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Journalist Joshua Yaffa On New Book, 'Between Two Fires'


There's a new book that provides 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. It's called "Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, And Compromise In Putin's Russia." It's by Joshua Yaffa. He's The New Yorker's Moscow correspondent.

In it, he draws upon his many years of living and reporting in Russia to introduce us to a cast of interesting characters - a media executive, a zoo owner, an entrepreneur, even an Orthodox priest - to explain the compromises that people make to thrive or just to survive in Russia, a country where the government exerts influence over nearly all aspects of daily life.

In doing this, Yaffa gives us insight into Vladimir Putin himself by helping us better understand the political culture that produced him. And Joshua Yaffa is with us now to tell us more. Thank you so much for joining us. Nice to have you with us.

JOSHUA YAFFA: Thank you. Happy to be here.

MARTIN: There's so much we could talk about - about Russia, about Putin. But you focus on a group of people, right? - of mainly professionals, but with different degrees of power and connection to the country's politics. How did you decide upon this approach?

YAFFA: I have been working in Russia for a while as a journalist. I arrived in the spring of 2012. And it became clear to me pretty quickly that something was being lost or not fully captured in the way that I and a lot of other American reporters wrote about Russia, in which, on the one hand, we talked about Putin and all the little mini-Putins around him who act and corrupt and repressive ways to keep under wraps or to hold against their will in some way brave, heroic human rights defenders, opposition politicians and so on.

That dichotomy very much does exist. That's an absolutely true and necessary story to tell about Russia. But it's not the whole story. And, in fact, what's more telling and what's a better lens for understanding what it's actually like to live in Russia, to work in Russia, to be Russian - to understand that experience is about all the people in the middle - people who start out with really understandable, recognizable - even universal, it seemed to me - aims and ideas about what they wanted from their lives.

They had experience, expertise, educations, and they wanted to put that to use. And the way they ended up doing that was in some sort of cooperation with the state, making compromises along the way. And the nature of those compromises started to fascinate me, and I wanted to understand what drove these people, and what did they think about their own lives and their own relationship with the Putin state.

MARTIN: Well, early on in the book, you introduce us to the idea of the wily man. And you write that this is a person for whom, quote, "interacting with the state is a game of half-truths and deceptions served up as offerings to the bureaucratic machine and told to one another as justification for squelching ambition and a sense of morality." I mean, it almost sounds like a character out of folklore.

YAFFA: It is. In fact, the sociologist, Yuri Levada, who came up with the idea of the wily man - he wrote an essay with that title in the year 2000 - which, interestingly, is the very year that Putin came to power - Levada himself was trying to make sense of why all of these characteristics of Soviet man, a creature he had studied for decades - why that personality archetype didn't disappear with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And the wily man was his way of trying to make sense of what proved more durable - maybe eternal even - in the way that Russians made sense of their relationship with the state, what they expected from the state and what they could get out of it. And that is an idea that really has its roots not just in the Soviet experience but maybe even in the pre-revolutionary experience. And so it's an idea that goes back not just decades but maybe centuries.

MARTIN: So we'll talk about the media executive, Konstantin Ernst. And he is the head of Channel One. Tell us a little bit about him and why you decided to profile him.

YAFFA: Sure. Konstantin Ernst, for me, you could say was the patient zero in my own understanding of how I thought I could bring the wily man to life in the present day in Putin's Russia. I wrote about him in 2014, when he was the director of the opening ceremony for the Sochi Olympics.

At the time - and, in fact, as he has been for 20 years - Konstantin Ernst's day job is the head of Channel One, the country's largest state media resource, which by default makes him kind of propagandist in chief of the Putin era. But he's also a guy with arthouse tastes and a background in perestroika-era counterculture in the '80s. His first show on TV, he wore a black leather motorcycle jacket and had long hair and talked about German arthouse films.

And over the years, he rose to prominence to the very heights of Russian media, given responsibilities for things like the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Winter Olympics, which was a really grand and beautiful spectacle evoking many periods of Russian history that even staunch anti-Putin critics acknowledged was a great and resounding success. And what fascinated me about Ernst is the way he combines those two parts that still live very much inside of him. He retains the taste and sensibilities of an auteur, but he also is a willing foot soldier in the Kremlin's information war - something that became all the more stark after the annexation of Crimea, the outbreak of war in Ukraine, when he really deployed his channel as a leading instrument in that information war.

MARTIN: What did you learn about Putin's goal for Russia as a consequence of all these people who you met who are trying to deal with him and the Russia that he has created?

YAFFA: I definitely think that Putin favors this wily man personality type. A citizen who is always looking to accommodate him or herself to the state rather than directly oppose it is, of course, a citizen that Putin prefers and finds most comfortable and understandable to deal with. As for how he sees the state developing further, it seems like the moves of recent days - his calls for constitutional change, replacing the government - are opening moves in exactly that.

His transition, which will very much be a top-down transition - it's not going to be something that the Russian people have a great say in. It's how Putin would like to engineer his own future and the future of Russia. And it seems like his idea is to implant - even formalize in some way - Putinism (ph) as a system, as a governing model, as an idea that can outlast him, the living, breathing individual, Putin.

MARTIN: So, before we let you go, I want to read a quote from the book where you describe why you chose the approach that you did. You wrote, (reading) I became convinced that the most edifying and important character for journalistic study in Russia is not Putin but those people 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.

Is there something that made you think about being an American in the course of doing this reporting about the Russian people?

YAFFA: Yes, absolutely. And I'm glad you asked that question because in my mind, there absolutely is something recognizable and even instructive in the book for America, especially the way we are living now in our politics now. I just spent a few days in Washington, where a lot of the conversations were with people who either had come out of government, were thinking of going into government, new people in the administration. And the debates really echoed the dilemmas faced by the characters in my book.

If there's a political system or political leadership that you find in some way objectionable, maybe even abhorrent, is it a good thing to lend your talents and expertise to achieve some particular, self-contained, acute good? Maybe you actually have the smarts and the wherewithal to make this or that specific policy a bit better. Or maybe, on the flip side, your presence as a competent, serious professional will at least prevent the worst-case doomsday scenario from coming about. So perhaps you have a kind of responsibility to be the person who fills that job.

Those kinds of dilemmas of compromise feel very recognizable. And it's true for even beyond Trump's Washington - true for people who maybe work in large corporations or who feel like the Twitter mob is also something they have to take into consideration before they take a political position of one kind or another.

So by no means is this dilemma of compromise unique to Russia. I think it's a helpful and telling prism and a way to understand Russia. But I don't think it's only found in Russia. I think it's found here too, and maybe more and more with every passing day.

MARTIN: That's Joshua Yaffa. He's a correspondent for The New Yorker based in Moscow. His book, "Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, And Compromise In Putin's Russia," is out now. He was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Joshua Yaffa, thank you so much for joining us.

YAFFA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.