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A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen

Published by Viking on July 10, 2018

The terrible country in the title of Keith Gessen’s novel is Russia. Terrible because of its political leaders, its oligarchs, and its economy, not because of its people, most of whom, like people everywhere in the world, are just trying to find a route to happiness, or at least survival. The novel is political in a personal way, but it also tells a moving family story that focuses on a young man’s conflict as he decides what to do about an elderly Russian grandmother who, while no longer capable of living alone, does not want to move from the apartment where she has lived for fifty years. Many of her memories are being lost to dementia, but the apartment is her anchor, where familiar streets and markets provide safety and comfort.

When his older brother Dima asks Andrei Kaplan to come to Moscow to stay with their grandmother, Andrei decides he has no reason to remain in New York, where he has lived since the age of six. He has a graduate degree in Russian literature but no real job. Dima has gone to London and needs Andrei to help their grandmother because she is experiencing the early stages of dementia. Andrei is hoping to find something sufficiently interesting and specialized that he can focus on in Russia to jumpstart his American academic career, something that might lead to a series of esoteric journal articles that would catch the attention of a hiring committee. His experiences eventually affect his professional life in ways he did not anticipate.

Andrei’s impression of Moscow in 2008 gives credence to the novel’s title. It is dingy, dilapidated, and dysfunctional, populated by people who are even ruder than New Yorkers. Goods are overpriced; residents are either wealthy swindlers who have mastered capitalism or their impoverished victims. Andrei’s life in Moscow is also terrible. His American girlfriend broke up with him, and he has no success with women in Russia until he meets a young idealist named Yulia. A thug beats him with a pistol, he can’t find a pickup hockey game that will allow him to play, he doesn’t like the people with whom he tries to make friends, he feels like he is failing his grandmother, and he hates the online teaching he’s doing to earn a meager living. On top of all that, Dima does not seem to have a clear plan to return to Russia to take over the burden of caring for their grandmother. Having created debt he cannot repay without selling the grandmother’s apartment, Dima might be in trouble if he does return.

The political aspects of the story illustrate the fundamental disagreements among intellectuals inside and outside of Russia. Liberal reformers focus on free speech and due process, both of which are jokes in a country ruled by an autocrat who has dissenters killed. Socialist reformers seek economic justice, but as it was last practiced in Russia, communism benefitted rulers, not the masses. A Terrible Country makes the point that ordinary Russians might be influenced to support nationalist appeals to view outsiders as the enemy, but for the most part regard debates about political reform as irrelevant to a country that never changes.

The story of Andrei’s grandmother is sad but universal. While Muscovites can adapt to the hardship of living in Russia, the hardship of living with dementia knows no boundaries. In other respects, the story is intellectually intriguing rather than emotionally gripping. Gessen creates Andrei in detail, giving him the kind of complexity and inner turmoil that makes a character believable, but he is drifting through life and can’t seem to seize opportunities for personal growth. It is only his dedication to his grandmother that makes him sympathetic.

Andrei’s love story with Yulia is wrapped up in the larger political story, and they are such strange bedfellows that it is difficult to believe they will stay together — which makes it difficult to care whether they do or don’t. Even if A Terrible Country doesn’t resonate on an emotional level, Gessen’s strong prose style conveys a convincing sense of Moscow in the Putin era while encouraging readers to think about how meaningless labels like “communism” and “capitalism” are when applied to a nation ruled by autocrats and thieves.


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