Imposing, dramatic, and monumental, Moscow can seem a forbidding place with the unmistakable feel of a capital built not for people but for tanks. The Russian address system, on the other hand, is designed neither for people nor tanks. Rather, it is a test to single out the determined, those who, without paved footpaths, sufficient lighting or a clear numbering system to work with, can still realise that to find number 24, block 7, entrance 3 requires turning into an unmarked courtyard and heading into the dark. It’s hilarious accuracies like these that make the Moscow of Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country immediately recognisable, and which he uses as the foundation for a sensitive and compassionate portrait of a country the author has spent years getting to know.
Gessen, an American journalist, novelist, and co-founder of New York literary magazine n+1, crafts a protagonist based loosely on his younger self. A 33-year-old struggling Russian Studies academic Andrei Kaplan is, like Gessen, a Soviet-born New Yorker living in the city during the financial crash of 2008. Hard up, with few job prospects and newly single, Andrei accepts his older brother Dima’s request to return to Moscow and look after their 89-year-old grandma, Baba Seva. Lacking the niche area study and academic zeal of his published contemporaries, Andrei hopes to use the trip to mine his grandmother’s memories for publishable material; he arrives in Moscow, however, only to find her mind addled by advancing dementia.
A Terrible Country, Baba Seva’s catchphrase, is the story of what happens to Andrei in the country of his birth. Almost immediately after arriving in Moscow, it becomes clear Andrei’s fluent-but-rusty language skills and academic interest in Russia cut a pathetic figure in the ruthless, oil-rich megacity. Pistol-whipped outside a nightclub and traipsing through the rain in search of a cinema entrance, Andrei is, as his first botched date Elena tells him, “not cut out for this”.
But though unlucky and unassuming, Andrei is a wry, highly perspicacious observer of post-Soviet Moscow. As we follow him through the city, he meets an ever-enlarging cast of characters, from oilmen-cum-hockey players and young political activists, to anti-semitic pensioners and prostitutes masquerading as Tinder dates. At first blinded by the seeming indifference of the city, with its sleek Mercedes and ludicrous prices for mediocre cappuccinos (Andrei can afford one coffee a day in a cafe where he uses the Wi-Fi to check his emails), it’s the nebulous political landscape that Andrei takes the longest to comprehend. “This place sucked,” Andrei complains. “And it sucked in a completely different way from the one I’d been led to expect. What happened to the scary dictatorship? What happened to the bloodthirsty regime? I thought I was going to be arrested, but no one was going to arrest me. No one gave a shit about me. I was too poor for that.” As Andrei’s immersion into Russian society deepens, however, his assumptions are debunked one by one.
With a bare emotional power, Gessen forges an unusual narrative rhythm which culminates in an unexpected climax
That Gessen is a sharp-eyed observer of modern Russia is not immediately obvious. Andrei’s observations seem a little aimless, a little without direction, their value obscured by a narrative as no-frills as the language Gessen employs. Initially, it’s unclear whether Gessen can surmount his material and wrestle it into something compelling. With a bare emotional power, however, he succeeds, forging an unusual narrative rhythm that culminates in an unexpected climax.
Several chapters in, Andrei’s quotidian ventures begin to take on a deeper meaning, as Gessen’s skill as a novelist — manifestly humanising a complex, poorly understood nation — comes into view. Through his commitments to his grandmother and attempts to integrate into Russian society, Andrei enters a Russian life usually closed off to outsiders. What starts to take shape — as Andrei negotiates bank queues and bribes a poverty-stricken hospital for more blankets for his grandmother — is the deeply human face of a post-Soviet country in the throes of capitalism, with all the inevitable dissonance of a nation unreconciled to its history.
Nowhere in A Terrible Country are the uncomfortable moral and political contradictions of Russian life more poignantly encapsulated than in the character of Baba Seva, herself a victim of, and winner from, the past. A spirited former history professor at the respected Moscow State University, Baba Seva lost her dacha at the hands of capitalism. How she came by her apartment in a swanky, central Moscow district, however, was at the hands of Stalin himself, who rewarded her work on a patriotic film about Ivan the Great in the 1940s; the source of lifelong guilt, Andrei later learns. “For my grandmother to receive a Stalin apartment, someone else had to lose it.”
