Between Two Fires: Book Review

March 4, 2020

Surviving in Putin's Russia is the focus of this book, telling the stories of people in very different circumstances, some famous and important (at least in Russia), some not. Basically, how to survive in a repressive state. Part of it is long-term culture, even going back to the Czars as father figures and strong men looking for the good of the country; mostly, relative to the inefficient and corrupt communist period. Putin played multiple angles to gain support, eliminate dissent and stay in power. The "wily man" is introduced at the start. The Soviet leaders did not understand the citizens, especially at the time of the communist collapse. Sociologist Yuri Levada surveyed the citizens on Soviet society, explaining the "individual's timidity and servitude before the state, which was a product both of the fear that came from repression and an inability to imagine oneself without the state--a paternalistic symbiosis" [homo sovieticus] ... "It began as a survival mechanism, in which citizen and state subconsciously worked together to ensure that the individual took agency in stifling his own freedom ... Levada's Soviet Man intuitively understood that it was easier--and ultimately more profitable--to play one's own game within the system. Bravery took the form of passive resistance. (p. 4-6). "The citizen pretended to be an enthusiastic and loyal subject and the state pretended to be both competent and interested in providing for individual well-being" (p. 8). Would Home sovieticus disappear or evolve? Levada's surveys showed reduced enthusiasm for a strong leader, closer relations with the West, and ready for an honest appraisal of their history. "Russia's post-Soviet citizens held attitudes that resembled those of Soviet generations before them. ... A preponderance of patience over active protest; adaptation over resistance; and passive displeasure over a struggle for one's rights" (p. 9).


Levada replaced the idea of homo sovieticus with the wily man: "not only tolerates deception, but is willing to be deceived, and even requires self-deception for the sake of his own self-preservation. ... He adapts to social reality, looking for oversights and gaps in the ruling system, looking to use the rules of the game for his own interest--he is consistently trying to circumvent those were same rules ... interacting with the state is a game of half-truths and deceptions, served up as an offering to the bureaucratic machine, and told to one another as justification for squelching ambition and a sense of morality" (p. 10). "The wily man harbors no illusions about the true nature of the state; it is just that they don't see an alternative to it. ... Russian people need the protection of the state but they do not want to serve it" (p. 11). "Putin restored the authority of the Russian state the only way he knew how: by bringing the many arms of government administration under his direct control, creating a 'vertical of power" that was responsive to his whims and orders" (p. 12). "Putin's great luck that his assemblage of power coincided with a rise in global oil prices" (p. 12). 


"The sorts of compromises made by the people in this book are not all alike: a retreat made in the face of grave danger is one thing; an abandonment of principles in search of power is another; and a lack of a constant guiding set of values, which makes any and all forms of adaptation equally palatable, is perhaps the scariest form of all. ... Wiliness often works vertically, aimed upward; less so horizontally, where relations are often guided by an us-against-them resourcefulness and solidarity" (p. 312). "There are no angels or villains ... just people trying to come to terms with what they can't control, and to carve out some small space for the private and the humane" (Sergei Dovlatov, emigre to New York, p. 14). Solzhenitsyn wrote One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a day in a Stalin-era prison camp: 'subject was the cruelty of the Soviet system, but he also documented the ways people sought to survive that system, cheating it and outsmarting it whenever possible" (p. 14). What is morally correct in an ucnjust system? The people "treated the Putin state as a given--neither good nor bad, but simply there--and then went about constructing their lives around it" (p. 20). "I met fiercely proud and brilliant men and women who believed the best, ir not the only, way to realize their vision was in concord with the state" (p. 21). "Between two fires: the condition of being stuck in the middle of two opposing forces bigger than yourself" (p. 21).


