A Terrible Country: A Novel
“Keith Gessen has written a highly engaging, thoughtful, sharply observed story of modern-day Russia and a delightfully flawed hero.”
The title of Keith Gessen’s novel, A Terrible Country, sounds like another addition to the bad press Russia has been getting of late. However, Gessen’s funny, honest work about his Russian-American protagonist’s return to Russia for one year is more complicated and nuanced than that.
A Terrible Country is narrated by Andrei Kaplan, a 33-year-old badly employed academic in Slavic studies who is called back to Moscow from his home in New York to take care of his ailing grandmother. Andrei and his family emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1981 when he was six years old and considers himself American.
In 2008, his ten-years-older brother Dima, who deems himself far more Russian than American and has been working in his native country for years in various shady businesses, asks Andrei to come to Moscow to take care of Baba Seva, their 89 year old grandma, since he “needs to go to London” to escape various financial situations he’s gotten involved with in Russia. Since Andrei’s academic job prospects are poor, as is he, Andrei figures he has little to lose, and decides to embark on an adventure in the country of his birth.
Like an anthropologist with a good sense of humor, Andrei relates his observations of and experiences in Putin’s Russia on the cusp of a financial crisis. He notes the sheer massiveness of Moscow and the complexities of getting around the city; he studies the economic inequalities in the former Communist country where oligarchs zip around in fancy German cars, dine in outrageously-priced cafes, buy expensive clothing, visit strip clubs and frequent on-line prostitution sites, while most people live in run-down shared apartments with low-paying jobs.
Andrei writes of government and corporate corruption, the absence of basic civil rights in a country that is “basically [a] functioning state with a dictatorship of the market.” His own grandmother chastises him: “This is a terrible country. My Yolka took you to America. Why did you come back?”
And yet Andrei’s relationship with Russia is also affectionate. He discovers a rich intellectual life in Moscow by aligning himself with a leftist socialist group called October, one of whose members, Yulia, becomes his girlfriend; after being rebuffed initially and with great perseverance, Andrei joins various hockey teams, makes Russian friends, hones his Russian language skills, and even helps further his career in American academia. He even considers remaining in Russia for a time.
Although A Terrible Country certainly critiques countless aspects of Russian society, the narrative is never mean spirited or relentlessly negative. The narrator’s breezy, confessional, self-deprecating humor buffers his critiques, and his barbs are not reserved only for Russia.
Andrei skewers American academia as well, again by acknowledging his own faults and by being funny. He certainly makes mistakes, speaks his mind, and says too much at times, but Andrei is basically likeable, decent, and kind and dedicated to his grandmother.
Ultimately, after a brush with the law and the arrests and internments of several of his October friends, Andrei recognizes his own naivete and realizes that Russia’s flaws are not merely minor inconveniences. He concludes: “But the daily grind of life was something else. Just to do anything—to get my skates sharpened, to get a library book, to get from one part of the city to another—was an unbelievable hassle. What in New York took an hour, here took pretty much all day. It wore you down. The frowns on the faces of the people wore you down. The lies on the television too, after a while, wore you down.”
As Andrei’s grandmother often reminds him, “It’s a terrible country and you ought to leave.” And so he does. However, A Terrible Country is anything but a terrible tale. Rather, Keith Gessen has written a highly engaging, thoughtful, sharply observed story of modern-day Russia and a delightfully flawed hero.