by Michael Rowand
Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia,
Joshua Yaffa, Granta, 2020
It happened at a time of celebration. People gathered with loved ones. Children were told to remember the day by their parents. Families feasted with friends. As the first fireworks went off in Auckland, many a retiree had a tear in the eye. The thought that something disastrous might happen, something vague, something with computers, only added to the frisson. All day people waited by TVs, watching every hour as each city celebrated. Sydney. Tokyo. Beijing. Mumbai. And onwards, until it was their turn. The champagne corks popped. People kissed. ‘The new millennium,’ everyone said.
If they were watching the news closely — and in most places, they were not; the celebrations started early — they might have noticed some news from Moscow. The affable drunk, Boris Yeltsin, was resigning. A new man was taking power. Still a youngish fellow, he looked rather like a bank manager, the kind of guy you see barking churlishly at one of the young tellers behind the counter. The man spoke just after midnight.
It did not seem like it at the time, but this incident was probably the most important thing in the world that happened as 31 December 1999 turned to 1 January 2000. The man speaking was Vladimir Putin. Since then, his regime has murdered on British soil, interfered with French and American elections, supported far right politicians, tortured LGBTQ+ people, and poisoned its opposition. Putin is still in power and there is no end in sight. His success has not just been in maintaining his own authority, but in forging a regime that delights in seeing dissent crushed anywhere. For example, the editor-in-chief of RT (the Russian propaganda outlet directed towards international audiences) recently tweeted that she envied Belarus for having managed the successful mid-air kidnapping of the dissident journalist Roman Protasevich.
How did European and North American leaders fail to respond to the challenge this regime posed? After all, Mr Putin’s caustic activities have not been confined to Russia. There are no easy answers. But it began with a misunderstanding of Putin and Russia itself. And, just as importantly, the major powers failed to recognise and mitigate strategic shifts within the Russian security community.
Joshua Yaffa addresses these developments in Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia. In the book, Yaffa attempts to narrate modern Russia’s journey by exploring the lives of individuals at power’s fringes. Some of the broader stories will be familiar to readers of the steady stream of books on modern Russia that populate bookshops: the taming of the Kadyrov family and their installation as lords of Chechnya, the financial failures of the 1990s, the expansion of state propaganda and crushing of independent voices, the annexation of Crimea and the reassimilation of the Russian Orthodox Church as a tool of state power are all featured by Yaffa. What differentiates his book is not only his choice to tell this story through the experiences of individuals, but also the themes he highlights in his subjects. The most prominent theme is compromise — coerced compromises and concessions out of citizens. This, Yaffa argues, is what allows Putin’s regime to outlast its critics. This is what makes it endure, despite endemic corruption. The power of the state is wielded so unremittingly that once-principled people feel they have little choice but to acquiesce. The budding artist becomes a propagandist. The activist starts attacking human rights advocates as foreign agents. The clergy watches what they say in their sermons.
The problem compounds over time. Yaffa notes that the state’s role in the economy has nearly doubled since Putin first became president. If this system endures, he writes, even principled people will fold to state demands. Many who compromise often internalise the state’s demands and begin to consider themselves “statespeople” — individuals whose overriding interest is in protecting the state rather than any individual person or ethical principle. Yaffa is careful to display the fraught situations in which these individuals find themselves. However, it is these actions, most of which are individually rational, that end up collectively preserving a domineering regime.
One case that Yaffa examines is that of Elizaveta “Liza” Glinka. After studying medicine, Glinka founded an NGO focused on helping the homeless and terminally ill, work lauded in multiple documentaries. When Russia fomented war in eastern Ukraine after annexing Crimea, Glinka helped rescue children who were orphaned by the bombing. Soon, Putin’s government was assisting her with planes and supplies as she made trip after trip to the region to facilitate the evacuation of children and the wounded to receive medical care in Russia. On its own, this work is admirable, but Glinka’s actions eventually drew criticism from fellow humanitarians when she discussed the war in Ukraine and Russia’s role in it. The war in eastern Ukraine was comprised of just militia members and Ukrainian troops ‘sorting things out between themselves,’ she asserted; she claimed to have never seen any involvement of Russian troops in Ukraine, despite ample evidence that they were there in force. Even though she had supported alternate candidates to Putin’s party in the 2012 elections, she was never willing to criticise the war that Putin kept aflame and appeared with Putin at multiple events. If pressed, she followed the Kremlin line. She received the supplies and transportation she needed. Putin’s regime got to portray itself as compassionate; she ‘let them feel that they are benevolent and mighty’ Glinka’s friend Ksenia Sokolova said. This is the balance for those that compromise with the Russian state. And yet, these actions soothe the pillars of the very regime that is putting those people in peril.
