Joshua Yaffa (2020)

A study of the compromises needed to live in a totalitarian society, and the difficulties this causes for anyone wanting to operate there.

The simple view of an oppressive regime is that everyone is ground down and cowed by the corrupted police and courts, But some people always manage to succeed, and even more manage to soften the edges of the system by acts of kindness and rememberance. This book is about the latter group, and how they manage to keep some pieces of a gentler vision alive.

Yaffa knows Russia well, and understands the arbitrariness of it: it’s never entirely clear what is permitted and what is forbidden, and even the written rules provide little guide. He observes that people manage to find the edges of what the authorities will permit, and stay within within them voluntarily – meaning that the actual application of oppression or terror become less necessary as time goes by and people self-censor.

Along the way he meets several people who are doing just that. Perhaps the most interesting are the lady providing health services in conflict zones, which she manages only with the co-operation of the State – who can therefore claim some credit and whitewash their own behaviour by pointing to her humanitarian activities. Or the founders of a museum to the Gulag, who are driven out of their leadership positions and replaced by someone who better understands the authorities’ goal for the museum, subverting its message without actually closing it down.

It’s hard to know what to think about these actions. On the one hand, one might hope for a more forceful and uncomprimised rebellion against oppression; on the other, such a rebellion would need to be widespread to stand any chance of success, and the individual costs would be horrific. Perhaps the situation that Russians have arrived at is good for now, while they wait for the winds to change in a more liberal direction. They could have a long time to wait.

4/5. Finished Saturday 29 July, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)