...a fascinating and nuanced account that illuminates the myriad conflicting and often contradictory forces that have shaped the Russia of today ... The stories here reveal attitudes toward power and personal responsibility that stretch far back in Russia’s past. It is not a matter of oppressor and oppressed; the state has long existed in relation to the citizenry as an 'omnipresent force,' to quote Mr. Yaffa. He notes that Russians treat 'the Putin state as a given—neither good nor bad, but simply there, like an element in the earth’s atmosphere.' Since the state cannot be changed or defeated, it has been 'to your advantage to guess what it wanted from you, and to deliver that while also being clever enough to extract some benefit for yourself.' In such a game, few people come out unscathed.
Yaffa builds on...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.
...vivid depictions of extraordinary Russians’ heroic efforts to do something for their communities ... Everyone else featured in Yaffa’s always-engaging book has a complicated story. These are people who have taken risks to do good for their communities, as they make their perilous way along paths that are blocked or booby-trapped by the state ... I wish that Yaffa could have channeled more of his New Yorker colleague Masha Gessen’s decisive, no-holds-barred approach, but he does not reference her articles and books, nor her analysis of Soviet resistance to academic sociology in The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.
Yaffa isn’t interested primarily in Putin’s misdeeds, but rather in the responses of ordinary people to the society he’s shaped. He seeks the compromisers in contemporary Russia ... Between Two Fires stands a rank above most publications of its genre because of its effective shoe-leather reporting. Not content with analyzing media coverage or online debates, Yaffa has sought out and interviewed both his central characters and their friends, enemies, and former supporters. The result is a richly layered work that captures both the moralism and the cynicism of contemporary Russian discourse.
Yaffa understands compromise under state pressure as the defining experience of life under Putin ... Yaffa provides a gripping, cinematic description of a series of trips she took in an old ambulance ... Yaffa’s definition of the 'political' is also overly narrow. War and authoritarianism are undoubtedly political, but so are homelessness, poverty, and lack of medical care...especially in a country flush with oil money ... Yaffa is good at using himself as a comic character, and I wished he’d done it more often ... It’s easy to write about other people’s compromises; it’s much harder to write about your own. Between Two Fires would have benefited from a reflection on the compromises made by an American journalist covering Russia at a time of rapidly escalating tensions between the two countries.
With sensitivity, the author tells the stories of people living in a repressive, authoritarian era, how they deal with moral and ethical issues, and how they use the system to their advantage in order to survive ... A worthy addition to any collection studying contemporary Russia or authoritarianism.
Through a series of finely drawn and moving portraits...Yaffa describes how this system ensnares wily men and wily women, whatever their goals or motivations ... This subtle yet piercing work will help readers appreciate the complexity of an often-stereotyped society.
... searching, vividly reported ... Yaffa’s account unfolds like a great Russian novel as shrewdly observed characters wrestle with subtly ironic dilemmas ... This superb portrait of contemporary Russia is full of insight and moral drama.