Between Two Fires consists of a series of in-depth profiles of figures ranging from Konstantin Ernst, head of Russia’s main state television channel, to Pavel Adelgeim, a dissident priest in the Pskov region, and from Heda Saratova, a Chechen human rights worker, to Oleg Zubkov, the owner of a safari park in Crimea. Based in Moscow since 2012 as the correspondent for The New Yorker, Yaffa skilfully weaves together perceptive descriptions of flesh-and-blood people with a balanced evocation of the wider political and historical context.
Joshua Yaffa is a humane, gifted, curious-minded American journalist who has lived and worked in Moscow for the past seven years, many of them as a correspondent for the New Yorker. Between Two Fires is his rich and detailed examination of how Putinism works, about the compromises required by individuals who want to get ahead, and the capricious nature of the system Putin inherited then moulded in his own image.
Some of the most interesting chapters are written on the back of research done for New Yorker essays and have all the merits of that genre: detailed descriptions and long, unforced interviews with his subjects, which reveal how power is exercised, bent and manipulated in daily life.
Yaffa’s starting point is that life has to be lived “mezhdu dvukh ogney” — “between two fires” in the Russian phrase. To give yourself room for personal initiative you have to accept that you’re stuck in the middle of two opposing forces bigger than yourself.