Moscow Analytica

A Terrible Country: A Novel BY Keith Gessen. Viking. Hardcover, 352 pages. $26.

In one sense, Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country picks up where his first novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, left off. That book’s last chapter is set in 2008, the year it was published, and narrated by one of the titular young men—needy, resentful, compulsively charming, and not always easily distinguishable Lost Boys who divide their time between anguished political musings, intellectual pissing contests, and the quest to disappoint as many attractive women as they can. After a few years spent mostly in Moscow, a city he notes is “what the world looked like before you covered it up with two hundred years of accumulated wealth (it wasn’t pretty),” the chapter’s narrator moves back to New York City because “I was not, after all, an idiot.” At around the same moment, the Gessenesque narrator of A Terrible Country is moving in the opposite direction, leaving his unpromising New York love life and academic career for his grandmother’s Moscow apartment, but otherwise he is recognizably the same dude: “I wasn’t really an idiot,” he tells the reader on the second page. “But neither was I not an idiot.”

It’s clear immediately, though, that something different is happening in this book, which feels less manic and more humane. Gessen’s protagonists once “worried about history and themselves,” though decidedly not in that order. Here, the representative youngish man does not block out all the available light. Instead he becomes a frame through which to see something bigger: an entire country, and one that lately, as it happens, seems to be more looked at and less seen, less understood by those outside it, with every passing year.

The book’s setup is straightforward. Andrew Kaplan’s family, like Gessen’s own, left the Soviet Union in 1981 (as Jews, they were among the few groups then officially permitted to emigrate). Having briefly returned after his freshman year of college for a shocking glimpse of the post-Soviet “ruins,” “Andrei” eventually comes back to Moscow at the request of his elder brother, Dima, an entrepreneur who thrived in the cutthroat, chaotic oil-rich years but is now falling foul of Putin’s regime. Andrei slowly learns to navigate the place: He endures ridicule, rejection, and getting slashed in the leg as he works his way into a regular hockey game; plays anagrams and takes walks with his grandmother, patiently repeating things as her memory fails; figures out how to talk to women without being pistol-whipped by their frightening boyfriends; deciphers the Moscow traffic with its aggressive jumble of slick Mercedes and melancholy chugging Ladas.

Andrei fears that his decision to be in Moscow, partly to look after his grandmother but equally because he has no money or US job prospects, “seemed purely negative, reactive, like Russian foreign policy.” In A Terrible Country, even that sort of throwaway line lands differently from Gessen’s earlier world-historical quips. After all, this doesn’t reflect the conventional American wisdom—wisdom Gessen patiently, affably seeks to upend. The absurdity and self-involvement of the comparison now functions as a feint—something counterintuitive is being said, but so lightly that you barely notice yourself absorbing it. The country in which Gessen’s narrator finds himself is complicated, and the novel traces his efforts to understand it, such that, without ever feeling lectured, the reader comes to care about understanding it, too.

Most of the book’s pleasures are traditional ones, welcome reminders of how much an old-fashioned novel can do. It expands the sympathies of its readers, delicately explores the connection between historical experience and the everyday, and offers a picture of a whole social system and what it does to the people who inhabit it. As scenes unfold in apartments and stores and cafés and hospitals, Gessen weaves together many people’s stories, so that along the way we glean much about Soviet and post-Soviet life. Small details become resonant: the grad student who saves cash by platonically sharing her bed with a roommate, alternating night and day shifts; the way Andrei’s hockey teammates, after practice, order fruit juice rather than beer or vodka. Recurring bits like Andrei’s grandmother’s quixotic attempts to hint her way into an invitation to her best friend Emma Abramovna’s dacha, which could at first seem funny or sad in a generic way, reveal their more particular significance over time.

Alexander Gronsky, Mitino IV, 2009, ink-jet print on paper, 35 3/8 × 42 1/2". Courtesy Alexander Gronsky/Polka Galerie.

