposite tendency to position Russia and Russian society as a kind of conservative bastion in opposition to the hedonistic West.
And at that moment, Serebrennikov found himself immediately and dramatically out of favor. And when he did, it wasn’t long before the state came hunting for the flimsiest pre-text by which they could bring him down. They found some alleged financial regularities in his theatre and used the pretext of these would be financial irregularities to charge him with fraud that threatened to send him to jail for many years. But what’s important to understanding the predicament in which Serebrennikov found himself is that there wasn’t really other money available. Especially when we talk about theater and dramatic arts, three quarters of the theaters in Russia are state run theaters.
So, if you want to put on productions in a theater, the state is kind of the only game in town. The same thing goes for film to a similar extent. If you want to put on a big budget production, have ambitions of filming something ambitious, well then state financing is kind of the way you have to go. And as one prominent arts critic in Moscow told me, ‘You know, it wasn’t that Serebrennikov had the choice of making a film with or without state money. The choice was did he want to make a film or not? And if he did that meant cooperating with the state.’
So, you said that they arrested him for the flimsiest of reasons, but I got the impression from your account in the book that he had broken the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law. That the government almost expected you to be able to manage the accounts the way that he did, but by doing so they effectively made him complicit in breaking the law so that the moment that they wanted to tighten the noose around him, be able to constrain what he was doing, that they could prosecute him for breaking those financial irregularities. It’s kind of a devil’s bargain where you either can put on your productions and break the law or just not put them on at all. Am I reading that right?
I think you’re right in that the state, especially the so-called Siloviki, let’s say people from the security services or, you know, institutions like the FSB, the interior ministry of the police, they certainly are most comfortable in an environment where everyone is a little bit guilty. Everyone’s a little bit vulnerable. And then it just becomes a question of political will. Then it’s, ‘Well, who do we need to go after?’ Not for legal reasons, but for essentially, let’s say for shorthand political reasons. Who’s not in favor? Who’s an enemy? Who do we need to teach a lesson? Who do we need to make an example of? Well, since everyone is constantly, always a little bit vulnerable, well, then it’s easy. We can just pick and choose as we please who to go after and who to make an example of.
So, I think the fact that the Russian law is written in such a way where in many cases people have no choice, but to find these workarounds that really presents a kind of advantageous environment in which the security services can kind of pick and choose at will who to target.
And the court system plays into this game too. Because in the final chapter of your book, they release him at least they let him go home. He becomes a free man and it’s done almost without any explanation. They just, all of a sudden, make a 180 degree turn and decide that they’re going to go a different direction.
Yeah. Live by the sword. Die by the sword. Right? The system kind of taketh away and giveth without certainly the need to explain itself, as you said. And Serebrennikov’s many ups and downs certainly took place according to a formula that was opaque to us and I think opaque to Serebrennikov himself. Right? The whims and caprices of certain individuals on the inside of the system fluctuated and changed. And so did his fate. And again, because we’re talking here about, not adherence to the letter of the law or violation of it, but rather the political calculations of officials within the system, he went through exactly this yo-yo experience that you’re talking about.
He reminds me a lot of the zookeeper that you talk about Oleg Zubkov as well.
Sure. He was someone who was in Crimea for many years. Something like 20 years before Russian annexation in 2014. An ethnic Russian, came from Russia proper, but settled in Crimea and lived there for many years and thought of himself, not just as Russian, but thought of himself in favor of Crimea returning to Russia in some way or having kind of Russian influence over Crimea increase. He thought of himself as a kind of Russian patriot in that definition, in that context. But when Russia actually did annex Crimea, something that Zubkov supported, he was rah-rah, out there with his lions from the safari park, you know, egging on annexation and, warning anyone from Ukraine who dared to try and come to Crimea to block that process or in some way undermine Russia’s annexation program.
He was out in front supporting it, but he quickly realized that the Russia he actually joined was very different than the Russia of his imagination and it wasn’t long before he faced all manner of inspections, raids, criminal cases. That the new Russian installed authorities in Crimea really had it out for him. It’s unclear whether it was kind of personal dislike, disfavor, commercial interests, someone wanted to get the park out from under him. Buy it on the cheap or squeeze Zubkov out of this lucrative safari park. Whatever the case may be Zubkov found himself suddenly at the repressive end of this legalistic apparatus and was in court for one absurd matter after another. And his lions and monkeys were confiscated and he was always trying to get them back.
And he very quickly came to regret his enthusiastic support for annexation, but also said to me that you can’t talk about history in the subjunctive case. You can’t say, ‘You know what I would’ve done, if I had known.’ He says, ‘I was a supporter. I wanted this and so, I guess I have to deal with the outcome.’ But it was certainly an outcome that he was not accounting for and was really opposite his expectations
Is that a normal experience for business owners in Russia to be dealing with the court system so frequently or was he really an exceptional case?
