Yaffa, a correspondent for The New Yorker, introduces readers to some of the country’s most remarkable figures—from politicians and entrepreneurs to artists and historians—who have built their careers and constructed their identities in the shadow of the Putin system. Torn between their own ambitions and the omnipresent demands of the state, each walks an individual path of compromise.
...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.