Chapter 1: Master of Ceremonies. The story of Konstantin Ernst, head of Channel One, the largest Russian TV network. Ernst started as a director at Viewpoint, which included coverage of corruption within the Communist Party, Sakharov and so on. Before that it was hollow propaganda on TV with no way to understand the world. Ernst and other experimented with new styles and techniques, helping people understand unfamiliar surroundings after the fall of the Soviet Union. "Channel One's main shareholder, Boris Berezovsky, a rapacious and power-hungry oligarch with interest in everything from oil to automobiles, proposed that Ernst take over. ... For Berezonsky, the channel was not a commercial project--but a political one, a way to make himself indispensable, a kingmaker in waiting. The network's news and information programming did everything they could to propel Yeltsin to victory. ... As the yeltsin era cam to a close, Channel One boosted the image of Putin. ... This in fact was something new: the invention of a candidate from thin air, a television phenomenon. Ernst could not exist with relying on the state. ... He could realize his creative vision, a worldview that aspires to a certain cosmopolitan savviness while ultimately remaining subservient to the state and its needs" (p. 36-7). "The firt Putin call-in show aired in December 2001, and has appeared nearly every year since. ... Inevitably, he comes off as sagacious and omnipotent. The Russian mentality stipulates that the leader of the country ... is seen to answer for everything, that there is one person who symbolizes the entire state: building the myth of Putin as a quasi-sacred figure ... and shunning any unwelcome developments that complicate that narrative" (p. 41), careful in how it presented tragedy like Chechen terrorists. When Chechens seized a school more than 300 people were killed, mainly children: "Channel One faithfully transmits the Kremlin's line, it does so with a measure of professionalism and restraint" (p. 43). "Ernst is a regular visitor to the Kremlin's weekly planning meetings for media bosses" (p. 50); a journalist essentually becomes a state official. Ernst pulled of Putin's 2014 Winter Olympic games in Sochi. 


Weeks of fighting in Kyiv overthrew Viktor Yanukovych, a corrupt politician--the end of the Putin-era. Putin annexed Crimea and attacked eastern Ukraine. "Channel One news programs and talk shows became consumed with talk of a coup in Kyiv, NATO's dark intentions, and the so-called Fascists who supposedly took over after Yanukovych" (p. 59). "Ernst shared Putin's grievances about how Russia had been treated--by Americans especially--in the years since the end of the Cold War" (p. 60). Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in eastern Ukraine: "Russian state media, including Channel One, went into a prolonged fury, giving voice to just about every far-fetched alternative version of events possible. ... The aim of each theory was not to persuafe viewers but simply to confuse and wear them down. ... Baldly fake stories aren't much of a strategic disaster for Channel One. ...  The propaganda of today's Russia is skilled at playing into preconceived notions, telling people what they are already inclined to believe, rather than trying to convince them of what they don't , as Soviet television did. What matter is the overall narrative: Russia is just and powerful, and the West is seeking to weaken it" (p. 64-5). "Of course everyone here was pleased with Trump. Trump openly favored a transactional style of politics, with little appetite for things like values or norms. ... Clinton, Ernst thought, cam across as a nasty and wicked old woman" (p. 69). Later, there was: "a creeping sense of confusion and disappointment as Trump proved unable to single-handedly cancel sanctions and reconfigure US-Russian relations on the terms the Kremlin has been hoping for" (p. 70).


Chapter 2: Beware of Dragons. Heda Saratove, a Chechen mother who had to run for her life during the civil war with Russia in 1999. "Saratove discovered a new mission for herself. She became a kind of one-woman documentarian, bringing evidence of atrocities and human rights violations committed by Russian soldiers out of Chechnya" (p. 80). Chechens were Muslim and had a different culture. They, "unlike any other group or nationality encountered, were not tempted by the benefits of compromise, and never allowed themselves to become fully Sovietized. ... would not acquire the mental habits of submission" (p 84). Foreign fighters flocked into Chechnya from the Middle East. "For a Chechen, death isn't nearly as terrifying as humiliation" (p. 86). "A woman had a better chance of avoiding scrutiny by projecting an air of Caucasian modesty while hiding a camera" (p. 87). Akhmad-Hadji Kadyrov was elected president in 2003 under military occupation; when killed, he was replace by son Ramzan, with Putin's blessing. His rule became absolute with the help of militias and terrorism. "At first, Saratova was measured in her support for Kadyrov ... turning into resigned suppport. ... You can leave ... or become a person of the state, which gives you all manner of resources and possibilities--status and influence and money proved convincing" (p. 97-99). Ramzan holds Chechen society together and keeps Russia as a distance. Other dissidents were absolute and viewed her as a sellout; she sees reality, the rules of survival. "Saratova's work became clearer: on matters that concerned Kadyrov and his inner circle, she was powerless. ... But in more peripheral cases, she could be of some help" (p. 103), but always with a protector above. When Chechens and others became stuck in in Syria, she helped get them out, including women and children going with husbands ("we thank Putin for our children"). She did not help Chechen men declared homosexual. "Human rights activists, especially in Chechnya, can expect repercussions if their work threatens state interests" (p. 119). 