He was exceptional in the fact that, you know, we’re talking about the forced confiscation of lions who were then kept in the basement of the veterinary service in the capitol, you know, presumably biting through the electrical wires and the basement things. I mean, there’s lots about Zubkov’s. story that is atypically colorful just because of the nature of the business he runs. Not everyone has monkeys and tigers and lions and camels, giraffes.
But the broader point stands. I think that the degree of unwelcome interaction with the regulatory and criminal justice system is absolutely typical, not universal, but, I think, many, many Russian business owners know the experience of having to deal with inspections. That find all sorts of violations that are phantom or technical or impossible to avoid, but, you know, create great headaches and also great fines for the business owners. It’s entirely common for a rival business owner to use either the police force or the judicial system to squeeze out a rival through the manufacturing of essentially corrupt criminal cases. That’s also alas very common. So, I think most Russian business owners know a thing or two about what it’s like to face the kind of blunt end of the Russian regulatory and criminal justice system.
So, you tell a lot of different stories. There is no single description of what the character is. They fit many different profiles, but at the same time, most of them have found a way to navigate through the Russian state and oftentimes even be able to extract advantages from it. Do you find that many of these characters support the Russian state or are they simply indifferent to it?
It depends and I think depends on the characters. Right? They have different levels of support and enthusiasm for the Putin system. Some like Konstantin Ernst, the head of Channel One, at least outwardly professes himself to be a real Putin supporter, believes in the Putin mission as it were to the extent Ernst for himself sees such a thing. And there are others who are much more indifferent and are engaged in a pretty conscious kind of pact, at least as they see it, that’s about just achieving some functional, good that’s a kind of arrangement of convenience and nothing more.
There’s also a gray line that’s hard to delineate between this kind of tolerance and support, you know, after 20 plus years of Putin in power. You know, at what point does tolerating the system become supporting it’s continuation? At what point does going along with it, finding a place for yourself in that system, effectively help perpetuate it? Those are, dilemmas that I don’t know the answer to myself. On the one hand, it’s entirely understandable on the scale of a human life. You have, but so many years to try and achieve something and make something of yourself and of your life. And if you have some skills and talents and ambitions, the window could look relatively short to capitalize on that.
And so, if you’re not going to overthrow the Putin system in revolution, doesn’t it make sense to try and find a niche for yourself within that system so you can achieve what’s important for you and your one kind of shot at it. I think that’s a totally understandable response and maybe it would be my response. Right? I certainly don’t hold myself in judgment and think, ‘Ah, I would stand off to the side, like some kind of martyr or almost masochistic Sakharov type figure who is willing to risk comfort and success and a place in society to be kind of morally on the right. I’m not sure I would choose that for myself. You know, I’d like to think so, but having not faced it, thankfully. It’s impossible to say.
But at the same time, while completely understanding that impulse to try and find your niche, your path, maybe in aggregate, it’s choices like that that are why the Putin system still exists 21 years later after Putin first took the presidency. And do people bear a moral responsibility for that? Maybe, but the fact that that dilemma is at least as I see it, ultimately unanswerable is what made it so compelling and interesting for me. That’s why I think it served as this really fruitful narrative tool for telling the story of modern Russia.
Yeah. Again, the characters in the book obviously have different approaches to things. You have some people like Dr. Liza who were more indifferent to the state. You have others though like Konstantin Ernst who’s probably the most brazen of all the characters in the book in terms of their complicity and even their enthusiasm for the Putin state. And what I found was interesting was about his cynicism, about how brazen he was, was in many ways due to the dynamics of the media environment within Russia and the differences with the United States. it’s an environment that you’ve got a lot of familiarity with having worked for both The Economist and having worked for The New Yorker. Can you talk a little bit about the differences between the media environment in Russia and the United States?
Sure. The difference is pretty drastic, but also in a way simple, in that at least where we’re talking about television where Konstantin Ernst works as the head of Channel One, the television channel with the largest national reach. All federal television, all television with a considerable audience in Russia is state-owned or at least state influenced, effectively state run. And the state has a monopoly on information disseminated via television airwaves which with decreasing frequency… This is a story that’s changing in Russia, just like everywhere. But historically, the preponderance of Russians relied on television for their news and information content and just awareness of the world. That, of course, is dropping rapidly with the continued and expanding reach of the internet including to parts of quite far off Russia. Places where there haven’t been high-speed internet until recently.
