In the early 1970s, during the Soviet Union’s long era of stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev, the frustrated writer Sergei Dovlatov moved from St. Petersburg to Tallinn, where he got a job at the newspaper Soviet Estonia. His darkly comic realist fiction was unpublishable even in Estonia, but at least he could make a living as a writer. In 1979 Dovlatov emigrated to New York, where he wrote The Compromise (1981), a chronicle of the “hard road from the reported facts to the truth” he had encountered at the paper. It consists of twelve numbered “compromises,” each of which opens with a snippet of a newspaper article: anodyne and wholesome, propagandistic in the limp, halfhearted late Soviet manner. Then comes reality: hilariously squalid, ruefully funny. The narrator’s editor berates him for ideological blunders—for instance, failing to list countries according to the success of their class struggle rather than alphabetically. (Needless to say, the USSR comes first.) Then there’s the reality the journalist-narrator sees but can never write about: binge drinking, rigged horse races, girls who will do anything for a pair of imported platform boots, the dilemma of childbearing when you know your child might end up in a labor camp.
Dovlatov’s book is one of the inspirations for Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia by Joshua Yaffa, The New Yorker’s Moscow correspondent. Yaffa analyzes seven examples of how state pressure has distorted the careers and lives of people in contemporary Russia. A television producer sacrifices his journalistic integrity for clout. A Chechen single mother becomes a human rights activist during the second Chechen war and exposes Russian abuses, but after the brutal murder of a colleague she allows herself to be coopted by Ramzan Kadyrov’s government and denounces those who criticize him. A Pskov parish priest loses everything because of his steadfast rejection of the corrupt union of church and state under Putin. A Crimean Tiger King with his own private zoo uses his big cats to advocate for Russian annexation, only to fall victim to a state-sponsored scheme to ruin him. The founders of a museum that exposes the horrors of the Gulag are fired and replaced by a government functionary, and the museum’s exhibits are censored. A doctor’s humanitarian missions are used as state propaganda supporting a war she abhors. A prominent Moscow director makes an uneasy peace with the authorities and pushes Russian theater in bold new directions, until he is put under house arrest for supposedly embezzling state funds.
Yaffa understands compromise under state pressure as the defining experience of life under Putin. Besides Dovlatov, another, very different inspiration for Between Two Fires is Yuri Levada (1930–2006), the sociologist who founded the independent Levada Center, now Russia’s most reliable source of sociological data. Levada analyzed what he viewed as a peculiarly Soviet combination of fear and dependence in relation to the state, and how Soviet people learned to profit by exploiting the system rather than opposing it. He had high hopes that Homo sovieticus—submissive, cunning, and amoral—would die out with the Soviet Union, that the population would rise at last to Solzhenitsyn’s 1974 admonishment to “live not by lies.” (The furiously righteous Solzhenitsyn—in some ways the antithesis of Dovlatov—also makes frequent appearances in Between Two Fires.)
Instead, Levada wrote, “after the crash of the Soviet system, the person who rose to the surface was not a fabulously liberated hero, but someone inclined to adapt to what is required of him in order to survive.” Homo post-sovieticus bore an uncanny resemblance to Homo sovieticus. In 2000, after Putin was elected Russia’s president for the first time, the disillusioned Levada wrote an essay titled “The Wily Man,” describing a character who “not only tolerates deception, but is willing to be deceived, and even…requires self-deception for the sake of his own self-preservation.” After reading this essay, Yaffa
became convinced that the most edifying, and important, character for journalistic study in Russia is not Putin, but those people whose habits, inclinations, and internal moral calculations elevated Putin to his Kremlin throne and now perform the small, daily work that, in aggregate, keeps him there.
The concepts of compromise and wiliness work best when Yaffa writes, as Dovlatov did, about the media. How much will the wily television producer or theater director compromise his values, and compromise the truth, in order to become rich or famous, or to realize his artistic vision? In these stories, we feel that the wily man had a genuine choice, which gives his decisions moral complexity. “Compromise in Putin’s Russia” is a less useful rubric when applied to matters of life and death, or to people for whom Putin isn’t the center (positive or negative) of the moral universe. Yaffa’s chapters on a humanitarian doctor and a Chechen human rights activist reveal the limitations of an interpretative mode in which every action is categorized as either for Putin or against him.
