I’ve been reading a lot recently – let’s face it, apart from watching TV and working out on the basement exercise machines, there isn’t much else to do during the coronavirus lockdown. And one of the things I’ve been reading a lot about is the Constitutional Democratic (or Kadet) Party, which was Russia’s leading liberal political organization in the early years of the twentieth century. The Kadets have long since been consigned to Trotsky’s infamous dustbin of history, but my reading has turned out to be surprisingly relevant to the book I’m reviewing today – Joshua Yaffe’s Between Two Fires. It’s all a matter of political compromise.
The thing you have to grasp about the Kadets is that they were often rather dogmatic. As one Russian historian puts it, ‘The Russian liberal of the early twentieth century wasn’t able to abandon the role of idealistic oppositionist and recognize realities and the necessity of compromise’. Looking back on events, one Kadet, Prince V.A. Obolenskii, summed up the prevailing attitude in this way:
We thought the following: the authorities were hostile to the people. Thus, any official in state service, however useful, was in the final analysis harming the people as he was strengthening the power of the government. Besides which, we saw before us a whole series of people of very left wing convictions who had entered government service and gradually got accustomed to compromise and lost their oppositional zeal.
Between 1905 and 1917, the refusal to compromise with the Russian state had catastrophic consequences. On various occasions in 1905 and 1906, the Kadets were offered a role in government under first Sergei Witte and then Pyotr Stolypin, but always refused the offer, preferring instead to seek the complete destruction of the autocracy. Likewise, instead of using Russia’s new parliament, created in 1905, to propose constructive reform measures, they chose instead to block Stolypin’s reform program and use the parliament as a soap box for denouncing the government. Eventually, in 1917 they got their wish and saw the hated autocracy destroyed. But it didn’t do them any good, as they themselves were swept away by the tide of revolution just a few months later.
The more sensible of the Kadets understood that they were making a huge mistake, that compromising with the state, however much you dislike it, is often a much better option than seeking its overthrow. As shown in another book I’ve just finished reading – a biography of the prominent Kadet jurist and politician Vasily Maklakov – Maklakov repeatedly urged his colleagues to understand that democracy would never be possible in Russia unless people learned the art of compromise. But his fellow Kadets paid no attention. They paid for it dearly.
The lesson of all this is pretty clear, but reading Yaffa’s Between Two Fires, it seems that there are some who would prefer that Russians again adopted the principles of the Kadets. For the theme of the book is the moral dangers of compromising with the Russian state (thus the subtitle ‘Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia’), and while Yaffa states that he doesn’t condemn those who choose to cooperate with the ‘Putin regime’, it’s pretty obvious that he thinks that it’s not a good thing.
Yaffa, a journalist with The New Yorker, starts his book with a discussion of Russian sociologist Iury Levada and his concepts of Homo Sovieticus and the ‘wily man’. The Soviet system, Levada argued, created people who learned to adapt to the authoritarian state and ‘to swim with the current rather than against it’, in order to extract as much benefit as they could for themselves. The same phenomenon, Yaffa argues, is what characterizes Putin’s Russia – people who believe that ‘the best, if not the only, way to realize their vision [is] in concord with the state’. While this choice serves them as individuals, it results in the perpetuation of the authoritarian system, which in the end harms everybody.
As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, Levada’s ideas about the ‘Soviet man’ are hotly contested and are considered by some sociologists to be rather misleading. They are maybe not the soundest basis for an analysis of modern Russia (not least because they imply that the Soviet Union and modern Russia are not very different). Despite this, Yaffa runs with the Levada stereotype, and for the rest of his book provides a series of case studies of people who he thinks exemplify this model of the ‘wily man’ (or woman).
In this way, his book takes the usual form of journalistic endeavours, that is to say a series of anecdotes and personal stories which are meant to somehow personify the larger whole. As these endeavours go, Between Two Fires is rather well written. The stories are engaging, the characters compelling, the style of writing pleasing. But as an academic I feel that it suffers from the same problem as all such journalistic works, which is that anecdotes and personal stories don’t really do any more than tell you about the specific people being described. Methodologically speaking, using them to make broader claims about a country is somewhat dodgy. This is particularly true when the people concerned are far from typical, as Yaffa’s are: the head of Channel One TV; a prominent Chechen human rights activist; a rebellious priest; a Crimean zoo owner; a famous doctor; and an equally famous theatre director. These aren’t ordinary Russians.
Take, for instance, the Crimean zookeeper, Oleg Zubkov. After having played a prominent role in the events which led to Crimea’s reunification with Russia, Zubkov fell out with the local authorities, in large part, it seems, because he has a low tolerance for rules and procedure, and so didn’t like the fact that once the Russians started running the show, he couldn’t operate any more with the freedom he had under the laxer rule of the Ukrainians. The result was a series of conflicts with Russian officialdom, which led him eventually to regret his decision to support Crimea’s secession from Ukraine.