Chapter 3: The Last Free Priest. "The state had walled off political matters from society at large, declaring politics its own dominion" (p. 122). Patriarch Kirill, leader of the the Russian Orthodox Church from 2009: "moved the church closer to the state, enjoying its largesse and patronage while staying out of the earthly nitty-gritty of politics" (p. 123). There were rumors of KGB ties. He chose top-down micromanagement. "One of the few opposing voices in the provinces came from a parish priest in Pskov, Father Pavel Adelgeim ... called it a wily alliance" (p. 125). Kirill shifted the power of parishes to the bishop from the parish congregation. Under the Soviets, the Orthodox Church was given a modest, but unpleasant existence--but it remained "unspoiled by decades of Soviet dogma" (p. 132); the Church grew the number of parishes and priests. "Orthodoxy allowed for a nationalistic ideology that venerated the Russian state" (p. 137). Adelgeim: "the church increasingly resembled a totalitarian sect, closing in on itself" (p. 140). Adelgeim defended Pussy Riot: "spoke against the un-Christian nature of openly seeking the women's punishment. ... For Putin, Pussy Riot was a godsend: an opportunity to pint those opposed to his rule as a bunch of godless freaks and punks" (p. 147). Church and state defended each other. "The dynasty of Russian tsars linked their legitimacy to God's will and enjoyed a supremacy over religious matters not matched by Western European monarchs" (p. 150). Stalin appealed to Orthodoxy during World War II to mobilize for war. "The Soviet authorities preferred weak, morally corrupt priests, lacking charisma and genuine belief" (p. 154). "Orthodox faith brings nothing but good to any community, any organization or structure. We provide the state with ethical citizens, patriotic and faithful" (p. 160). Adelgeim: "Faith in the strong--whether in the Kremlin or the church--has replaced divine providence" (p. 162). 


Chapter 4: King of the Pride. Russian Oleg Zubkov owned zoos in Crimea. This is the story of Putin's takeover of Crimea and and invasion of Eastern Ukraine after his guy was ousted as president. Ukrainian officials were corrupt and bumbling (mainly demanding bribes, but allowing informal fixes), while Russian officials were bureaucratic and horrendous to work with. Crimea was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 by Khrushchev. No problem under Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych, corrupt (mainly siphoning off extreme wealth) but Putin's guy; he rejected the EU (Putin wanted to create a trade union of former Soviet states). The result was protests in Kyiv (the Maidan), over both canceling the EU agreement and rampant corruption and "crude authoritarianism." Yanukovychh fled to Russia. Putin apparently believed the US was behind the protests. By and large Crimea wanted the Russian market. Consequently, the Russian takeover was fairly popular (but not by everyone, including the indigenous Tatars). Zubkov initially supported the takeover, then had continued problems with the Russian regime, including fines, lawsuits, and confiscation of equipment and animals. Western Ukraine was part of the former Hapsburg Empire (favoring ties with Europe and rejecting the Soviet past), while Eastern Ukraine was closer to the Russian camp. An additional  problem was that some Ukrainians were considered Fascists (during World War II these Ukrainians sided with the Nazis--the Red Army was like an occupying force). With sanctions over Crimea, Russian companies tended to stay out of Crimea. Ukrainian corruption and ineptness was replaced by Russian inflexible bureaucracy filled with inspection bodies levying fines. Political connection work, for everyone else it could be complex and chaotic ("we are always looking for loopholes to get around the law"). "The Russia shown on television and the Russia of real life are two different countries" (p. 185). Ukraine sealed off access to Crimea, including utilities.