So, television’s monopoly hold on information is changing fast. And so, this may be a really different story even in five years, but nonetheless, historically, that’s the place where Russians went to for their understanding of the world and the Russian state had a monopoly since the rise of Putin and his taking control over state airwaves and the dissemination of that information. And that just makes the situation fundamentally different than the United States. And you can talk about corporate ownership of media. You can talk about the influence of particular corporate owners and interest of corporate owners.
But still even if corporate ownership of media in America has certain kind of negative side effects, it’s still not a monopoly. There’s at least a kind of diversity of ownership and you have clashing interests. I’m not sure that either Fox News or MSNBC is all that healthy for American democracy. I don’t want to sort of defend either. That’s maybe a dichotomy we should try and get away from for the health of our democracy. But nonetheless, there is a real clashing of ideologies, a clashing of commercial and corporate interests, a clashing of content of viewership and that’s just to take the most extreme example. That’s not at all to talk about, you know, smaller publications like The New Yorker or even ones with quite large reach and influence like The New York Times.
There’s just a cacophony of ownership structures, of voices, of interests, of ideologies. And none of them answer to the state. That’s the most important thing. There is no publication in America where someone in the White House, whether it’s Trump or Biden could pick up the phone and say, ‘Air this or don’t air that.’ And that right there is the huge difference between Russian media and American media, because Ernst, along with other heads of major television networks goes to the Kremlin for weekly planning meetings where the heads of the major networks talk through the issues of the day with Kremlin spin doctors, essentially propagandists, and come to a common understanding about how certain topics are going to be covered. What’s not going to be covered. And the information content in this way is very much controlled or at least managed with the input of the Kremlin and that doesn’t happen in the United States thankfully.
So, we’ve talked a lot about how the media environment serves the state. How a lot of different institutions serve the state. How is Russia today different than it was during the Soviet Union?
I think the key difference is this nominal diversity, which in some cases it’s more than nominal, which is kind of actual diversity of ownership structures, of ideologies, of interests. You have this really clashing at times kind of contradictory soup that can somehow all fit inside the Putin system and under the ideology of the Putin system. You know, the Putin system at least purports to be a kind of big tent where you can have Russian Orthodox priests and Neo-Stalinists all part of that same system. You can have archconservatives and avant-garde experimental directors like Serebrennikov who can all find a way, not just to coexist with the system, but to even gain something advantageous for themselves from that system. I think that space is shrinking.
Someone like Serebrennikov represents an interesting case study, because less and less does the system have room, have the flexibility to kind of find a niche, to find a space for someone like Serebrennikov. To accommodate him or her and to tolerate expressions whether they’re creative or political ones that sort of cut against the mood and political currents of the day. I think the state is becoming much more inflexible in that regard and demanding much more rote loyalty. But nonetheless, there’s just a whole lot going on to put it, perhaps overly simply. Although the role of the state and the shadow of the state is vast. There’s all sorts of institutions and interests and sources of funding sloshing around within that system.
And the state no longer demands ideological adherence. There is no state ideology, really. You don’t have to pay lip service to this absurd doctrine of Marxism-Leninism that by the seventies and eighties, most people had stopped believing in and could see with their own eyes, the hollowness of this doctrine, at least as it came to the Soviet economy. But nonetheless, since the state was committed to that ideology, it required people to pay lip service to it. You still had to study Marxism-Leninism in university in the eighties. You know, you still had to cite Lenninist principles in your dissertation in the eighties even though everyone from the students to the professors themselves knew that this was a hollow ideology. You still had to pay lip service to it.
And that’s not the case now because there is no real Putin ideology. It’s a totally tactical, ad hoc, cynical ideology in which just whatever works, whatever’s profitable, whatever gives you advantage goes. And so, in a way that creates a great deal of flexibility for the kinds of compromises I described in the book.
So, the way that you’re describing that, there’s room for lots of different types of personalities now, lots of different perspectives. It reminds me of the character that you talk about in the book Heda Saratova. And we began our conversation talking about Dr. Liza and I found myself very sympathetic to Dr. Liza as you told her story. Heda Saratova is also a human rights activist and yet, I did not feel the same sort of sympathy towards her that I felt towards Dr. Liza. Can you talk a little bit about how she’s such an unusual human rights activist?
Sure, and in fact, I should say Heda tragically died of COVID related complications after a long illness earlier this year. I was quite shocked to hear the news. So, unfortunately Heda has passed away some months ago which was a great shock and tragedy for all who knew her. But she was indeed a unique human rights activist in the context of Chechnya where it became increasingly difficult, if not impossible to be a human rights activist at all, of any kind with the rise of Ramzan Kadyrov and his quite uncompromisingly brutal rule.
