Putin’s Hard Turn
Ruling Russia in Leaner Times
Not since the McCarthy era has Russia been so present in the American psyche and so close to the fevered core of American politics. But being present is not the same as being known. Russia’s recent ubiquity in U.S. politics has coincided with a precipitous decline in contact between the two countries: among diplomats (a result of U.S. efforts to isolate Russia for its misdeeds in Ukraine and elsewhere), among heads of state and political elites, among scholars, and among ordinary citizens. U.S. academic work on Russia has been steadily diminishing since the end of the Cold War. Very few Americans now learn the Russian language or study Russian history, and a great deal of U.S. journalism on Russia suffers from hyperbole, paranoia, and clichés.
In this milieu, the journalist Joshua Yaffa has distinguished himself with his rigor, his acumen, and his nuanced voice. Since 2013, Yaffa (who earlier in his career was an editor at this magazine) has been writing about Russia for The New Yorker, filing articles on politics, diplomacy, and culture not only from the country’s big cities but also from Russia’s many far-flung regions; he has also written some of the most penetrating and well-researched essays on U.S.-Ukrainian relations in the Trump era. His in-depth reporting consistently allows him to move beyond the headlines, revealing the deeper historical and sociological patterns that underpin that notoriously contradictory country.
A great deal of U.S. journalism on Russia suffers from hyperbole, paranoia, and clichés.
Yaffa’s excellent new book, Between Two Fires, traces the lives of a group of ambitious Russians who lived through the transition from the Soviet era to the post-Soviet one. Each is aware of a certain truth about the Russian world, and each must navigate a political system that runs less on tyranny than on carefully calibrated compromises. A few of them succeed because they learn the dance. Others bear the burden of being principled.
And yet as finely tuned to complicated Russian realities as Yaffa is, Between Two Fires is ultimately a missed opportunity. Like many other books written by Westerners about contemporary Russia, it takes as its baseline the intelligentsia of Moscow and St. Petersburg, exploring their dreams of liberty and wondering whether they will ever come true. That is an old and venerable subject, one that Russian and foreign observers alike have speculated about extensively since the early nineteenth century. But focusing on it obscures the more basic and more consequential task of evaluating post-Soviet Russia as it is, rather than as it should be—or should be from an American point of view.
For more than two decades after the Soviet collapse, U.S. analysts and policymakers saw Russia as predisposed to mirror the United States in political economy and culture. Russia, however, stubbornly refused to do so. In 2014, when Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded and annexed Crimea, the U.S.-Russian divergence was complete. In the years since, Washington’s anger and disappointment over Russia’s course have boiled over, especially after Moscow meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. According to a view common among American pundits, Russia has become a rogue state, an unnatural entity more akin to a criminal enterprise than a nation-state. And yet after a long series of dashed expectations, many still believe that one day the rogue will vanish and the “real” Russia will finally emerge. This is a fantasy. The sober intellectual chore of U.S. policymakers and Russia watchers is to understand Russian recalcitrance and tease out the non-Western trajectory of this sprawling country on Europe’s edge.
Yaffa’s book unfolds in three acts. The first act chronicles a phase of relative openness in Russian society during the 1990s, when personal freedom was palpable; both the Soviet past and the Russian future were bracingly uncertain, both susceptible to interpretation and reinterpretation. But this period was shadowed by the chaotic shift from one form of government to another, in which executive authority expanded in direct proportion to the loss of democratic agency. In a poignant chapter set partly during this time, Yaffa details the construction of a gulag museum in Siberia. Opened in 1996, it was a site of public memory, an instance of civil society in action, and a chance to link an honest discussion of history with the new directions of Russian political life. For a while, the museum did its job, hosting exhibitions that authorities sometimes saw as unwelcome provocations. Then, around 2014, the difficulties began. State control supplanted independent leadership, and a museum that had registered criticism of the Soviet regime yielded to one that celebrated victory in World War II. It was an emblematic transition: in Putin’s Russia, either the institutions of civil society are absorbed into the regime or they cease to exist.
