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Review: `Between Two Fires' explores Putin's Russia

This cover image released by Tim Duggan Books shows "Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition and Compromise in Putin’s Russia" by Joshua Yaffa. (Tim Duggan Books via AP)

“Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia,” Tim Duggan Books/Random House, by Joshua Yaffa

“Wily man” is the central character in Joshua Yaffa’s “Between Two Fires.” Proud of his Russian heritage, emotionally attached to the homeland and passively obedient to the state, but clever enough to know and exploit the system to achieve what he wants. Russian sociologist Yuri Levada presented “wily man” in the early 2000s in searching for an explanation as to why so many Russians could lack trust in the government yet be loyal to the nation.

The book’s title originates from a Russian saying that describes being stuck between two powerful opposing forces – in this instance the sometimes smothering state and morality and personal freedom.

Yaffa builds on Levada’s thesis with deeply reported and detailed profiles of Russians who have rationalized the constraints imposed on them and yet have learned how to become adept at what readers might call in the U.S. “gaming the system.”

It’s 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. As Yaffa explains, it’s the way things are done in Russia.

For example, do you want to make a movie in Russia? In a nation where fundraising and non-profits are scarce, you might have to make some compromises on the script to get government approval and funding.

Ordinary citizens learn to manoeuvr their lives around the sometimes repressive demands of the state, and generally with the full knowledge of their oppressors.

Yaffa says there are emerging characteristics in American life that Russians share: lack of a shared truth, cynical distrust of motives and attacks on the legitimacy of political institutions. Yaffa says these “pathologies” weren’t exported from Russia but rather Americans drifted that way on their own.

Meantime, Putin’s Russian has delivered stability and rising opportunities and incomes for many. Wily man can live with that.

Jeff Rowe, The Associated Press