Konstantin Ernst, the protagonist of Yaffa’s first “compromise,” wanted to be a film director from an early age. In 1986, at twenty-five, he abandoned a fledgling scientific career and started shooting music and concert videos. Soon he got a job as a director at a newsmagazine show where he covered subjects that had been taboo before glasnost; he also explored artier, more experimental approaches to television. In the mid-1990s he collaborated with the director Leonid Parfyonov on a bizarre but now classic TV show called Old Songs About Important Things, in which popular performers sang the greatest hits of Soviet pop while evoking scenes from Soviet films. It offered viewers a way to salvage positive memories of Soviet times, smuggling in nostalgia through humor and campiness.
In 1995 the director of one of Russia’s largest TV stations, Russian Public Television, was assassinated, possibly because he was considering cutting middlemen out of ad sales. Ernst was tapped by the station’s main shareholder, the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, to take over creative production. Berezovsky was using the station as an instrument of political power, and in 1996 it became an unofficial branch of Boris Yeltsin’s reelection campaign. Renamed Channel One, it was the venue through which Yeltsin announced his resignation in 1999, and it helped elect Putin in 2000. Shortly afterward, however, Berezovsky broke with Putin, using Channel One to attack him over the Kursk disaster, in which twenty-three survivors of a submarine explosion were left to die. Putin struck back, and soon Berezovsky fled the country. Ernst sided with Putin, as he continues to do today. Once a lover of Russian alternative rock and international art house cinema, he became a high-ranking apparatchik.
Even so, Ernst prided himself on bringing daring new kinds of television to a large Russian audience. When he could, he allowed edgy voices onto Channel One, navigating the unwritten rules of censorship as they changed from week to week. As one documentary maker explained, “I think of it as the door to Narnia, always opening and closing.” When the door swung open, Ernst might deign to usher you through. He also had the resources to realize his own artistic aspirations on a monumental scale. One of his highest-profile achievements was the spectacular, immensely expensive, and technically complex opening ceremony at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The performance, which involved a clever mix of Russian references and international artistic influences, was admired even by Putin’s opponents. Such success, Yaffa argues, allowed Ernst to pretend that the tradeoff had been in his favor.
But Ernst also found himself presiding over the kind of humiliatingly primitive propaganda from which he’d imagined he could keep his distance. The production of fake news went into overdrive in 2014, with Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. In one particularly notorious instance, Channel One aired an account of Ukrainian troops supposedly crucifying a toddler in eastern Ukraine. The station also joined in the clamor of preposterous conspiracy theories meant to divert attention from Russia’s involvement in the shooting down of a commercial airliner over eastern Ukraine. In the end, there was no way for Ernst to keep his hands clean.
Yaffa writes that “Ernst, like many in his generation in Russia, wears his cynicism as a sign of enlightenment—he is alive to how the world really works, aware of its true rules and logic, not like those idealists who remain blinded by their naïveté.” This hardly seems a peculiarly Russian trait, especially where television producers are concerned. Ernst’s career could be described rather adequately with an English idiom: he sold out.
One of Yaffa’s most disturbing “compromises” is the story of Dr. Elizaveta Glinka. (The chapter on Heda Saratova, the Chechen human rights activist, is similarly harrowing.) Glinka’s vocation was to give aid and comfort to the dying and the desperate. She discovered hospice care and street medical outreach when she was living in the US with her Russian-American husband, and she went on to help develop these areas of medicine in Ukraine and Russia in the 2000s. Charismatic and selfless, “Dr. Liza,” as she was known in Russia, became a popular figure, thanks in part to her blog about her work. She was soon able to raise substantial amounts of money to pay for palliative care for terminal cancer patients and for medical care for the homeless and destitute. One of her acquaintances was impressed, Yaffa writes, “by Glinka’s even temper, the way she treated everyone the same, whether the person walked into the basement headquarters wearing a fur coat or a smelly parka.” Asked how she reconciled herself to the death of her patients, she answered, “It makes no difference whether a person dies now, or in two years, or fifty—in the scheme of human civilization, it’s irrelevant. What’s more important is that a person’s death, whenever it happens, should not be undignified.”
Yaffa explains in his introduction that, like Dovlatov, he set out to write about people who are neither heroes nor villains. Glinka, who displays many traits commonly associated with sainthood, is an awkward fit. He quotes the novelist Ludmila Ulitskaya’s description of her first encounter with Glinka, when a mutual friend of theirs lay dying in the hospital. When Glinka arrived, Ulitskaya was already occupying the only chair in the room, so Glinka soon left. When Ulitskaya departed a few hours later, she found Glinka in the hallway, lying on a hospital cot next to an elderly dying man—a stranger—and caressing his head. “Liza’s behavior at that time seemed a little weird to me,” Ulitskaya later wrote. But then again, “ordinary people tend to find the behavior of saints a little weird.”