Chapter 5: Notes on Camp. Perm-36 was a historical museum on a former prison camp for discussing the history of the Gulag and political repression, run by Shmyrov and Kursina. "It's mission was ... to tell the story of resistance to unfreedom" (p. 225). Sergei Kovalev was convicted of "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" (he gave up science for human rights activism) in 1976 and ended up at Perm-36. Memorial was an NGO founded to document state's mistreatment of citizens and opened an office near Perm. Victor Shmyrov was a history professor committed to the site's preservation and a museum was opened in 1995. "No outside force administered Russia in its transition, and no legal processes were ever held to sort through the responsibilities of officials from the Communist Party, KGB, or other state organs. ... If the Nazi Holocaust exterminated the Other, the Soviet terror was suicidal. ... In the Soviet Union, people were killed or imprisoned for reasons that did not comport with observable reality. ... In Hitler's camps, the victims knew why they were killed, whereas those who perished in the Gulag died bewildered" (p. 222). "Kukushkin was a former guard at Perm-36, and had watched over Kovalev ... and reinvented himself as the museum's security guard. ... He had been a young man trapped by circumstances and zombified by Soviet propaganda" (p. 223). The rise of Putin resulted in a new set of values: "Confidence and patriotic swagger were to replace the insecurity and self-flagellation of the nineties. ... Today's Russia is the inheritor of the Soviet Union's great-power status" (p. 226). Society was remember and mourn victims of political repressions, but discussing the perpetrators is off limits" (p. 228). "The Stalin paradox" which produced millions of victims but no criminals. In 2012 by-the-book functionaries turned Perm-36 into a state institution, fitting into the agenda of the day. Prisoners from Ukraine were now Nazi collaborators. The idea of protest was to overthrow the state, presumably with the help of the West, especially the US. A compromise resulted in the museum being competent and professional, but muted and neutral. The alternatives: a political forum or closed down and bulldozed. "The appearance of any conflict at all could lead to our destruction. Our task is to survive. ... The dilemma of PERMM is essentially how not to betray the institution ... without bringing about further problems" (p. 241). The Bolshevik Revolution 100-year anniversary resulted in an exhibit called "Between Dreams and Reality." 


Chapter 6: Hell on Earth. The story of Elzaveta Glinka (Doctor Liz). She was a super-humanitarian, making multiple trips from Moscow to eastern Ukraine to rescue people trapped in the war, then died in a plane crash to Syria with similar intentions. She had to ally with Putin to get access to rescue the down-trodden. In other words, moral compromises for selfless reasons. Putin was in Syria to be a player in the Middle East as a geopolitical superpower. Early in her medical career Glinka opened a hospice in Kyiv ("everyone dies differently"), then forming Fair Aid to provide medicine and palliative care. "Glinka became one of a number of philantropists and humanitarians who, by their exemple, changed the perception of charity in modern Russian society. ... The state and its functionaries were neither inherently good nor bad--they just had certain resources that she needed in order to help more people. ... Her battle was not for the state or against it, for Putin or against him. Her battle was against injustice, suffering, pain" (p. 257-9). Mikhail Fedotov chaired Kremlin's human rights council: "a decorative token held up as proof of the Putin system's humanistic side. ... Less politics, more concreteness" (p. 259). "Law, first passed in 2012, forces the label of 'foreign agent' on any NGO that receives funding from abroad. ... Putin believes that an organization receiving money from a foreign donor is automatically acting in the interest of that foreign government. ... [Fedotov]: Yelling about the law itself would be politics, and thus counterproductive, but working to get this or that group off the list is concrete action" (p. 260). Glinka joined the council, looking at provincial hospitals, getting administrators to improve supplies as so on. When Russia attacked Ukraine, she went to Ukrainian hospitals, then found children who needed serious care and brought them back to Moscow. She did this over and over, in both areas supporting either side. "Glinka was driven by a genuine and rare altruism that Saratova [from Chapter 2] lacked. ... The two women did share a certain pragmatism, in which the moral value of helping a person in need trumped how that help might be obtained" (p. 267). "She could open any door, she could solve any problem--there are very few people in Russia who can do this. ... A doctor doesn't always have the pleasure of moral choice" (p. 269). "Glinka could never understand the focus on the political over the concrete" (p. 278). She became "a testament to the startling and magnetic power of altruism in a country where venal self-interest had long become the norm" (p. 281).   


