Q&A with Joshua Yaffa

Q&A with Joshua Yaffa

The Orwell Prizes for Political Writing and Political Fiction shortlists, released last month, highlight the finest politically engaged books published in 2020. Throughout June, we will be sharing Q+As with the shortlisted writers from both lists, here on our blog. To see the lists, visit our website here.

Today we hear from Joshua Yaffa, the author of 'Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition and Compromise in Putin’s Russia.' Yaffa is primarily based in Moscow, and is  a correspondent for the New Yorker. His writing has also appeared in the Economist, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Bloomberg Businessweek, The New Republic, and Foreign Affairs. Our judges called 'Between Two Fires' a “magnificent and moving account of everyday life in Putin’s Russia, [which]  explores the moral psychology of compromise and the difficulties of pursuing one’s ambitions, while living with integrity, or not, in the face of demands from an overmighty state.”

Your book is about the people who must make compromises to operate in Putin’s Russia: caught “between two fires”, a Russian phrase which roughly approximates the English idiom “stuck between a rock and a hard place”. What did you learn about Russia and its politics through this approach, rather than focussing on the man himself?

I found it not only more interesting, but in some ways more enlightening, to focus on the people whose lives and careers and fates take place in the shadow of the Putin system. These are people from the worlds of culture, business, media, charity, and so on who start out with understandable—even virtuous—aims and then are forced to confront their own readiness to make compromises in order to realize them. After all, as I write, most people are neither Stalin or Solzhenitsyn, but rather something in between. And so much life happens in that “in between!” Do you consider it permissible to work for a state you don’t believe in so as to have the resources to make welcome changes on a local level? Do you take state funds for your theatre performance or museum exhibition, which come with some unspoken rules and hinted-at redlines, but that nonetheless allow you to create art that would otherwise be impossible? Those dilemmas not only make for compelling reading, I hope, but also for instructive case studies in how the Putin system maintains its longevity. These are the people, I write, “whose habits, inclinations, and internal moral calculations elevated Putin to his Kremlin throne and who now perform the small, daily work that, in aggregate, keeps him there.”

In the 2017 documentary 'Icarus', Russian anti-doping expert Grigory Rodchencok repeatedly makes use of "Nineteen Eighty-Four" to help him make sense of the way he has been treated by the Russian state. Has Orwell ever come up in your reporting of Russia today?

Absolutely! Orwell remains a persistently astute and relevant guide to navigating the forces that guide Russian politics and society. In fact, the character whose life and research frames the opening chapter of my book, the famed sociologist Yuri Levada, was himself a fan of Orwell and his writings on totalitarianism, specifically the notion of doublethink. The following passage from "Nineteen Eighty-Four" nicely sums up how doublethink works in practice, both in the Soviet Union of the past and the Russia of today: the citizen trapped in an omnipotent system “knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated.” The act of “telling deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them” is “indispensably necessary,” a way of staying sane and of retaining the sense, however ephemeral or ultimately false, of individual will. Levada’s own reading and commentary on Orwell were hugely important in helping me make sense of how to apply his ideas to the Russian context. For example, as Levada saw it—and I’m inclined to agree—it is not just powerless, ordinary citizens who practice doublethink, but their rulers are no less implicated in self-deception. And maybe, in many circumstances, doublethink is appealing, even preferable—a kind of psychic balm for the disoriented and powerless. Orwell gave me a theoretical basis for understanding how this looks in practice; but he also gave me a humanistic sympathy for all of those stuck in the doublethink loop. You can often catch yourself thinking that no, I wouldn’t fall for those sorts of mental traps, I have a stronger or more resilient psyche, but then Orwell helps you see how naturally and easily an individual who exists in a seemingly all-powerful system can slide into such habits of mind, and how hard they can be to escape.

You nod towards Turgenev in the title of your final chapter. Is it possible to say whether you have been more influenced by Russian literature or American literature in the way you see the world, and how you write?

If I can allow myself the self-indulgent pretense of considering myself a writer in the way the question suggests, then I think it would be most accurate to start with the school in which I came out of: most literally the School of Journalism at Columbia University, where I gained a vocational, shoe-leather education in the trade of reporting, and then, more broadly, the school of American journalism, and its dogged, often maniacal, interest in extreme factual fidelity as the basis for whatever story you’re telling. As I see it, I can only be a writer in so far as I am a reporter—it’s what’s in my notebook that allows me to conjure the worlds and characters that I hope will captivate and inform readers. So you have to turn your curiosity outward, use it as motivation to suck up all the information you can, be omnivorous and adventurous, but also disciplined, and with what in Yiddish is known as Sitzfleisch, a certain butt-in-the-chair commitment to the task at hand. I associate all of that with the world of American journalism and literature, even though it is obviously not exclusively so. Russian literature, even non-fiction, tends to be more ponderous and philosophical. It is unabashedly interested in the big questions of the human condition, and takes a more discursive, even mystical, path in trying to answer them. (Or in demonstrating their fundamental unanswerability.) That approach also leaves welcome room for a certain prescriptive element—behold, Tolstoy comes out from behind the desk and tells us in "Anna Karenina", look at Levin in the fields, this is how one is meant to live! I find that sort of writing exhilarating. But that said, there is also an ironic, self-deprecating tradition in Russian literature, which I value and love. Someone like Sergei Dovlatov, a late-Soviet and post-Soviet writer with an enviably sharp eye and outsized sense of tragicomic humor, is my greatest delight, and perhaps even my greatest model. I quote Dovlatov a fair amount in “Between Two Fires” simply because his phrasings are funnier and smarter than anything I could come up with. Better to give readers the real thing.