Zubkov’s is an interesting story, and Yaffa tells it well. But his disillusionment is not the norm. In fact, opinion polls show that an enormous majority of Crimeans continue to support their province’s annexation by Russia, and believe that their lives have improved because of it. In effect, what Yaffa has done is take what might be the least typical Crimean he could possibly find and then portray him as being somehow enlightening about the Russian population as a whole. As I said, methodologically speaking, it’s more than a little unsound.
The other thing which strikes one about Zubkov is that he’s about as far from being a ‘wily man’ as one could imagine. Yaffa actually admits this, saying that ‘he didn’t fit the particular contours of wiliness a la Russe.’ And the thing is, he’s not the only one in this book. As far I could tell, only one of the case studies – Chechen human rights activist Heda Saratova – properly fits the model of someone compromising their morals for apparent self-gain. Other people studied – like Zubkov, priest Pavel Adelgeim, and theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov – come across as downright confrontational in their approach to the authorities. Serebrennikov’s only ‘compromise’, if you can call it that, was to accept state money to fund his plays. And what did he do with it? Stage events abusing the state! It’s hard to see why this is ‘wily’.
Other cases in the book, such as Channel One head Konstantin Ernst and doctor Elizaveta Glinka, display a similar lack of ‘wiliness’, in that they seem to have genuinely believed in what they were doing. Cooperating with the state wasn’t, therefore, any sort of ‘compromise’. In short, having set up the construct of the ‘wily man’, Yaffa doesn’t, in my opinion, provide very good examples of it.
What we do see, though, are various examples of what I might term ‘Kadetism’ – that is to say, dogmatic rejection of any cooperation with the Russian state, no matter how beneficial it might appear to be, on the grounds that it somehow legitimizes authoritarianism and so aids in the ultimate oppression of all. This comes out in critical remarks about the main protagonists made by various side characters, most of whom are of what one might call a ‘liberal’ persuasion.
This is most obvious in the chapter about Elizaveta Glinka, a doctor who won fame providing aid to the homeless in Moscow before going to war-torn Donbass to extract people suffering from the shelling, and then tragically dying in an air crash while en route to Syria. Glinka’s aid to the people of Donbass comes in for considerable criticism, because she enlisted the help of the Russian government and refused to criticize the Kremlin for its role in the war. According to some, she thereby legitimized Russian ‘aggression’ in Ukraine. As one critic cited by Yaffa complained to Glinka: ‘With your reputation, you give these people a kind of indulgence – that is, the opportunity to continue to sin.’
‘Do you think it would be better if the children I brought out had died?’ said Glinka in response, to which the answer of some of her opponents seems to be yes. Without ever saying as much, Yaffa kind of agrees. He writes of ‘Glinka’s wilful blindness to the Kremlin’s culpability in Ukraine’, and remarks that ‘Neutrality is itself a position: refusing to apportion blame for violence means letting one side or the other off the hook.’ By describing the conflict in Ukraine as a ‘civil war’, Glinka ‘came to match, quietly and subtly, Moscow’s preferred version of events,’ Yaffa says. By helping the victims of war, she legitimized the violence which made them victims. In other words, by helping people, she made them suffer. The logic is rather like of communists who used to complain that, ‘Subjectively you may be a liberal, but objectively you’re a fascist’.
I found this odd. First, neutrality is the norm for those providing aid in war zones. Nobody asks the International Committee of the Red Cross which side it is on, and it never says; its capacity to give aid depends on neutrality. Second, the war in Ukraine is more complex than just Russian aggression. Yaffa’s not stupid. He must know who it was who was shelling the places Glinka was visiting to extract those in need, places like Slavyansk, Kramatorsk, and Donetsk. And he must know that it wasn’t the Russian army. But he never tells you this. It’s more than a little disingenuous.
For Glinka’s critics, any sort of cooperation with the Russian state is suspect, because ultimately everything is political, and the higher political struggle should take preference over real and concrete achievements in the here and now. To me, perhaps the key passage in Between Two Fires recounts a discussion Yaffa had with the chairman of the Kremlin’s human rights council, Mikhail Fedotov, concerning protests about garbage dumps, and whether it was better to fire the local governor or take concrete action to fix the problem:
‘I don’t care who the governor is – what’s important to me is that the garbage dumps are destroyed,’ he [Fedotov] said. That sounded sensible, but it overlooked the fact that in today’s Russia, a massive garbage dump doesn’t operate in violation of the law without ties to local power brokers, politicians, and bureaucrats. You could play Whac-a-Mole with garbage dumps to eternity, but at a certain point, the problem becomes unavoidably, well, political.
In short, forget concrete progress, ‘overthrow the regime’! In a famous 1909 collection of essays entitled Vekhi, the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev complained, ‘The intelligentsia’s basic moral outlook can be summarized by the formula, “May the truth perish if its death will give the people a better life … down with the truth if it stands in the way of the cherished call ‘Down with autocracy’”.’ It’s much the same mentality. We must hope and pray that it doesn’t produce the same tragic consequences.