All of this has put me in mind of Russian figures like Elizaveta Glinka, or Doctor Liza, who rose to prominence as a pioneer of hospice care for the terminally ill in Russia. In 2014, when war broke out in the Donbass, in eastern Ukraine, she felt compelled to help its victims, especially children caught in the crossfire. She did this by appealing for help to the very people who bore no small amount of responsibility for inciting that war and keeping it going: Putin and other Kremlin officials.
Her compromise in playing nice with the Kremlin may have looked unsavory to some, but it also provided tangible benefit for scores of sick and injured children, who without her intervention would have been left forgotten and untreated in a chaotic war zone. I found it hard to judge Glinka, even as I acknowledge that compromises like hers, multiplied many times over, are what gives the Putin system its longevity. I also found myself comparing her predicament with, say, that of Sarah Fabian, the Justice Department lawyer who, last June, was in court defending the Trump administration’s treatment of detained migrant children. Fabian posited that soap, toothbrushes and beds were not necessarily part of the government’s obligations to provide “safe and sanitary” conditions.
In Russia, the consequence of refusing to compromise is often clear: the frustration of worthy ambitions left unrealized, a career that goes nowhere, or maybe, if the stakes are high or you’re supremely unlucky, undue attention from police and the courts. But in America, at least at the moment, a wider spectrum of choices remains. And that is the scary thing about observing wiliness at home: how readily and quickly we bend, not when there is truly no other choice, but when there are plenty of other choices, the wily one being merely the easiest and most expedient.
One could readily choose not to take the bribe, or pay one, whether literally or with one’s conscience — but that would mean less power, fewer riches, less comfort or advantage in the moment. Some find those temptations hard to resist. Others convince themselves that by making a compromise this time, they can do some good the next time. You can’t affect the outcome of the game if you’re not on the field, one might say — and indeed it’s not entirely incorrect logic. The danger is that wiliness quickly becomes a self-perpetuating spiral, as Levada warned, with the excuses and justifications served up by wily men and women only serving to embed these pathologies ever deeper.
Levada died, in 2006, gloomy about the prospects of his country ever transcending its culture of wiliness. Reading him now, nearly 15 years later, I wonder about the prospects for my own.
Joshua Yaffa, a correspondent for The New Yorker, is the author of “Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia.”
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