Is Russia a Terrible Country?
Is Russia ‘a Terrible Country’? Keith Gessen on writing a novel about returning to Moscow to care for his grandmother
I n 2009, I went back to Russia for the first time since emigrating to the US when I was three. I went with my grandparents, and the country we were in barely resembled the country they had left. My grandparents and I blundered through an unrecognizable and impossibly expensive Moscow. Their disorientation was sad and funny, and resulted in some misadventures where I could finally see glints of the old world Soviet order underneath the now polished and Western-seeming façade, culminating in our tour bus catching fire and us being unceremoniously deposited on the side of a highway in the outskirts of Moscow and told to march single file along the shoulder until we eventually got to a distant metro stop.
Keith Gessen captures so well in his second novel, A Terrible Country, the befuddlement of a (mostly) American in Moscow trying to orient himself in a town where things seem to operate by entirely different rules than in the US. Set in 2008, around the same time as my trip, I found so much of the book deeply relatable. The novel is funny, yes, but also quite moving. In it, Andrei Kaplan, a Russian immigrant and struggling academic moves back to Moscow to take care of his grandmother, in the hopes that she will provide him with good material for an article about life under Stalinism — an article that he hopes will help land him a tenure-track job. When Andrei gets to Moscow, however, he finds his grandmother’s memory has deteriorated to the point that she often does not recognize him. His days are filled with the same repetitive conversations with her and trying, not very successfully, to inject himself into the stream of life in Moscow. Gessen’s portrait of living with a person who is losing their memory is tender but also frustrating and funny, as life’s tragedies often are, and takes place against the larger backdrop of Andrei’s political awakening in Moscow.
The book shows so well the personal cost of all the reforms and policies that had transformed Russia into a capitalist country, something Gessen has been covering for some time as a journalist. Russia is a “terrible country,” according to Andrei’s grandma, and she doesn’t understand why he would come back.
Keith Gessen and I talked about Russia’s terribleness, the US’s moral gray areas, the immigrant experience, balancing fatherhood and writing, and the construction of a good book excerpt. Gessen patiently answered my questions as he unloaded the dishwasher.
Katya Apekina: What was the original seed for the novel?
Keith Gessen: Two things. There was frustration at my own inability as a journalist to convey what Russia was like, or what my experience of it was like. I felt like I’d never quite captured how similar Moscow is to New York, on the one hand — the way people live, the pace of life — but also how different. How much poorer it is. The way people live with their parents, for example, or don’t actually own their car. And then because of that the sorts of things people have to go through on a day-to-day basis — just how much more difficult life is than in the United States. That experience is hard to capture in part because so much of it is so mundane. So what if it takes you two hours to find, I don’t know, a place with wifi? This isn’t the stuff of grand historical narratives. But it is out of such searches for wifi that life is made, ultimately.
That was the meta-motivation. And then there was the more immediate experience. I lived in Moscow with my grandmother for a year, during the same timeframe as in the novel, taking care of her and helping her out. At the time, I didn’t think of it as material for a novel, but as soon as I got home, I started thinking about it. It was a very powerful experience. I wanted to describe what it was like to live with someone who was losing her memory and to an extent her personality. That was the original seed. From there, it was a long process of figuring out how to work that into a traditional novel with, you know, a plot.
I lived in Moscow with my grandmother for a year, taking care of her and helping her out. [My novel came from wanting] to describe what it was like to live with someone who was losing her memory and to an extent her personality.
KA: Andrei has this political awakening, but he’s maybe not able to be as transformed by it as he would like. Did you have a similar political awakening when you were in Russia?
KG: The political conversion or realization that Andrei goes through in 6 months, took me about 10 years. I went over to Moscow in the mid-90s, when I was in college; it was at the time when Russia was supposedly transitioning toward capitalism. You would read the papers in the U.S. and it was like, “Russia is going through a wonderful transformation toward capitalism! Though it’s a little bumpy at times!” But anyone who went over there could see that it really wasn’t going well. There was a lot of crime and people like my grandmother had lost just about everything — their jobs, their savings, their sense of themselves. Old people were out on the street selling their socks.
But a lot of people thought, and I have to admit that I was one of these people, that this was just part of the painful process of modernization, and eventually, on the other side, the Russians would emerge from it happy and prosperous, like Germany. I held that view for a while. But that experience of seeing Russian capitalism up close in the 90s planted the seed in my mind that maybe capitalism wasn’t the best solution to all situations and that in certain places it led to a great deal of misery and death, actually. It took me a while to kind of come around to the idea that this wasn’t some kind of aberrant capitalism but actually capitalism itself. So, I do share that with Andrei, though as I say he comes to it a little faster.
KA: The ending blew me away — when Andrei is put to the test. I grew up with this idea that a person’s true decency was something that was hidden away and that in polite American society it went untested, but in extreme situations, like in Soviet life, it was forced to the surface. I remember thinking that I didn’t really know what a person was made of, what I myself was made of, unless it was tested. Is this also an idea you grew up with and do you still believe that?