There was really no space left for the kind of independent human rights researchers who flocked there in the 90s and early 2000s during the two Chechen Wars and did an enormous amount of really brave and heroic work. This was a time when journalists like Anna Politkovskaya were investigating human rights abuses committed both by Russian federal troops and by Chechen forces loyal to Kadyrov. Politkovskaya was, of course, shot dead in 2006, quite tragically, showing the danger and the price to be paid for that kind of work. Heda started out very much in that camp. But over time drifted to essentially become the kind of loyal in-house human rights activist in quotes of the Kadyrov system.
She still portrayed herself as a human rights activist. Still, outwardly projected that that was the kind of work she was engaged in. And indeed, in some self-contained specific ways she was able to do or rather achieve specific good for people who were unjustly trapped in the Chechen criminal justice system who fell under the gaze of the Chechen security forces and had disappeared. And there were some individual cases where she could do some good. But on the whole, she was there to essentially greenwash the violations and atrocities of the Kadyrov regime. She was a human rights activist who most of the time defended the Kadyrov regime against very fair allegations of human rights violence. And she did that because, she said to me openly, there was no other way to remain in Chechnya.
If she wanted to do that kind of work, she could leave Chechnya as many people chose to do. But she didn’t want to leave. And I think she also saw an opening for herself and that by becoming this kind of go-to, pocket human rights activist for the Chechen Regime, she could also gain a really attractive and profitable station for herself in life. So, I think the motives were complicated. She did want to stay in Chechnya for reasons that are understandable to anyone. The desire not to flee your home and to emigrate to foreign shores and start over again. She wanted to stay in Chechnya, a place she was very much attached to, a place with a very strong cultural identity. She wanted to continue to do as she understood it, human rights work which was impossible to do if she was going to remain independent.
And she saw that by becoming this go-to figure, she could also achieve something for herself. And there was some self-interest in that move. Absolutely. And so, all of those factors together led her to essentially switch sides, if that’s a fair way of putting it. And do this, again in quotes, ‘human rights’ work for the Kadyrov system.
So, what I admired about her was that she was able to undoubtedly help actual people. She was able to get people out of prison that otherwise would have been unjustly left there, if she hadn’t interfered. But at the same time, what bothered me about her was that she almost took a sense of pride. Almost a sense of enjoyment over the idea of people having to feel that she had the power to be able to make the difference. There was a story about her coming into a prison with a police officer and her almost beaming with the fact that she was seen alongside the authorities.
That goes to this point about self-interest I think that I was making that I could have expanded on and maybe should have. That being at the center of the action, being in demand, being someone who people needed to rely on. That also very much appealed to her. She always wanted to be the one who was seen to be, if not, I don’t think this was always the case, but she wanted to project the image of the person who, you know, was the decider, the problem-solver, the one who had great power and responsibility.
So, Josh, you’ve lived in Russia a long time. Even before that you’ve got a lot of experience in Russia. You knew quite a bit about the country before you even began this book project. What did these stories teach you about Russia that you didn’t already know?
in a word, it’s complicated. And in that complication, I found something really interesting and fascinating and revealing in that Russia is not a, country which is defined by an exaggerated dichotomy between the sort of evil, corrupt, venal, rulers, Putin and his ilk who keep an otherwise, dissatisfied population in a kind of cage welded shut by propaganda and repression. That, in other words, the Stalin-Sakharov dichotomy while compelling, makes for kind of a good read, these sort of black and white moral fables we’re attracted to, we’ve been attracted to forever, but Russia doesn’t really fit that model. Of course, there are people who fit both of those paradigms.
There are certainly cynical, corrupt, sadistic state officials who absolutely are worthy of our scorn is fair to say, and they use and abuse their positions for personal gain and to really lord their power over others, just as there are people in society who are deeply honest, deeply committed to a political cause and willing to suffer for it and are very selfless in that sense. Someone like Navalny say who’s now in prison and clearly has shown he was willing to suffer personally for his political beliefs. But those two extremes don’t capture the truth or at least the lived experience of Russian life as I came to know and understand it and to understand what Russia actually feels like, to get across this idea of what’s it been like to live there for nine years.
The stories of people in the middle of these moral gray zones of compromises like the ones I described I hope I do a pretty good job of illustrating what it’s like for most people in Russia who don’t fit into one of those two categories. And that’s the same, I think, in any society. Right? And that’s what I found also really important and illustrative about the book having completed it. That this is a story set in Russia, but in no way is it a story exclusive to Russia.
Well, thank you so much for joining me. Thanks so much for this conversation. It really is a brilliant book, Between Two Fires. Thank you so much for writing it. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.
My pleasure. It was a great conversation. Thank you.
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