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.