KG: For me, the difference between here and there is that in the US there is a really wide gray area of moral and political behavior. I guess that’s something that money buys: moral ambiguity. Like, sure, I’m a corporate lawyer or an investment banker, but I also do a lot of pro bono and charity work, and also, you know, I’m a Democrat. There are various shades of that, that are more or less convincing, whereas in Russia if you’re working for Gazprom or Rosneft or United Russia, you have literal blood on your hands. Or even just being a college professor, as I now am, in the U.S. It’s a noble profession, in many ways — I spend a lot of time working with students on their writing and reporting and some of their work is really great. At the same time I’m part of this horrible student debt machine. I’m in a gray area. In Russia things are a little more black and white.
KA: Do you think that’s still true about the U.S.?
KG: Well, certainly less so since 2016, because of the political polarization. But it’s one thing to live in a country that’s split in half, as the U.S. now is, so that you’re part of the good half… that’s different from being anti-Putin in Russia, where you’re more like 10 or 15 percent of the population. And then within that 10 percent, being a person who is willing to put your body and freedom at risk.
I grew up with an admiration for the Soviet dissidents. When I was very little, I actually thought that my parents were also dissidents, in the sense that they had all the samizdat books, Solzhenitsyn and Mandelstam and so on, and, having emigrated in the early 80s, had made a pretty dramatic decision to leave the USSR. It was only later that I found out that the number of people who were actual dissidents, who had actually protested the Soviet regime and had actually gone to prison, was minuscule. And then you had this larger group around them who were sympathetic and never joined the Party and secretly hated the regime but didn’t actually go out and protest. That was the group my parents belonged to. I mean, famously, in 1968 when the Soviet Union sent tanks into Prague, there were eight people who went out into Red Square and were then all arrested. That’s a very small number of people.
KA: Andrei, as an immigrant, was pretty rootless. As an immigrant myself I related to that aspect — wanting to be part of a cause, but the cause not really being his own. Do you think there’s a limitation to his commitment since it’s not his country?
KG: I don’t know if I believe that. I think it’s a decision for him to make. My parents, even as they never really assimilated to the US — I don’t think they would ever have thought of themselves as rootless. I think if you’d have asked them, they’d have said: I’m an immigrant. I’m an American who is from the Soviet Union. That is, they knew exactly where they were from and they knew exactly where they had arrived. You can look at that situation and think it’s tragic. From a certain perspective, they never really got to have a home. But they didn’t look at it that way.
In the next generation, I think it’s true, we do feel a little more rootless. Are we from the Soviet Union? Is that our identity? On the one hand, yes, but on the other our actual connection to that place is pretty tenuous. We don’t live there. We don’t know the language that well. We don’t know the names of the sports teams. Whatever.
But that just means we have to decide. Andrei does enter into Russian life enough that he is given a choice about where he belongs and where he wants to take a stand. I think that’s true of anyone. I mean, I’ve lived my life this way to a certain extent, too, not just because I wasn’t born in the States, but because I’ve moved around a certain amount, between college and grad school and just moving between neighborhoods in New York, even, and always or sometimes with the thought that, “Well, I’m not really here for the long term. This isn’t really my home.” But at a certain point I think you get an opportunity, if you want it, to say: “This is my home. These are my people. I’m going to fight here.”
So it’s up to him. I don’t think it’s foreordained that he would make the decision that he makes.
Seeing Russian capitalism up close in the 90s planted the seed in my mind that maybe capitalism wasn’t the best solution to all situations and that in certain places it led to a great deal of misery and death, actually.
KA: I came to your book first through the excerpt that was in the New Yorker. I have never read an excerpt before that felt so stand alone powerful on its own and yet it didn’t really give away anything about the book or rob the book of its emotional power. They felt like two distinct things and I loved them both. I was curious about how that excerpt came about.
KG: A young editor named David Wallace at the New Yorker did that. I wouldn’t have known how. He took the grandmother thread and rearranged the chronology a little to cast it more in the form of a story. It was pretty brilliant. The words were the same but it was a different creature, made out of parts of the larger creature. And it put me in this strange position, since David felt like he could cut things, but not really add anything to suture the narrative together. At first I was like, “Am I authorized to go in there? Am I allowed to go in there and add stuff?” And my initial feeling was, “No! I’ll mess it up.” But eventually I came around to, “I made the larger thing to begin with, so I guess if anyone can do it, it should be me.”
It was pretty strange. If you look at it there’s stuff in there from page 1 to about page 300, in the course of 8 pages.
KA: I felt like the emotional punch of it somehow felt different than the emotional punch of the book. In the book his relationship with his grandmother is central, but it’s about other things as well, and somehow when that storyline is taken in isolation like that it feels very different.
KG: Yeah. When we were editing, I went and looked at other novels that I’ve read that were excerpted in the magazine. And they really fall into two categories: The first is that it’s a discrete chapter — I think the excerpt from Franzen’s Purity was like that. You get a sense of the spirit of the book, but not the story. And then others are more like a compression of the best parts. That’s the danger, of course: that they’re taking the best parts and smooshing them together, so the reader is just automatically going to be disappointed by the book-length version.
