Everyone knows that Russia is a kleptocracy, a Mafia state run by corrupt oligarchs who live in fear of the arch-oligarch, Vladimir Putin. It is also a neo-Stalinist dictatorship that seeks to restore the Soviet empire and sow the seeds of subversion in every Western democracy. Somehow, it is also a traditionalist bastion of Eastern Orthodox social conservatism and neo-czarist monarchism. Comfortable in our self-satisfaction, we writers and readers of Western journalism about Russia have an endless supply of frameworks by which to understand Russia, and very few of them ever indict us in the process. Russia’s problems stem from a tragic legacy peculiar to itself, a spectacle at which we can marvel but about which we can do very little.
Keith Gessen’s new novel, A Terrible Country, asks whether it is possible to unlearn the habit of thinking this way about Russia. Narrated through the eyes of an academic named Andrei, who flees the United States’ collapsing job market in 2008 to care for his grandmother in Moscow, the novel shifts our picture of Russia from one of comforting alienness to one of disturbing familiarity.
Born in Russia, Andrei is returning to a country that he left as a small child, a place now changed beyond recognition. Gone are the late-socialist stagnation and the post-Soviet poverty; in their place is something familiar to Western readers: a hip capitalist carnival for trend-chasing urban consumers side by side with economic insecurity and political malaise. As he comes to realize that capitalist dysfunction is harder to escape than he’d thought, Andrei also confronts an urgent moral challenge: Will he stay and fight for justice in the old country, or wash his hands of it and go back to the West?
A Terrible Country is haunted by discourse. In his former career as a would-be scholar of Russian literature, someone attempting to make Pushkin relevant to American undergraduates, Andrei found himself surrounded by stale tropes about Russian history. His academic rivals quickly learned to navigate these stereotypes and leverage them for professional advancement, becoming experts, in the case of one especially memorable character, in the emerging field of “online Gulag studies.”
Gessen’s view of the economy of academia, especially when it comes to the study of Russia, is startlingly recognizable: He understands how unequally the profits of speaking on behalf of Russians are distributed, and how rarely Russians themselves end up the beneficiaries. But it’s not just academics who mine the country’s problems for professional capital and make lucrative careers as a result. Journalists, too, assemble endless clichés about modernization and the Soviet legacy.
Andrei is less successful than his peers at the complex art of academic bullshit. His job prospects in the United States turn out to be minimal, and when his brother, a shady entrepreneur in the gas-station business, asks him to stay with their aging grandmother, the request comes to Andrei like a reprieve. Driven by the vague hope of putting his good deed to use as fodder for his stalled academic career, he readily agrees.
As soon as Andrei lands at Sheremetevo Airport, he finds himself in a world that doesn’t conform to the platitudes in which he’s been trained. For one thing, they’re old, dating back to the Cold War or even earlier, and they’re predicated on a narrative of Russian backwardness inadequate for explaining Moscow’s modern glitz. They are also confounded by Moscow’s stark contrasts. His grandmother’s apartment, obtained long ago during the Stalinist purges, is located in what has become a tony district of the capital, full of overpriced restaurants and cafés. While everything inside the apartment is old and musty—knickknacks and relics of the ancien régime—as soon as Andrei goes outside, he finds himself surrounded by fantastic wealth and reminders of the power of the police. Viewed from a coffee-shop table, the difference between Russia and the United States seems one of degree rather than of kind.
Many of the Russians that Andrei initially encounters only add to his sense of disorientation. Through his brother, he meets a privileged coterie of Russian liberals, who complain about the propagandistic stupidity of Russian television and rhapsodize about the prestige shows that represent the enlightened culture of the West. They’re not wrong about the propaganda, but they are oblivious to what it hides. They don’t understand the economic grievances that motivate most Russians or how their own class position insulates them from the regime’s worst crimes. For ordinary Russians, the market reforms of the 1990s created a disastrous era of collapse and dysfunction; for Andrei’s new friends, the problem is that the reforms weren’t allowed to go far enough.
Had Andrei made something of himself in the United States, he would have felt more comfortable within this charmed circle of successful urbanites. Instead, our down-and-out academic becomes an irritating reminder that not everyone in their Western utopia lives a life as glamorous or fulfilling as they imagine, and Andrei is swiftly ejected from the group. His grandmother’s life, which takes up much of Andrei’s daily routine, seems to be the opposite of theirs in every way. Unlike the cartoon version peddled by Andrei’s liberal friends, the version of Russian history he experiences has no clear heroes or villains.