Which of the persons profiled in the book did you most admire or appreciate?

I think I can fairly say that the person whose story I was most affected by is that of Elizaveta Glinka, or Doctor Liza as she was known by most nearly everyone. She rose to notoriety for her charity work with those whom oil-boom Moscow in the mid-thousands was inclined to ignore, namely the homeless and the terminally ill. There was something about her that went beyond generosity or even selflessness. I'd like to quote a passage from the book that describes what people saw in Glinka:

She had spent years at the bedsides of the sick and dying. It was quixotic, draining work, but it gave her a sense of deep meaning and satisfaction. There was something at once viscerally human yet also mystical about accompanying a person to the exit from this life. The writer Ludmila Ulitskaya described first meeting Glinka at the hospital bed of a mutual friend, who lay dying after suffering a stroke. Glinka had come to spend the night sitting by the friend’s side, but the room had only one chair, which Ulitskaya was already occupying. So Glinka stayed for a few minutes, offered some words of comfort, and left. Sometime later, Ulitskaya stepped out into the hallway of the ward. She saw Glinka lying down on a hospital cot next to an old man who had just been admitted that evening and was clearly on his last breaths. She was gently caressing this stranger’s head, though it struck Ulitskaya that the man, close to death, probably couldn’t feel anything at that point. “Liza’s behavior at that time seemed a little weird to me,” Ulitskaya recalled. But, she added, “ordinary people tend to find the behavior of saints a little weird.”

The word "saint" is of course tossed around far too casually and risks veering toward cliché, but in Glinka's case it seems a fitting encapsulation of the feeling many people were left with after encountering her. I, too, fell under that spell, even second hand--the interviews with friends and colleagues of Glinka's were among the most emotionally charged I did for the entire book. But her life would not stay so clearly defined for long. After the outbreak of war in the Donbass, in eastern Ukraine, in 2014, Glinka felt compelled to help the weak and injured and powerless there, too. This put her in the middle of an inevitably political situation that she could never manage to solve to everyone's satisfaction, perhaps not even her own. The war had been kicked off and was certainly being prolonged with Russia's help; but here was Glinka, going to the Kremlin and appealing to Putin's humanitarian instincts to help evacuate children from the warzone and bring them to Russia for treatment. Helping sick and injured children is certainly a good thing. But was Glinka essentially allowing Putin and others in the Kremlin a chance to buy themselves an "indulgence", as one person put it, for their role in the war? I understood the many criticisms that Glinka faced from Russian liberals and those in the opposition in those days. But I also understood her reply: “Do you think it would be better if the children I brought out had died?” she asked an interviewer at the height of the Donbass war. She mentioned a recent case: “Let’s take Nikita Teplyakov, who needed a kidney transplant, and whom I was able to evacuate by train." What if she hadn't managed to appeal to the Kremlin to bring him and other children to Russia for treatment? "Would you live better? You would get the opportunity to write a post: ‘Putin’s bloody regime crushed Nikita Teplyakov.’” I think that sort of utilitarianism manages to elide certain political or moral truths, but it certainly has its own truth. Whatever you say about Glinka, she was in the game, speeding through checkpoints to get to orphanages trapped in the crossfire, cajoling and pleading and using whatever favors she had to get real help for real people. It's a degree of single-minded focus that's hard not to admire. Glinka's whole story is inevitably defined by how it tragically ended: in 2016, she was on a Russian military transport plane headed to Syria, where she was meant to take part in a Russian humanitarian mission, clearly an operation with a P.R. tinge. Not long after takeoff, the plane crashed into the Black Sea, killing Glinka and nearly one hundred other passengers and crew. It's impossible not to reach the conclusion that her proximity to the state led to her death--otherwise she would never have been on that plane. To me, it's such a poignant and tragic story, which gets to the very centre of the question of compromise, of what can be gained and what is at risk of being lost. Her story still resonates with me, and it's the one readers most often bring up and want to discuss.

Buy Between Two Fires from Bookshop.org here.

Image credit: Max Avdeev

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