Perhaps where Gessen flashes his most penetrating insight is with Andrei’s association with a group of young political activists who go by the name October. Gessen shows that the same moral compromises required to survive during the Soviet Union have travelled through time, that for both old and young, the state will exact a pound of flesh. Andrei enters October’s fold through Yulia, a committed October member he meets at a dinner party hosted by the smarmy and more successful American academic Alex Fishman. After letting out a stream of invective accusing Fishman of exploiting Russia for his own academic advancement (“what have you ever done for Russia?”, he yells), Andrei makes a humiliating exit, a stolen beer falling from his pocket and rolling across the floor. By a stroke of extraordinary fortune, it’s a scene that not only doesn’t repel Yulia, but motivates her to ask to see Andrei again. For all the might of Gessen’s themes — political activism, oligarchy, historical memory — a levelling dose of entertaining embarrassment is never far away.
What starts to take shape is the human face of a post-Soviet Russia in the throes of capitalism, with all the inevitable dissonance of a nation whose thorny history has yet to have its reckoning
All of October’s members are in some way earnestly involved in trying to strengthen civil society and oppose the structures of capitalism, and while their discussion groups and modest pickets seem unlikely to affect change, they unwittingly catch more of the government’s attention than they realise. With October, Andrei’s political education deepens, and it’s here through his avatar that Gessen sets himself apart from the mainstream Western discourse around Russia, taking aim not at Putin but at his progenitor, capitalism. Devouring Russia from the outside in, capitalism, Andrei realises, has been assimilated into Russia in much the same way as every other realisation of Western civilisation — late. It’s this that is both Russia’s charm and its curse. “It was as if Russia were a drug addict who received every concoction only after it was perfectly crystallised, maximally potent,” he writes. To October, the fight is greater than against Putin; so long as capitalism reigns, so will a despot sit in the Kremlin.
With October, and now in a relationship with Yulia, Andrei enters into the small but vibrant world of Moscow’s left-wing intelligentsia, translating their work into English, attending anti-fascist rallies, picketing outside state oil behemoths and debating Marxism. To the chagrin of some of October’s members, Andrei decides to write a piece about them for a highly-respected American peer-review journal, the first of his articles to gain any traction at home since he moved to Moscow. Andrei feels a pang of guilt; is it wrong to turn your friends into a notch on your academic belt? His supervisor in New York is in raptures about the article, and, betraying an embarrassing lack of insight into the matter, refers to the project with hollow labels like “The return of the repressed. The incorrigible Russians.” The West’s facile fetishisation of Russia’s opposition and the ease with which foreign academics and journalists can profit from them is a theme to which Gessen returns.
In spite of himself, Andrei gets used to his new life and considers staying in Russia for good: he’d found a cause he believed in, his grandmother needed him, and it wasn’t like he was having any luck finding a job back home in America. But morals are easy to hold when you don’t have to fight for them, and so it’s not until Andrei is offered a lucrative job at an American university, or arrested for protesting, that his resolve is put to the test and he finally, soberly, understands his limits. “After everything I’d said and thought about the inequities of the academic job market; after all the progress I’d made here on starting a new life; after all my promises of how I’d never leave my grandmother behind; after all that, and much more, when it finally came time for me to act on my supposed convictions, I did not.”
From the comfort of a foreign sofa and foreign passport, Andrei pens an op-ed for The New York Times to try and draw international attention to the two October members about to be put on trial for their activism. Instead of serving to help October’s struggle against the state, however, all his article does is draw praise and speaking invitations for “championing their cause”. Later, upon learning how one of the men, his friend Sergei, was trying to patch together a life after prison, Andrei comments: “his prison experiences had not done as well for his career as they had for mine”. Even with the best of intentions, even when Andrei had begun to think of himself as “one of them”, his ultimate freedom to leave it all behind sets him apart from his friends.
“After all the progress I’d made here on starting a new life; after all that, and much more, when it finally came time for me to act on my supposed convictions, I did not”
A Terrible Country is set at a specific moment in modern Russia: the oil-boom years that were followed by the 2011 protests and then the hipsterdom that engulfed Moscow and its young middle class. But this forms only the backdrop for a meditation on the moral limitations of the individual and the collective, the global, nebulous economic structures that have shaped Russia’s political class, the unresolved wounds of history, and the painful self-awareness needed to come to terms with compromise. With this hilarious and acerbic novel, Gessen offers us a tale of what we must question about ourselves if we are ever to start to understand Russia.