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A Terrible Country

Review

A Terrible Country

If one were to include "Russia" in a word association test in today's political climate, it almost certainly would elicit "election meddling" or "collusion" among the responses. Readers of A TERRIBLE COUNTRY, Russian-born American writer Keith Gessen's kindhearted second novel, will be relieved to know that, while it inevitably --- and smartly --- engages with contemporary Russian politics, it's primarily a story about the bonds of family loyalty, and an especially appealing one at that.

Spanning a year in the life of its narrator, Andrei Kaplan, A TERRIBLE COUNTRY is set in Moscow beginning in August 2008. Andrei, who frets, in his mid-30s, that he has "mislived my life," holds a PhD in Russian literature, but his employment consists of teaching a handful of massive open online courses. He returns to the city he left with his family at age six, to care for his 89-year-old grandmother, a woman he calls Baba Seva, while hoping in his time there to find a topic for an article that will make him more attractive to faculty hiring committees in the United States.

"There are few reading experiences more satisfying than sharing time with a character who grows on us, despite his flaws --- or perhaps even because of them --- as we live his story. Andrei Kaplan is such a character, and Keith Gessen makes us happy to have made his acquaintance."

Baba Seva, a former history professor, lives in an apartment located 15 minutes from the Kremlin, awarded to her by Joseph Stalin himself for her work on a post-World War II propaganda film, but now owned by Andrei's older brother, Dima, an ambitious entrepreneur who has fled to London as his business running a chain of gas stations has collapsed under mysterious government pressure. Andrei must deal with his grandmother's creeping dementia while coming to terms with life in Putin's Russia, a world of oligarchic capitalism whose surface sheen of prosperity for some conceals the harshness that exists for the average citizen, including people like Andrei's grandmother.

Despite his initial fear that he's completely unsuited to the task, Andrei turns out to be an attentive caretaker, a quality Gessen portrays with tenderness and good humor in some of the novel's most heartwarming, yet realistic, scenes. He engages with his grandmother ("a ghost haunting her own life") in games of anagrams (at which she trounces him convincingly), accompanies her on shopping trips, watches the news with her each night, and strives to keep her in contact with a lone friend (all the others have died, she constantly reminds him, or are anti-Semites), who still owns a dacha like the one Baba Seva lost in the 1990s. When he's not in the apartment, Andrei spends most of his time in a local coffee shop (for the Wi-Fi) or playing pickup hockey several nights each week.

It's through those hockey games that he connects with a group of young Russians pushing for a return to what they believe was the more humane quality of life under Soviet socialism and not the "modern authoritarianism" or "authoritarian modernization" of the "increasingly violent and dictatorial Russia" of Vladimir Putin, who could be "charming when he needed to be, or menacing, or full of pathos." Calling themselves "October," they maintain a website (Andrei translates articles into English for them) and engage in occasional mild street protests. In the group, Andrei meets Yuliana, a quiet young woman who only gradually, but predictably, warms to him.

Gessen raises the stakes when Dima confronts Andrei with the demand that he sell the apartment as the 2008 worldwide financial crisis rolls into Russia, bringing with it a drop in real estate prices and increasing the threat to Dima's financial well-being, and then when October ratchets up its overt political activity. At the same time, Andrei's prospects for a teaching job in the United States brighten, and he must face the decision whether to pursue an opportunity there or remain in a Moscow that Yuliana refuses to leave. The choices he makes in these moral crises may not please everyone, but they feel consistent with the character Gessen patiently develops.

Gessen's portrait of Moscow in the "kleptocratic aughts" is also richly detailed --- from the idiosyncrasies of the transportation system to the obstacles Andrei and his grandmother encounter on routine shopping trips, as when she decides she wants to replace a pair of slippers from Belarus or Andrei takes her to buy a pink cotton sweater at a department store.

Andrei's efforts to adapt to a world that seems to him both simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, symbolized by his obsession over whether to use the formal or informal form of the second person pronoun, are a source of both humor and humanity. And as Gessen portrays them, most of the Muscovites who enter Andrei's orbit are decent people who want nothing more than what people anywhere want for themselves and their families --- well-paying job, personal security and the opportunity to enjoy some of life's simple pleasures.

There are few reading experiences more satisfying than sharing time with a character who grows on us, despite his flaws --- or perhaps even because of them --- as we live his story. Andrei Kaplan is such a character, and Keith Gessen makes us happy to have made his acquaintance.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on July 13, 2018

A Terrible Country
by Keith Gessen

  • Publication Date: July 10, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Viking
  • ISBN-10: 0735221316
  • ISBN-13: 9780735221314