The second act begins in 2000, when Putin took power, which Yaffa recalls as “a moment between the abject chaos and hardship of the nineties and the routinized, top-down strictures of the vertical of power that would descend in the years to come.” Putin bestowed prosperity with one hand and dished out repression with the other, not depriving Russians of their newfound freedoms so much as forcing those freedoms into the margins, where they would not disrupt the government’s hold on power. Some Russians stood to benefit from the relative stability of early Putinism. To do so, they had to make their peace with the Kremlin’s imperatives, assisting when requested and avoiding criticism that might have proved destabilizing.
In Yaffa’s telling, the system depends on more than run-of-the-mill opportunism and coercion. He probes the evolution of the human rights advocate Heda Saratova, who is not motivated by money or personal gain but whose work is made easier by government support. Over time, she starts to cooperate with Chechnya’s strongman ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov, a relationship that helps her with her day-to-day projects and helps Kadyrov with his public image. The coils of co-optation are not necessarily chains. They can be worn lightly and, at times, in the name of doing good.
In the past few years, Yaffa relates, the early Putin period has faded into an ongoing third act, in which “things begin to look a lot more fragile.” Inequality is rising, the middle class is under pressure, and Putin is getting old. Russians today are “open, curious, and ambitious, but not—at least not yet—desperate and insurrectionary,” Yaffa writes. Their quiescence or their rage will set the stage for the fourth act, post-Putin. Yaffa devotes an intriguing chapter to the sad story of Pavel Adelgeim, a Russian Orthodox priest who suffered for his faith during the Soviet era and who, until his death in 2013, refused to align himself with the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church in post-Soviet Russia and supported protests against Putin. Adelgeim personifies a regime-critical Christianity that could fit into a future pro-democracy movement, one in which dissent would be a vehicle of patriotism and empathy would act as a social glue.
Although Yaffa’s three acts coincide with periods in Putin’s rise and rule, Between Two Fires does not put the Russian leader at the center of the drama. Yaffa contends that Putin is “less the country’s captor than a manifestation of its collective subconscious.” And the wellspring of the collective Russian subconscious, according to Yaffa, is wiliness. Soviet citizens were reliant on the state. They had to adjust to its demands, and in the process, a “survival mechanism” evolved into an ethos: “citizen and state subconsciously worked together to ensure that the individual took agency in stifling his own freedom and chances for self-realization.”
Putin has cultivated the Russian talent for wiliness, Yaffa explains. Putin constructed a regime that is knowingly arbitrary in its depredations, forcing any ambitious person to figure out the rules of engagement and decide how much personal freedom and initiative to carve out and how opportunistic to be. This compromising balance of reward and punishment, of liberty and state control, describes “the future contours of Russian society,” in Yaffa’s words.
Yaffa wisely avoids prophecy, yet he is convinced that wiliness has an enduring appeal in Russia. If Putin can continue harnessing it, he will go forward. If the wily Russian mind starts to see diminishing returns in the house that Putin built, the social contract will unravel, and Putin will become a politician in search of a constituency.
Wiliness is a universal trait, and for Yaffa, it serves as a reasonable enough bridge between the Soviet past and the Russian present. It’s debatable whether Russia is a country where “venal self-interest had long become the norm” and is therefore especially prone to wiliness, as Yaffa asserts. But his beautifully wrought portraiture more than proves the residual nature of wiliness in Russian society. As an explanation for why contemporary Russians think and act as they do, the persistence of wiliness is more convincing than the return of a totalitarian political culture, which many Putin critics allege has taken place. “Most people are neither Stalin nor Solzhenitsyn,” Yaffa writes, “but, in their own way, wily.” In office, Putin has burnished the reputations of the Soviet leader and the Soviet dissident and has embraced the iconography of the Soviet Union and that of the Russian Orthodox Church. As the wiliest of them all, Putin is no stranger to such contradictions.