I don’t know if that’s what happened, but I do feel like the grandmother stuff is the core of the book. It’s what allows the rest of the book to exist. It’s what allowed me to write a book about Russia.
KA: You work in all these different modes (journalism and translation) do you feel like you’re accessing different parts of yourself when you’re writing fiction? Is your process different?
KG: Something I’ve learned about myself as a journalist is that I tend to gravitate toward a particular kind of character. That’s true of most journalists. You plunk them down in some random place and yet they always seem to manage to find the sort of person that they’re going to find. In my case, it’s a sort of thwarted bitter male character who also likes sports. If that makes sense. And it’s also the kind of character I find interesting as a novelist.
Beyond that, as a novelist, or fiction writer, I’m very nervous about making stuff up. In my first book, I was really worried about time. I thought that any changes in chronology or even just compression of time would distort the truth somehow. Like who was I to mess with time? Like, was I God? And I was worried too about class — like, I didn’t want to create social mobility where it didn’t exist, in either direction.
But as I’ve gotten older, I feel like I’ve seen more things. I’ve seen all sorts of people doing all sorts of things. The range of human experience is quite wide, it turns out. And once you realize that, you start feeling like it’s OK to make stuff up, even to make people up, and to move stuff around. This book still hews pretty closely to my own personal experience, but I gave myself more freedom this time, and I think it worked. People have said to me, about some of the characters in the book who are very much made up, “Oh, you must have meant this person that you and I both know!” The Fishman character especially. But I’m very pleased to say that that is a made-up horrible person.
KA: How is writing your second book different from writing your first book?
KG: A lot. Back when I was in grad school and writing my first book, I thought, “Man, if I can just finish this book it will be so much easier to write a second book.” What a joke. It took me 10 years to write a second novel. Part of it I think is that people have certain expectations of what your book is going to be like based on the first book, and you want to, on the one hand, subvert and go against those expectations, but on the other hand, you also want to meet them. And that turned out to be harder than I expected.
KA: And in writing your second book, you had a son, in the middle of the process. How did that affect your writing process?
KG: It changed two things. First, I really needed to sell the book. We had Raffi, and I didn’t have a job, and Emily, my wife, who is also a writer, also didn’t have a job and had just given birth to a little baby, and at that point, I mean, after six years of fiddling with it, I had to finish something that could be presented to a publisher, or else. That was very real.
And then this other thing happened, which was harder to define. My grandmother had died by this point, and Raffi was a pretty difficult baby, and we were really inexperienced parents and we weren’t getting any sleep. We ended up having this pattern where I would take Raffi from about 1am to about 4am. And for the first 30 minutes of that, he would just scream and I would try to get him to the farthest point in the apartment from Emily, so she could sleep. Eventually he would go back down, but there was still this danger that he would start screaming again, so I would keep him in the living room and stay out there with him. And that was the time that I had to write. That was when I got the first third of the book into presentable shape.
And writing it with him sleeping there, I wouldn’t say it changed the book, exactly, but it did make me more aware that I wasn’t, you know, the last generation anymore. The two tragedies in my grandmother’s life had been that she lost her only child, and that it happened twice — first to immigration and then to breast cancer. I didn’t need to have a kid to know that that was a tragedy, but it certainly made me aware of just how horrible that would be. I guess you could say it embedded me more clearly into the stream of my family.
KA: Do you have any advice you would have given yourself when your first book was coming out? Or your second one?
KG: I have so much! Don’t write in the first person! And also, you know, understand that it’s a book you’re publishing. With the first book I really thought it was going to transform my life. Like I would suddenly have this whole new group of friends, which would include, I don’t know, Harvey Keitel, and of course I would still stay in touch with my old friends, but they would understand that things had changed. Something like that. I definitely thought I couldn’t make any plans past my publication date. And I have actually seen that happen to a couple of people. But for the most part it does not happen, and your life goes on as it did before.
Another mistake I made is that I spent too much time worrying about the people who didn’t like the book and not enough time being grateful for the people who did. I still find myself doing some of that. But the fact is, some people are going to like the book, and some people are not. It’s hard to deal with. You want everybody to like the book. But that’s just not possible — at least in my case I have found that it’s not possible. I think you need to find your readers — the people who really respond to what you’re doing and how you’re doing it — that’s really all you can hope for. And it may be a few hundred people or it may be a few thousand people, but it’s not going to be a million people. Still, you have to find as many of your readers as you can. And sometimes in the process of trying to find your readers you’re going to run into some of your non-readers. That’s the price you pay.
And ultimately, what an amazing thing to publish a book! If you had told my younger self that I would someday get to publish a book, and I would get to read it to people at bookstores, I would be so happy. As a grownup unfortunately it feels a more like a series of failures. So if possible you have to recapture that feeling of what your younger self would have thought of it, instead of worrying — is my book selling and are they going to let me write another one?