Andrei soon finds his real friends in Moscow among a small group of Marxists. They are not members of the Russian Communist Party, the KPRF; the successor to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is a venal, racist, and anti-Semitic lapdog of the regime, happy to endorse its imperial ambitions and its culture-war agenda, as long as Putin’s government does not cut social services too deeply. Instead, Andrei’s friends belong to a small group called October, akin to socialists in the United States. They try to make clear the capitalist exploitation that underlies Putin’s rule while working to salvage a usable past from the Soviet legacy, building bridges with ordinary people who remain unmoved by the liberals’ focus on political freedoms alone but who feel strongly about their homes and public lands being handed off for plunder by developers.
For Andrei, another part of the Octoberists’ appeal is the fact that these Marxists recognize that Russia is not alone in suffering from the oppression of capital: The same processes going on at home are taking place everywhere else too. Their struggles are his, they reassure him; the humiliating and precarious position of adjunct instructors is not unfamiliar to them. Unlike the liberals, the Octoberists live on the periphery of Moscow and outside the belt of chic coffee shops and luxury boutiques that represent “the new Russia” to most foreign observers.
Navigating between the fossil-fuel wealth of the central city and the dismal highways and auto-repair shops on its sprawling outskirts, Andrei begins to view the new Russia in a different way. The much-maligned gray, prefab, concrete apartment buildings that ring the city no longer represent Soviet backwardness; instead, they have become the last refuge for Russia’s working class. These buildings stand in for the positive aspects of the Soviet inheritance: its commitment to free health care, housing, and education. Even the dilapidated state hospital that Andrei visits with his grandmother is not a monument to the failure of communism but rather a place where conscientious doctors and nurses try to make do with scarce resources. Where most Western writers present these institutions as obsolete relics doomed to disappear as Russia moves deeper and deeper into the capitalist mainstream, Andrei comes to see them as seeds of hope and alternate possibilities; at last the enjoyment of building a ramshackle dacha alongside his Marxist friends outweighs the dubious pleasures of Moscow nightlife, and he soon finds himself falling in love with one of them.
As Andrei grows closer to the Octoberists, he especially comes to admire the group’s unofficial leader, Sergei. A former academic like Andrei, Sergei has resigned his teaching position and became something of a Russian Socrates, driving around the country in an old Lada in order to give lectures and seminars. Like many of the characters in A Terrible Country, Sergei is likely based on a real person: the poet and writer Kirill Medvedev. In 2003, Medvedev broke publicly with the cultural establishment, and his old blog still hosts his declaration of independence from the world of official poetry. In a series of blistering essays, Medvedev rejected the apolitical career-building that some artists and intellectuals claimed was a form of liberation, even anarchism, in post-Soviet Russia. For artists and intellectuals to stand meaningfully in opposition, he insisted, they had to recognize how their own careers and social acclaim were provided to them, in part, by the regime and the economic structure they opposed. If they didn’t, then they would end up complicit in the very system they hoped to transcend.
Gessen has long collaborated with Medvedev; in 2012, he was instrumental in publishing a set of Medvedev’s essays and poems, which he translated in a small book called It’s No Good. As October’s lone native English speaker, Andrei too assumes the role of translator, working up the group’s online communiqués for distribution to sympathizers abroad. But working with Sergei doesn’t just entail a stream of pleasant dinner-party chatter; it also comes to involve real risks. Andrei joins the group in protests, which soon gets him arrested. Similarly, Gessen was arrested while covering the campaign of liberal politician Boris Nemtsov in Sochi in 2009.
This is only one of a series of parallels that begin to emerge between Andrei and Gessen: Notably, the author himself moved to Moscow in 2008 to take care of his grandmother, an experience he wrote about for the London Review of Books. Gessen’s first novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, also rested on his real-life experiences and social milieu, following a set of young writers as they struggled to put their Harvard educations to use as aspiring members of the American literary establishment. The novel was a navel-gazing exploration of educated-male interiority that somehow felt more sodden with narcissistic self-regard with every humiliation that its characters experienced, while also managing to depict women more as embodied projections of its male protagonists’ mental states than as full-fledged individuals.
