Between Two Fires

In this rich and novelistic tour of contemporary Russia, Joshua Yaffa introduces readers to some of the country’s most remarkable figures—from politicians and entrepreneurs to artists and historians—who have built their careers and constructed their identities in the shadow of the Putin system. Torn between their own ambitions and the omnipresent demands of the state, each walks an individual path of compromise. Some muster cunning and cynicism to extract all manner of benefits and privileges from those in power. Others, finding themselves to be less adept, are left broken and demoralized. What binds them together is the tangled web of dilemmas and contradictions they face.

Between Two Fires chronicles the lives of a number of strivers who understand that their dreams are best—or only—realized through varying degrees of cooperation with the Russian government. With sensitivity and depth, Yaffa profiles the director of the country’s main television channel, an Orthodox priest at war with the church hierarchy, a Chechen humanitarian who turns a blind eye to persecutions, and many others. The result is an intimate and probing portrait of a nation that is much discussed yet little understood. By showing how citizens shape their lives around the demands of a capricious and frequently repressive state—as often by choice as under threat of force—Yaffa offers urgent lessons about the true nature of modern authoritarianism.

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Praise and reviews: 

Between Two Fires is a study of compromise, opportunism, and the fraught moral choices available in Putin’s Russia. In a series of carefully reported stories, Joshua Yaffa shows how people choose—sometimes consciously and other times not—to adapt, change, and otherwise ‘make do’ in an authoritarian state. This is the real story of how modern authoritarianism works and even thrives, by manipulating the motivations of the regime’s most capable and ambitious citizens.”—Anne Applebaum, author of Red Famine and Gulag
“In Between Two Fires, Joshua Yaffa brilliantly captures the complex choices and compromises that Russians make to survive, thrive, or remain true to their principles in Putin’s Russia. Through captivating storytelling, Yaffa drills deep into profiles of a very diverse set of Russian personalities, capturing with nuance the contradictions of contemporary Russia.”—Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and author of From Cold War to Hot Peace
“Joshua Yaffa’s portrait of a people is a triumph—a brilliantly original, deeply literate path through the moral struggles and calculations of a modern Russia he knows in his bones. He is allergic to the caricatures of the ruler and the ruled, and is, simply, a beautiful writer, with the humane, tragicomic eye of a novelist and the tough-minded rigor of the best journalists.”—Evan Osnos, author of Age of Ambition

“Few journalists have penetrated so deep and with so much nuance into the moral ambiguities of Russia. If you want insight into the deeper distortions the Kremlin causes in people’s psyches this book is invaluable.”—Peter Pomerantsev, author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible

“This is a book about Putin’s Russia that is unlike any other—an account not of the leader himself but of the ways in which contemporary Russians reckon with the state he has created. With a novelist’s eye for the telling detail and a philosopher’s grasp of moral nuance, Joshua Yaffa strings together a sequence of unforgettable portraits. The result is a profound inquiry into the myriad gradations of individual compromise in post–Soviet Russia.”—Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Say Nothing

“A deep and revealing portrait of life inside Vladimir Putin’s Russia. . . . Yaffa mines a rich vein, describing his subjects’ moral compromises and often ingenious ways of engaging a crooked bureaucracy to show how the Kremlin sustains its authoritarianism.”—The New York Times Book Review

“A deeply reported account of what it’s like to live in Putin’s Russia, but it’s not about Twitter bots or influencing foreign elections or even Vladimir Putin himself. . . . Yaffa gives us insight into Putin by helping us better understand the political culture that produced him.”—NPR
“A fascinating and nuanced account that illuminates the myriad conflicting and often contradictory forces that have shaped the Russia of today.”—Douglas Smith, The Wall Street Journal
“Deeply reported and detailed . . . A fascinating exploration into the beliefs and psyches of Russians in many different career fields who reveal their souls to Yaffa, often to a surprising degree but with little apparent fear of reprisal.”—San Francisco Chronicle