About Time I Read It: A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen

As I mentioned a few weeks ago my participation in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge so far this year has been pretty lackluster. In hopes of getting back on track I recently borrowed through Overdrive a copy of Keith Gessen’s A Terrible CountryWith Time calling the 2018 novel “hilarious” and declaring “to understand Russia, read A Terrible Country”  I felt confident I’d found the perfect book to represent Russia for the reading challenge. It became apparent after reading only a few pages I’d chosen the right book.

It’s the summer of 2008 and Russian-American New York City resident Andrei Kaplan is stuck in a rut. His girlfriend Sarah recently dumped him at a Starbucks. After spending years slaving away in grad school studying Russian literature and history he can’t land a job anywhere in academia. He’s running out of cash and tired seeing his former classmates land cherry professorships at prestigious universities or leaving academia altogether to make money hand over fist as hedge fund managers.

One day he gets a phone call from his brother Dima, an aspiring entrepreneur who frantically informs him he’s fleeing Russia and needs Andrei to fly to Moscow and look after their elderly grandmother. Without telling him exactly why he has to leave in the dead of night, Dima promises his departure is only temporary. In the meantime Andrei can live rent-free with their grandmother in Dima’s Moscow apartment while enjoying all the city has to offer. With his life going nowhere he obeys his familial obligations, sublets his NYC apartment and relocates to Moscow. Not long after his arrival he learns his grandmother, while physically OK for a 98 year old woman is in the early stages of dementia. After several phone calls with Dima Andrei suspects his brother’s commercial dealings have angered the country’s wrathful oligarchs and might not be returning anytime soon.

In 2008 Russia, while no longer ruled by the Communist Party suffers under an oppression all its own. With Vladimir Putin constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, technically, Dmitry Medvedev is president but most agree it’s Putin in the once-ceremonial role of prime minister calling the shots. Powerful oligarchs and FSB heavies throw their weight around privileged royalty. Russia’s oil exports has generated billions in petrodollars but has managed to enrich only a small, kleptocratic minority while at the same time inflating the economy and making everything expensive for everyone else. (Andrei, a New Yorker, is shocked by Moscow’s insane cost living.) Even though he was born in Russia, speaks the language and spent years studying its literature and history nevertheless after spending most his life in the United States he’s ill-equipped to deal with its rough and tumble culture and lacks the connections, professional and social to be at ease in the land of his birth.

Gessen’s novel resonated with me for personal reasons. As the son of dementia sufferer, I could relate to day to day challenges Andrei faced caring for a loved one in the early to moderate throes of the disease. The forgetfulness, cognitive decline and inexorable erosion of personhood experienced by his elderly grandmother I witnessed firsthand afflict my own mother.

I thoroughly enjoyed A Terrible Country and it’s almost certain to make my year-end list of favorite fiction. Essential reading for understanding Putin’s Russia and capable of delivering more than a few laughs.

5 thoughts on “About Time I Read It: A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen

  1. Pingback: Library Loot | Maphead's Book Blog

  2. This does sound like a nice blend of personable experience with family and cultural. Thanks for the intro and its going on my list now. Good luck with the rest of your European Reading Challenge.

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