Far more self-aware about class and gender, A Terrible Country avoids many of these problems. Andrei repeatedly tries to project his own expectations onto the women he meets—even his grandmother—but these expectations are repeatedly frustrated, and we never have the sense that we are getting the whole story. Through the flaws in his understanding of the Russians that he meets, we also come to understand the limits of his own fleeting and privileged presence in the country. Unlike the heroic schlemiels of Gessen’s first book, whose afflictions are intended to redeem them from being completely insufferable, Andrei may ultimately be neither as much of a schlemiel nor as redeemable as he likes to think.
That Gessen has become much less willing to let intellectuals off the hook makes A Terrible Country not only more appealing as a work of fiction but also more effective as a work of social criticism. Where All the Sad Young Literary Men ended on a cloying note of domestic bliss, A Terrible Country refuses such easy and individualized solutions: If Andrei alone is saved, that is no salvation at all.
The central decision facing Andrei is whether he should stay with his grandmother and save her apartment from his brother’s attempts to sell it out from under her, or try his luck once more in the United States. Yulia, his Octoberist lover, represents one route; having her own mother to take care of, she cannot leave, but in staying she represents how one might find a home in Russia worth fighting for. A tenuous job prospect in the States, on the other hand, gives him a glimpse of a different future: the possibility of a successful Western career built on monetizing his left-wing connections in Russia.
Underlying Andrei’s predicament is the broader question of whether Russia itself can be saved, whether it is worth saving, and who will be able to save it. Like Andrei, the country is at a crossroads. As Gessen noted in a recent interview, it was not a coincidence that he set the novel in 2008: At the heart of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential interregnum, Russia appeared poised between a milder, more liberal form of “sovereign democracy” and a harsher return to the Putinist tradition. At the beginning of that year, liberals and Marxists thought the regime might make concessions to demands for bottom-up political and economic reform, and Gessen captures the sense of possibility, however illusory, before the country took its more authoritarian turn.
Recalling this brief moment of possibility was one of the many shocks of recognition that struck me as I read the novel. I, too, left Russia as a child (though after 1991); I, too, am a reluctant Russian-studies academic with an elderly grandmother who lives in central Moscow (though no longer in an apartment provided to her by Stalin). Like both Gessen’s and Andrei’s families, mine is also Jewish—a type of Soviet experience so often represented abroad as a monotonous story of religious persecution and anti-Semitic harassment that one misses how many Jews also lived pretty decent lives, at least in relation to the vast bulk of the Soviet population. Some were perpetrators of the Stalinist terror as well as its victims.
These ambiguities, in fact, go to the heart of the book’s nagging question: whether Andrei will leave or stay and fight for a better country. For Russian Jews, this is an especially vexing dilemma, not just because Soviet Jews were anti-Semitically caricatured as rootless cosmopolitans loyal to their interests alone, but also because they were among the few allowed to formally emigrate in the Soviet Union’s last decades. Gessen does not say so, but to a Russian reader it is clear that this was why Andrei’s mother was able to take her children abroad in 1981, and this legacy forms an unspoken backdrop to Andrei’s anguish about a choice that he knows most of his October comrades will never have to make.
Near the beginning of the novel, Gessen has Putin himself voice this moral quandary. In an interview that Andrei watches on his grandmother’s television, the then–prime minister argues that criticism of Russia too often targets not his government but Russia itself, which he compares to a sick mother. Andrei himself, of course, has come to Russia to be at his grandmother’s bedside, and he finds Putin’s speech “a devastating response” to liberal critics who seemed so ready to consign the country to the dustbin. Yet a year later, and with prospects in the United States less bleak, Andrei finds the temptation of abandoning his metaphorical mother and his literal grandmother a lot stronger than he had anticipated.
Andrei’s choice about whether to stay or go will define the novel. The Octoberists make their position clear: To have the standing to criticize, you must stay and fight for change at home. As Yulia puts it, “It’s indecent to criticize someone whose position you’ll never have to occupy.” However morally compelling, their fight seems quixotic and doomed to be squelched in Russia’s increasingly repressive society. Academia offers a different bargain. By exploiting the ongoing terribleness of Russia from afar, you can build your heroic reputation without sacrificing the comforts of a Western academic career. Yet this is no way out either. In America as well as Russia, it is capitalism that constrains your political options. There’s no use in pretending the fight for justice is someone else’s problem.