Yaffa depicts Glinka as something of a holy fool, with “no conception of how individuals assemble and wield power.” He suggests that she was ignorant “of politicians and their motives.” But perhaps she simply didn’t care, except to the extent that politicians could help her to achieve her goals. As one of her friends put it, “Her battle was not for the state or against it, for Putin or against him. Her battle was against injustice, suffering, pain.” Yaffa explains that she was good at identifying people who could help her. Over time, her network of contacts in the government grew, enabling her to expand her humanitarian operations, which came to include an organization called Fair Aid. She had become an influential figure.
When Glinka did dip her toes into opposition politics, she learned that engagement came at a high price. During the wave of protests against the falsification of Russia’s 2011 elections, she joined a group called the League of Voters, which promoted fair elections and included several high-profile opposition activists and Leonid Parfyonov, the television presenter and director who once worked with Ernst but chose a more righteous path. Fair Aid’s bank accounts were promptly blocked on the grounds that documents were missing—a standard government tactic for punishing dissenters—which made it impossible to feed and clothe the homeless in the middle of winter. It’s easy to imagine that Glinka, with her single-minded mission to help the needy, would find it impossible to reconcile herself with this interruption to her work. She provided additional documents and the accounts were unfrozen, but her organization was subjected to a lengthy investigation by the tax authorities. This was the end of her involvement with Russia’s political opposition.
Strangely, Yaffa omits this episode. He describes only how Glinka prepared hot soup and tea for the demonstrators in 2011–2012, characterizing her actions as driven by disposition, not principle: “Her sympathies lay with those out in the streets, not out of some deeply held conviction about the evils of Putin’s rule, but from an instinct to always take the side of the weak.” Might she, in fact, have been interested in doing political work to advocate for democracy, only to discover that the Russian government was forcing her to choose between Fair Aid and any kind of engagement with the political opposition? From this point on, she tried to do her humanitarian work while swimming with the political current. She joined the Kremlin’s human rights council in 2012. Though the council was deeply compromised, Glinka managed to use its influence to improve provincial hospitals and children’s homes.
As with Ernst, the most serious stains on Glinka’s reputation came with Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. In the spring of 2014, she visited the separatist-controlled “People’s Republic of Donetsk” to survey hospital capacity, then returned to bring medicine and first-aid supplies. Over the following months, she went back again and again. When she saw someone in need of medical assistance, she did whatever was necessary to get it, or to take them out of the separatist-controlled area. Just as she hadn’t cared whether someone was wearing a fur coat or a smelly parka, she didn’t care whether her patients were involved in the war or not. If saving someone required, say, transport on a Russian military plane, so be it. This led to disputes with a colleague who had accompanied her to Donetsk but saw any cooperation with the Russian military as reprehensible, given Russia’s involvement in the conflict.
Ernst compromised largely for personal gain: for influence and money, to gratify his artistic ego. He’s easy to condemn. Glinka engaged in political compromises because of her inexorable drive to aid the most vulnerable people in society. She risked her own life in war zones as she rescued children who would probably have been left to die without her help. She made numerous trips to Donetsk to take ill, disabled, and wounded children out of the conflict zone. Yaffa provides a gripping, cinematic description of a series of trips she took in an old ambulance; the only other adult with her was the driver. She had personally negotiated safe passage with Ukrainian forces and with the separatists, but she came under fire anyway. She didn’t much care who was shooting: for her, war was “senseless in the truest sense of the word,” as her husband put it. It was difficult for international groups like the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières to carry out humanitarian aid work in occupied Donetsk, because of separatist hostility and, during some periods, because of the Ukrainian government’s blockade on the occupied territories. Glinka’s ties with the Russian government compromised her, but they were also the reason she had access.
The Kremlin avidly promoted Glinka’s work, which bolstered the false image it had been cultivating as a savior swooping in to rescue innocents from the Ukrainian “fascists.” The Russian government was winkingly denying any complicity in the conflict, which most likely would not have occurred, and certainly couldn’t have lasted more than a few months, without its support. So was Glinka a dupe, a tool of Russian propaganda? Or worse, was she actively and willingly supporting a morally repugnant war?
Even as she was celebrated by the Russian government and in state media, she began to receive hate mail in relation to her work in Ukraine. She caused dismay in opposition circles when she told interviewers that she hadn’t personally seen Russian troops in Ukraine. This may well have been true—Russians fighting in Ukraine were not declaring their identity, so if she had seen Russians she wouldn’t necessarily have known it—but state media used her statement as support for the fiction that Russia was not intervening in the conflict. Close friends accused her of providing “indulgences” to those responsible for the war in Ukraine, of becoming “a tool they employ to buy their place in paradise.”
