A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen

Reviewed by Marianne Hitchen

This fascinating story is based on the author’s year in Moscow between 2008-9, when he went to stay with his grandmother. How closely the events and people described in the novel correspond to real life is one of the central enigmas of the book.

Andrei’s grandmother, Seva Ifraimovna, had lived her whole life in the USSR, becoming a history professor at Moscow State University. She was given an apartment in central Moscow by Stalin, for work she did on a film about Ivan the Great. When we meet her, she has lost most of her savings and her dacha (holiday home) following the reintroduction of capitalism in the early 1990s. She is still hanging on to her desirable Moscow flat, although Andrei’s wheeler-dealing older brother Dima, who returned to Russia several years previously, has designs on it.

Andrei’s parents emigrated to the US in the 1970s with their two sons, and lived in a solidly Russian enclave near New York. Dima, the elder brother, always identified himself as Russian and the two boys grow up speaking the language. Andrei becomes a scholar of Russian literature and is trying without success to obtain a secure academic post in the US. It is then that he decides to go and stay with his 89 year old grandmother, to care for her but also to plunder her memories of the Soviet Union for publication purposes.

It turns out that Seva Ifraimovna is suffering the early stages of dementia, while demonstrating ‘fluctuating capacity’, as we used to say in social services. She has little interest in discussing her past, and keeps asking Andrei who he is. When pressed, she will only say “this is a terrible country”.

The book follows Andrei’s blundering attempts to understand and adapt to his new environment, and care for his grandmother. Both tasks prove very challenging. He falls victim to casual street violence and struggles to make his meagre income (from online tutoring) cover the high cost of living. Andrei finally joins an ice hockey team and slowly starts to make friends.

Glimpses of the Soviet past come through, for example, the habit of some Muscovites (usually older, Lada driving ones) to stop and give lifts to people standing by the roadside. Seva and Andrei live near the much-loved statue of Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife. He discovers that they both enjoy watching old Soviet films together.

Andrei becomes involved with a group of young Russian socialists and joins their public protests. They meet to study the classic works of Marx and Lenin. The portrait of Sergei, whom Andrei first meets playing ice hockey, is especially poignant. Sergei is a deeply humane, committed Marxist who is ultimately quite isolated. Andrei’s attachment to this group is ambiguous. Is he just keen on one of its female members, Yulia? Does he feel genuine sympathy with their socialist aims? Or is he just mining the experience to further his chances of academic tenure back in the US?

This is a keenly observed, thought provoking and highly enjoyable book.