A Ter­ri­ble Country

  • Review
By – March 29, 2018

It is 2008; the finan­cial cri­sis has just hit Moscow and Vladimir Putin has passed on the pres­i­den­cy to Dmit­ry Medvedev. Kei­th Gessen presents a por­trait of a Rus­sia ready for change in A Ter­ri­ble Coun­try, his first nov­el in a decade.

The nov­el depicts Russ­ian-Amer­i­can Andrei Kaplan, a 33-year-old lit­er­a­ture PhD stu­dent. At the start of the book, Andrei is tasked by his busi­ness­man broth­er with car­ing for their 89-year-old grand­moth­er, which will require mov­ing to Moscow. Moscow is a dif­fi­cult place for an elder­ly woman, and Baba Seva lives by her­self, lament­ing that all of her friends are gone. She is a 15-minute walk from the Krem­lin but a world away from elite Moscow.

Moscow proves a dif­fi­cult place for Andrei too: his grand­moth­er bare­ly remem­bers him; his efforts to befriend the group of expats next door meets with mixed results; and the city is expen­sive, laden with packed Euro­pean-style cafés, where the cheap­est item on the menu, a tea, [is] two hun­dred rubles — nine dol­lars”. If Rus­sia is in the midst of a cri­sis, Andrei won­ders, how is it that he seems to be the only one unable to afford nine-dol­lar beverages?

The nov­el con­tains a dark irony, par­tic­u­lar­ly in its vignette-like chap­ters (“I expand my social cir­cle,” My grand­moth­er throws a par­ty”), which recall Var­lam Shalamov’s Gulag sto­ries, Koly­ma Tales,in form — a book Andrei reads at one point. Sha­la­m­ov, sent twice to the Gulag, bears his cap­tors no ill will; he sim­ply records. Andrei tries to do the same, but it is not easy. He ekes out a liv­ing teach­ing under­grad­u­ates and deeply resents those he con­sid­ers his aca­d­e­m­ic bet­ters, par­tic­u­lar­ly Alex Fish­man — who, to be fair, is also dat­ing Andrei’s ex. Their rival­ry comes to a head in the chap­ter I attend a din­ner par­ty” in a humil­i­at­ing moment: Andrei yells out that Fish­man ought to try doing some­thing help­ful for the coun­try because Rus­sia is sick.” Fish­man glee­ful­ly points out the irony in this state­ment, not­ing that Putin says the same thing. Andrei was born in Rus­sia and has devot­ed his life to the coun­try, but has not nec­es­sar­i­ly done any­thing to help either — a fact he hopes to change when he falls in with a group of social­ists, led by the pret­ty young Yulia.

Of course, Andrei also real­izes that work­ing with the social­ists (and writ­ing about them) gives him the chance to revive his flag­ging aca­d­e­m­ic career. Gessen seems sym­pa­thet­ic toward his pro­tag­o­nist, who is try­ing to do good, while show­ing that he is naïve: Andrei is essen­tial­ly using the group for the unique angle they pro­vide his work, par­tic­u­lar­ly when they face run-ins with the police. As a dis­ap­point­ed Yulia says to him at one point: You’re still such an Amer­i­can. You still believe in words.” Toward the end of the nov­el, Andrei receives the aca­d­e­m­ic recog­ni­tion he craves, but his writ­ing does not change any­thing in Rus­sia. It is dev­as­tat­ing to real­ize that Andrei may be guilty of the same hubris he accused Fish­man of ear­li­er — believ­ing that words and actions are the same thing.

Discussion Questions