Yaffa characterizes Glinka’s position as pragmatic and utilitarian: “The moral value of helping a person in need trumped how that help might be obtained.” But such terms don’t fit someone so single-minded in her altruism, someone operating according to such an absolutist set of morals. For some people, any cooperation with Putin’s government is reprehensible. For Glinka, it was reprehensible to fail to take any action that would help those in need.
“I purposely keep neutral,” she said in an interview. “I don’t want to make clear my position. I try to separate myself from everything that prevents me from saving a person’s life.” What would have been accomplished, she asked, if the children had been left to die? Could Putin’s opponents advertise those deaths as his latest crimes? How could anyone count that as a victory? These are legitimate questions.
Yaffa rejects the concept of neutrality, writing that Glinka “tried to steer clear of politics, but the thing about war is that it is an inherently political event. Neutrality itself is a position: refusing to apportion blame for violence means letting one side or the other off the hook.” But neutrality is fundamental to wartime humanitarianism, which seeks to reduce harm while bracketing the question of which side is in the wrong. A humanitarian who loudly apportions blame rarely makes it past enemy lines. Glinka’s mistake was not that she failed to condemn Putin, but that she compromised her neutrality by working so closely with the Russian government. Yaffa’s definition of the “political” is also overly narrow. War and authoritarianism are undoubtedly political, but so are homelessness, poverty, and lack of medical care—the issues Glinka started off addressing—especially in a country flush with oil money.
Glinka died in a 2016 plane crash, along with an entire military choir. They were a “humanitarian delegation” to Syria, where Russia was aiding Bashar al-Assad. Unlike most of the compromises in Between Two Fires, Glinka’s was fatal. Her end seems straight out of a maudlin, moralizing short story, the kind Dovlatov never would have written.
Yaffa argues that outsiders like himself must acknowledge that Russians find it almost impossible to avoid compromise, while also “reserving a space for the sober judgment of what such individual choices and behaviors lead to in the aggregate.” Dovlatov’s Compromise, by contrast, offers no sober judgments of right and wrong. Instead, it makes you laugh at the debased nature of late-Soviet journalism and late-Soviet life. The narrator is a drunken schlub, doing his best but usually failing, hopelessly compromised just like everybody else.
One of my favorite scenes in Between Two Fires is when Yaffa agrees, for the sake of his research, to appear on a Channel One show in which guests and hosts scream at one another about politics. Nefarious Western schemes are mentioned in every episode, making foreign guests indispensable foils. Yaffa offers himself up as a token Russian-speaking foreigner. Almost as soon as the show starts, he realizes that he “was meant to play the role of the pitiable imbecile and birthday party piñata: everyone would get a chance to step up and have a whack.” He only manages to get in a few sentences. Yet he appears on the show again and again,
each time certain, as I sat in the makeup chair, that this would be the day I would manage to say something subversive and devastatingly convincing on Russian state television, the day I would break or otherwise disrupt the choreographed rules of the genre.
Needless to say, he never succeeds. If he’d been more venal, he could have gotten a contract for $2,500 a month to keep appearing, as one American acquaintance of his did. Dovlatov probably would have leapt at the money—he was always broke—and then drowned his humiliation in fortified wine.
Yaffa is good at using himself as a comic character, and I wished he’d done it more often. (Another amusing moment comes when the Crimean zoo owner bullies the terrified Yaffa into posing for a photo with a tiger.) The television episode stands out as one of the few times he implicates himself in the endless succession of compromises he documents. It’s easy to write about other people’s compromises; it’s much harder to write about your own. Between Two Fires would have benefited from a reflection on the compromises made by an American journalist covering Russia at a time of rapidly escalating tensions between the two countries.
Foreign correspondents in Russia have protected status, and they are vastly less likely than their Russian counterparts to face harassment, violence, or imprisonment as a result of their work. But this relative safety doesn’t mean that foreign correspondents can publish whatever they want. American coverage of Russia is inevitably shaped by American political and editorial priorities. Liberal American news outlets and publishers are hungry for stories about Putin’s misdeeds, especially as they relate to Donald Trump, but there is relatively little appetite for stories that look at Russia from other angles. Media budgets are tight, space in a magazine like The New Yorker is precious, and few editors are prepared to devote the resources needed for, say, an in-depth investigation of corruption in the Russian provinces. It can be a hard road to reported facts for American journalists, too.