Memorable portraits of Russians living under Vladimir Putin.
In his first book, New Yorker Moscow correspondent Yaffa begins with Yuri Levada, a pioneering sociologist whose massive survey during the collapse of communism showed plummeting enthusiasm for a strong leader, desire for an honest appraisal of their nation’s history, and more personal responsibility. He concluded that the passive if wily “Soviet Man” was disappearing in favor of a self-reliant individual yearning for freedom. In 2000, Levada reversed himself. Following the disastrous 1990s, Russians welcomed Putin, and they continue to give him approval ratings of over 80%. This is in “no small measure a product of the state’s monopolistic control over television, the media with the widest reach, and its squelching of those who would represent an alternative.” After this introduction, Yaffa delivers eight long, engrossing New Yorker–style profiles. One of the most significant of these figures is Konstantin Ernst, head of Channel One, Russia’s largest TV network. “Even as Channel One faithfully transmits the Kremlin’s line,” writes the author, “it does so with a measure of professionalism and restraint” and demonstrates genuine creativity in apolitical areas such as culture and history. Among Yaffa’s other powerful portraits are those of a saintly doctor who became a national hero caring for children during the gruesome Russian-Ukraine insurgency but found herself roped into endorsing the Russian side in a war she hated; a patriotic Russian entrepreneur in Crimea who despised living under the inefficient, corrupt Ukrainian government—while he rejoiced at Putin’s takeover, he discovered that life was harder under a more efficiently corrupt Russia; and a human rights crusader who, frustrated at her impotence, took a job in the government human rights office, a largely ceremonial position that now and then allows her to do a good deed.
Gripping, disturbing stories of life under an oppressive yet wildly popular autocrat.