So much recent mainstream nonfiction presents Russia either as a nation of drones under the totalitarian control of an evil master-mind, or a surreal, violent, corrupt circus full of larger-than-life characters (or else, somehow, both). Gessen resists—and occasionally plays off—that hectoring tone and that tendency to fetishize and exaggerate Russia’s kitschy weirdness. Take Andrei’s hockey team. The players use swear words in such a way that their Russian initially strikes Andrei as a near-incomprehensible dialect. “Verbs were the most common victims,” he notes, listing the words the guys routinely replace with obscenities. They like to go out and “fuck a beer or two.” “I’ve been taking my rubles and cunting them across the border,” one says. “They fuck there for a while, and I cock them back here again.” Another says he “fucked through” Istanbul on his way to Dubai and “just cocked out” because “you’d be cunted to find a hotel in Russia with furniture as nice as they had at this fucking airport.” Andrei observes that “there were so few actual words that sometimes the guys themselves got confused,” and had to check in with each other: “You mean good cunted or bad cunted?” As with the forgetful, demanding grandmother, it might be easy at first to mistake these muscled, foulmouthed hockey dudes for some colorful cliché: Gessen introduces comic characters who we gradually realize are far more than that. The hockey team is made up of men with very different jobs, backgrounds, and political views—an oil exec, a landlord, a Marxist who’s left the university to teach for free while living off his long-suffering wife—and their codes and loyalties play out in surprising ways. Gessen is as funny as ever, but he isn’t interested in caricature.

The novel’s title—taken from Andrei’s grandmother’s refrain that “this is a terrible country” and one should leave—isn’t entirely ironic. There’s poverty and sky-high prices and blackmail and endemic corruption, homophobia and anti-Semitism, political oppression, random beatings. Yet Andrei notices early on that Russia “sucked in a completely different way from the one I’d been led to expect. . . . I had 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.” His rather inchoate understanding of this begins to coalesce into a real analysis only after he falls in with a group of socialists that includes Sergei, the hockey goalie, whose views seem borrowed from the real-life poet Kirill Medvedev, whom Gessen has translated into English and done much to promote.

Their take on the Putin regime and on Russia is very different from the standard liberal centrist line peddled in the Western press. From Sergei and friends, Andrei picks up the idea that there’s no necessary link between capitalism and democratic freedoms, and nothing inherently Soviet about authoritarianism. The cartoonish image of Putin as a former KGB goon who came along just when things were heading in the right direction under Yeltsin and swept the country back into a totalitarian nightmare is misleading, they argue—Putin pushed Yeltsin’s economic reforms still further, and his suppression of dissent on the streets and in the press has often been in the service of corporate wealth accumulation. The FSB (successor to the KGB) seems to work just as much for private oil interests as for the state. “This is what capitalism looks like on the margins of the world system,” Sergei says, echoing Medvedev. While local liberal protesters call for free speech and fair elections, they ignore labor unrest among those who, as Sergei puts it, “don’t use iPhones.” The group he joins has, Andrei realizes, become socialist not in spite of the post-Soviet transition to capitalism, but in direct response to it.

Gessen seems keen to speak to a lot of people who may not already agree with him—and he knows that in order to achieve this, it’s best not to shout. The personal is political here in a quieter way than in Gessen’s earlier novel, as Andrei strives, with mixed results, to be a better man. He loves his grandmother, but Moscow property is about to tank, lending urgency to Dima’s insistence that they sell her apartment while they can. He helps the socialists, translating their texts for free, and attends their meetings and protests. But hanging over the narrative is the question of whether he’ll go back to America and whether, if he does, he’ll have exploited Russia and its problems in general, and his new comrades in particular, for the sake of his career: In the academic marketplace, Russian authoritarianism sells (the Putin brand just as much as the gulag). It’s clear that all his friends’ choices are shaped by constraints he will never face. Yet in the end, the novel’s charms are by no means just a spoonful of sugar to help us swallow Gessen’s political message. There’s room for many perspectives here: While the ruthless capitalists on the hockey team poke fun at Andrei’s socialist convictions, Emma Abramovna, who lived through Communism, has her doubts about them, too. If the novel contains an implied injunction for readers, it may be simply that we learn to pay closer attention.

Lidija Haas is the New Books columnist for Harper’s Magazine.