Keith Gessen's second novel is best read as a nuanced guidebook, introducing you to a country you think you know but don't

By David Canfield
July 12, 2018 at 09:30 AM EDT

“This was not the Russia I remembered.” Expensive cafés surrounded by armed security guards, talk of hideously overpriced iPhones, police swarming protests — here is the Moscow that Andrei Kaplan has walked into, a dangerous mess of contradictions. He’s a Russian-born New Yorker, returning to his birthplace to look after his 89-year-old grandmother, and eager for a life reboot: His girlfriend dumped him, his academic career stalled. Going back to his roots makes as much sense as anything else.

A Terrible Country, the second novel by Keith Gessen (All the Sad Young Literary Men), thrusts readers into the heart of a nation that’s become the stuff of alarming headlines: election hacking, murdered journalists, collusion. Yet crucially, it’s removed from our present moment. Set a decade in the past, the story is without partisan or polemical undertones, working instead off differences between Western and Russian ways of life, and intimately depicting a traumatized city adjusting to Vladimir Putin’s reign.

Andrei casually narrates his journey in the first person, describing it with the ignorance of a privileged, distanced Yankee: “All I heard about was what a dangerous place Russia was, what a bloody tyrant Putin had become,” he admits. “In fact… the only robbery going on was the price of croissants on Sretenka.” Reality clashes with expectation; a country Andrei has alternately felt disdain and nostalgia for comes alive, in all its dysfunctional complexity.

Gessen is not much of a stylist here; his colloquial approach ranges from appealingly informal to sloppy, and phrases are repeated almost verbatim, without the necessary emphasis. Andrei gets boxed in to the role of audience surrogate — a trick both limiting and uniquely effective. He’s never as fleshed out as he should be, but then, his wry observations about Moscow’s day-to-day — his tour through his own family history, his grandmother’s stuck-in-time apartment, his struggle to join hockey games and party in nightclubs — are completely engrossing. It’s portraiture, showing us a place we may think we know but don’t.

A Terrible Country is a splendid guidebook disguised as a decent novel. Andrei settles into Moscow, befriending a group of passionate socialists, before returning to New York with tragedy in the rearview mirror, unable to crack a #Resistance lifestyle. Like us, Andrei can see Russia’s charms, its repressed vibrancy. And like us, as things turn dire, he has no choice but to leave — a tourist, an abettor, an American. B+