While Yaffa captures most of the important developments in Russia, there are some he does not give sufficient attention to. The first is the patriarchal nature of Putin’s authoritarianism. Scholars such as Leta Hong Fincher have observed how some authoritarian regimes fuse their legitimacy with misogyny and oppressive gender norms. Putin’s regime has repeatedly evinced patriarchal authoritarianism. Aside from his own misogynistic comments, Putin has decriminalised domestic violence, and his regime has sought to harshly enforce traditional norms of gender and sexuality, whether by new discriminatory laws, allowing LGBTQ+ people to be tortured in Chechnya, or the nationwide freak-out over Conchita Wurst’s victory in the Eurovision Song Contest 2014.
Yaffa also does not discuss Putin’s attacks on the American and French elections — his focus is domestic. Other books look elsewhere to understand Russian power. If Yaffa’s driving question in Between Two Fires is ‘what keeps Putin in power?’, then perhaps Oscar Jonsson’s question in The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines Between War and Peace is ‘how have Russia’s techniques for maintaining international power changed over time?’ Jonsson meticulously traces military doctrine from the late Tsarist period forward, focusing especially on how new information and political warfare doctrines and strategies emerged. He demonstrates that a gradual discursive evolution on the nature and character of war took place in Russia under Putin. Russia’s conception of conflict, then, shifted to one that incorporated methods beyond the traditional military toolkit.
The most significant leap came in the late-2000s and early-2010s. Russian theorists were discerning new potential for cyber warfare far beyond what US officials were already using. Information and cyber warfare, they perceived, were not only useful in wartime, but part of a continuum between war and peace, where war was not strictly violent. Such findings were not altogether new. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union often supported socialist and communist parties abroad, funding and helping them recruit members and distribute leaflets. In a world where the internet is increasingly the dominant news source, expensive, in-person influence campaigns abroad, Jonsson shows, are unnecessary. There is no need to hold meetings or print pamphlets: the most important work can be done with a modest budget from within Russia.
In 2012, Vladimir Putin stated publicly that space, cyber and information warfare would soon be ‘as effective as nuclear weapons but … more “acceptable” from the political and military point of view’. The next four years illustrated his point. During the annexation of Crimea, Russia pushed misinformation about the new Ukrainian leaders supposedly being Nazis, through cyber, television and in-person appeals that prevented an effective response. In 2016, more than 100,000 Russian accounts posted about Brexit in a 48-hour period before the vote — one botnet had over 10,000 bots in it. During the 2016 American Presidential campaign, more than 150 million Americans saw Russian misinformation spread on Facebook and Instagram alone. This proved to be 13 million more people than those who voted for all candidates in the entire election. Of course, none of these campaigns could have been successful without a collective blind eye to corruption, partisan division, and bigotry. Nonetheless such manoeuvres proved to the Kremlin that political ends could be achieved by aggressive cyber operations.
What sort of mind is susceptible to information warfare, propaganda, and other manipulative actions? One consistent presence in these works (and indeed I have encountered it in my own travels in Russia) is a desire by many Russians not to impugn the past. In Between Two Fires, a television host gripes that after the fall of the Soviet Union, the people ‘were told that our history is a series of continuous mistakes: it’s all black, all terrible, we lost everything, repressed and killed everyone’. Jonsson quotes a 2014 statement from Russia’s Ministry of Defence complaining that Russia’s enemies were ‘aiming to undermine the historical, spiritual, and patriotic traditions … of the fatherland’. Yaffa observes how Putin has worked to counteract perceived attacks on tradition and national identity, allowing quiet remembrance of the victims of Soviet-era atrocities, but not any discussion of responsibility for the crimes.
In their book Never Remember: Searching for Stalin’s Gulags in Putin’s Russia, Masha Gessen also observed how remembrance of political repression is warped by Putin’s politics. Museums and memorials muddle history such that crimes, if mentioned at all, emerge from the murky past without context or perpetrators. This tendency is far from unique to Russia. It is one of several reasons why conservatives in the UK, US, France, and other countries have made common cause with Putin’s autocracy. American racists who are repelled by the spectre of Confederate monuments no longer being honoured, Britons who bristle at Edward Colston’s statue being tossed in the river and French fussing about postcolonial theory in universities seem to share a kinship with Putin supporters who complain that their history is unfairly maligned. Minds fevered by nationalism often react allergically to honest reckoning with shameful actions in a nation’s past.
The revelries of New Year’s Eve in 1999 are nearly forgotten now. Still, taken together, these books reflect how many of the perils of the current moment, at home and abroad, are rooted in the past. Our societies are immune to neither the forces that influenced Russia’s course nor its government’s actions abroad. For the last two decades, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have seen in Mr Putin the Russian leader they wished to see, not Putin as he truly is. George W. Bush claimed that Putin was ‘honest and straightforward’, Barack Obama sought to ‘reset’ relations with him; Donald Trump sided with Putin over his own government, and Boris Johnson dismissed a detailed report on the actions of the Russian state within Britain. For democracy to survive, leaders will need to be far more discerning. MICHAEL ROWAND finished reading for an MPhil in Modern Chinese Studies at Wolfson College last year. He currently lives in a country that had a bigoted reality TV host as President not too long ago.
Art by Charlotte Adamo