The Russian Federation that crawled out from the Soviet Union was by no means homogeneous.
However, by reaching back to wiliness and an attitude that is so indigenously Soviet, Yaffa understates the distinctiveness of post-Soviet Russia. The Soviet Union fell apart not only because the Georgians, the Lithuanians, the Ukrainians, and other non-Russians rose up against it but also because the Russians themselves did. The aspirations of independence-minded Russians in 1991 were similar to those of the Soviet Union’s other separatist populations. They wanted a country of their own. The Soviet empire had been robustly multiethnic. Not all of its leaders were ethnic Russians, whereas ethnic Russians figured prominently among the victims of Soviet rule.
The Russian Federation that crawled out from the Soviet Union was by no means homogeneous. Today’s Russia is a patchwork of languages, religions, and peoples, and because of shifting borders (and Soviet population moves), many who consider themselves Russian live outside Russia’s borders—especially in Ukraine. Yet the realignment of borders in 1991 also yielded the most coherently Russian state in Russian history. In particular, the top-down project of mapping a Russian identity onto an internationalist Soviet identity died with the Soviet Union, and for the first time since 1917, it was possible to contemplate an explicitly Russian polity in Russia, under a single Russian flag, even though the Russian language continues to have two different terms for affiliation with the Russian Federation: russkii (ethnic Russian) and rossiiskii (adhering to the Russian state).
For Russians, acquiring a country was the pivotal consequence of the 1991 revolution. Boris Yeltsin’s presidency flowed directly from his challenge to the scrupulously communist and internationalist Mikhail Gorbachev, a widely disliked figure in post-Soviet Russia. Putin’s popularity stems not just from the stability that he imposed on the country after the messy 1990s, and not just from the wealth that gave some Russians an incentive to carry out wily service to the state, but also from the fact that most Russians have judged Putin an effective advocate for Russian nationhood. A key part of this advocacy has been a willingness to confront the West, which Putin began doing long before the Ukraine crisis. What Russians want more than a liberal country—a goal that galvanizes relatively few people outside Moscow and St. Petersburg—is an autonomous country. Putin has arranged Russian politics to enable such autonomy.
Yaffa is aware of this dynamic. He writes that “the two forces [in Russia]—state and citizen—speak in dialogue, a conversational timbre often missed by the foreign ear.” But only by reading between the lines of Between Two Fires can one discern that dialogue. One of Yaffa’s subjects, Oleg Zubkov, is a zookeeper and entrepreneur living in Crimea. Zubkov is a free spirit and a bon vivant, and Yaffa relishes his antiauthoritarian spirit. In the referendum that Putin conducted to decide Crimea’s future after the Russian invasion in 2014, Zubkov happily voted for the territory to join Russia, although he later found himself in conflict with the Russian legal system. In the sincerity of his patriotism and his independence of mind, Zubkov ends up demonstrating a lack of wily gamesmanship—“at least the way the game is played in the Putin era,” as Yaffa notes.
Another of Yaffa’s main characters is the television producer Konstantin Ernst, who achieves wealth and status through his profession, assisting the powerful while retaining the sensibility of an aesthete. Ernst produces television that is regime-friendly yet sophisticated. He is a talented and obedient operator, but even this Kremlin insider displays sentiments that cannot be reduced to wiliness. In Yaffa’s observation, Ernst approved of Russian policy toward Ukraine circa 2014, sensing in it “a moment of geopolitical score-settling, of upending a post–Cold War order that Ernst—like Putin, the rest of the Kremlin elite, and millions of Russians—felt had treated Russia harshly.” Ernst is a sincere propagandist, free of the implacable cynicism that dominated the Soviet Union in its final decades.
What Russians want more than a liberal country is an autonomous country.