Chapter 7: Subtle Creatures. The Bolshoi Theatre with director Kirill Serebrennikov. He was arrested, accused of embezzling 68 million rubles in state monies. The problem is that Russian rules for state monies are so strict that they must be violated to even put on a show, meaning the state could arrest virtually anyone involved at any time. "The Putin state regularly makes a show of putting on trial those it says misallocate budget funds. ... What was the true nature of it? Or was the randomness of the charge the point? ... The outcome of which would define the relationship between art and the state in the Putin era going forward" (p. 284-5). "Serebrennikov was a particularly Russian type of rebel: one who sought, and attained, mainstream success, often with the blessing and support of the state. ... By fostering the avant-guarde, the Kremlin hoped to send different messages to different audiences. For the West, it was an invitation to get involved. ... Russia's own intelligensia and creative professionals were meant to see the state's interest as a call for collaboration. ... The country's young got a relatable style, an aesthetic that was attractive and modern. ... Much of Russian cultural life is dependent on state funding" (p. 285-7). "The algorithms began to shift in late 2011 and early 2012, with the appearance of the protests on the streets of Moscow. The demonstrators were largely middle-class professionals: Serebrennikov's audience, and the sort of people whom Surkov thought he could cleverly manage. ... Putin name Vladimir Medinsky as Russia's minister of culture, a nationalist ideologue. ... Medinsky shifted the ministry in a strongly conservative direction" (p. 292). Serebrennikov was denied screening a documentary to Pussy Riot, and act of censorship (presented as a "paternal gesture." When Russia annexed Crimea, it built civic pride and promoting the arts no longer needed. Investigations started in 2017, with an indictment of off-the-books cash (vendors demanded payment). "Humor can be a means of having it both ways: a winking and knowing irony that allows you to eke out a space of personal freedom even when that freedom is restricted. ... Living a double life is actually what put Kirill Serebrenikov behind bars" (p. 299). He was freed with explanation. "It wasn't an acquittal, but ... it was the closest thing to it. ... Just as your downfall may come with no warning or explanation, so, too, can your redemption" (p. 307-8).  


Epilogue: Fathers and Sons. "Some of the people I encountered, and would come to write about, remained on the outside of the system, making everyday accommodations to the vagaries of their environment, learning when to dodge or outsmart the state and when to acquiesce to its demands. Others went further, effectively joining the system and reaping benefits from their positions on the inside. ... Wiliness often works vertically, aimed upward; less so horizontally, where relations are often guided by an us-against-them resourcefulness and solidarity" (p. 312). "The sorts of compromises made by the people in this book are not all alike: a retreat made in the face of grave danger is one thing; an abandonment of principles in search of power and wealth is another; and a lack of any constant guiding set of values, which makes any and all forms of adaptation equally palatable, is perhaps the scariest form of all. ... Such individual choices and behaviors lead to in the aggregate: a society and political system in which nearly every form of initiative risks being co-opted and manipulated. ... Do the compromises of the wily man require require judgment or compassion? ... Surely there has to be a moral framework that doesn't force those with good intentions to stay cloistered on their side of the barricades, with all manner of good and worthy projects unrealized" (p. 314). "What gave the Putin system its longevity to date was the way it managed to achieve a kind of buy-in, conscious or not, from so many of its citizens" (p. 314).     


This book is worth considering on multiple dimensions. First, it's a better understanding of Russia, its culture and motives. This is a police state, corrupt (if not exactly evil), but millions of people live here with varying degrees of success and ethics. More general points can be considered. Probably any society faces at least some of these issues (moral principles, defining success based on some set of motivations, What are the lessons applicable to 2020 America, when politics is more polarized and at least one side is using similar tactics to Russia. [My next book is Ezra Klein's Why We're Polarized, which have additional issues and hopefully solutions on this point.] 








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© 2016 Gary Giroux