One explanation for the pronounced wiliness of Yaffa’s subjects is that almost all of them were born long before the breakup of the Soviet Union. They were forced to move as best they could between the two “fires” of the book’s title: the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. In the final chapter of the book, however, Yaffa writes about a younger Russian, and the results suggest that he should have devoted far more attention to Russians born in the 1970s or later. Danila Prilepa captured Yaffa’s interest when he asked a question on a 2017 televised call-in show with Putin. Prilepa, who was 16 at the time, confronted Putin about corruption, asking him what he planned to do about it and about the mounting loss of faith in the government. Some time later, Yaffa visited Prilepa at his family’s home in Nefteyugansk, far from Moscow. In conversation, Prilepa revealed himself to be very critical of the Russian government, but to Yaffa’s surprise, he was not alienated from it. Yaffa asked Prilepa if he “saw a difficulty in serving a state he had begun to sour on. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I’m planning to serve my homeland, not a certain circle of people.’” This comment contains multitudes. Perhaps in another book, Yaffa will bring his ample journalistic talent to bear in fleshing it out. If so, he would be doing a great service to his non-Russian readers.
American assessments, journalistic and otherwise, must do more to address Russian nationhood. It is one of Putin’s crucial sources of legitimacy. His government is corrupt and inefficient. It does not grant Russian citizens real rights, and there is no freedom in Russia that the Kremlin does not have the power to curtail. Russians know these downsides of the Putin system. They tolerate them not only because they are wily and capable of profiting from the status quo. They tolerate the authoritarianism and the corruption because in some crucial sense the Russian government is theirs. It is the product of the state-citizen dialogue Yaffa identifies as inaudible to non-Russian ears. And in no domain is the Russian government so much the possession of Russians as in foreign policy. Russia’s actions in Ukraine and in Syria since 2014 may bring few tangible benefits to the country’s citizens, and they certainly incur costs, but they are the visible proof of Russian autonomy. Achieving autonomy is the goal of Russian foreign policy far more than an abstraction such as regaining great-power status, which is what Western policymakers usually define as the desired end state of Russian strategy.
The Russian hunger for national autonomy presents a conundrum for U.S. policy. For Moscow, the easiest way to demonstrate Russia’s autonomy is to defy the United States, whatever the United States is doing. Washington and Moscow have been engaged in geopolitical competition since 1945 (at least), with Moscow having already once been a spectacular loser in this contest. The American superpower is the single greatest obstacle to Russian autonomy. Consequently, the United States has the potential to inspire immense enmity in Russia, and its ability to generate goodwill is highly circumscribed. The Trump administration, which speaks a language of assertive nationalism at home and abroad, has allowed U.S.-Russian relations to deteriorate from the low point it inherited in January 2017. Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s Democratic opponents have expressed horror at his slavish flattery of Putin but have failed to articulate a coherent Russia strategy of their own.
In conceptualizing a workable approach to Russia, the first thing American policymakers should do is acknowledge Russian nationhood as the key factor in the post-Soviet world. Putin has sought, with some success, to nudge the international system away from the ideals of democracy and sustained multilateralism and toward the imperatives of national power, prestige, and influence. The goal of projecting autonomous nationhood outward will guide Russian foreign policy long after Putin chooses to retire or is pushed aside. Washington can seek out ways of bending this Russian goal to U.S. interests by stipulating redlines (such as NATO’s inviolability and the integrity of the U.S. democratic process), exploring potential points of cooperation on counterterrorism and climate change, and signaling to the Russian people that a European security architecture and Russian nationhood are not mutually exclusive, whatever the Kremlin might say about the impossibility of decent relations with the West. This message can be delivered through speeches and cultural diplomacy directed at the Russian public—a form of communication that high-level U.S. politicians have long neglected—and through a public willingness to engage in a bilateral strategic dialogue Moscow, as Washington regularly does with Beijing.
The familiar story of Russian liberty lost or unachieved—of which Between Two Fires is a superb example—can help inform a better U.S. approach to Russia. But much more helpful would be the less frequently told story of Russian nationhood and of its development along lines very different from those that led to American or western European nationhood. In this time of fervid preoccupation with Russia, that is not a narrative in search of an audience. It is a narrative in search of an author.