At the age of 23, the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy was something of a train wreck. A handsome young man of privilege, he gambled away part of his inheritance at cards. He became an accomplished drinker and an even more accomplished womanizer. His prolific hedonism landed him in the venereal disease clinic at the University of Kazan, where he studied law for two years before dropping out. Desperate to turn his life around, he enlisted in the Russian army and fought in the Caucasus, the mountain range at Russia’s southern border, an experience that would inspire his semi-autobiographical novella (and critical self-reflection), The Cossacks. For Tolstoy’s hero, leaving behind his cozy existence as a young aristocrat in Moscow, life with the Cossacks is a fantasy of authenticity and rugged simplicity. They promise a path towards his own moral regeneration.
The Cossacks, Keith Gessen has said, was the “ultimate model” for his new novel A Terrible Country. At the center of the story is Andrei Kaplan, a Russian-born American PhD working as an adjunct instructor for a PMOOC (Paid Massive Open Online Course) on the Russian novel. When we find him, he has just left New York City for Moscow, ostensibly to care for his ailing 89-year-old grandmother Baba Seva, but also with hopes that her memories of the Soviet Union will provide material for an academic article—something Andrei needs in order to secure a permanent professorship. But Gessen’s characters (graduate students in Russian literature, leftist activists fighting Putin’s regime, amateur hockey players, slimy expat bros—all of whom will feel viscerally real to anyone who has lived in Moscow) push back against the protagonist’s self-interestedness in a way that Tolstoy’s never quite do, pointedly criticizing Andrei for sopping up their local knowledge and then abandoning them as soon as the comforts of home beckon.
Like Andrei, Gessen has roots in both Russia and the United States. Born in Moscow to a literary critic mother and a computer scientist father, Gessen and his family emigrated to the United States in 1981 when he was just six years old. Also like Andrei, Gessen’s family left to escape anti-Semitism, a scourge still very palpable in Russia and one that shaped Baba Seva’s opinion of the place; the words “a terrible country,” used to describe Russia, come from her. Gessen grew up in Massachusetts, and after graduating Harvard in 1998, made a splash on the New York literary scene as one of the founding co-editors of n+1. His novel asks a question that plagues many who write about parts of the world they don’t call home: How do you let a place transform you without reducing it and its people to a footnote in your own path towards self-realization?
A Terrible Country is decidedly well-timed, arriving at a moment when complex, critical stories that connect Russia and the United States are in short supply. It also marks Gessen’s return to fiction after a ten-year hiatus. In 2008, he published All the Sad Young Literary Men, a semi-autobiographical story in which three over-educated friends try to become successful writers and grapple with what that even means. In the next few years, as the Great Recession hit, Gessen became actively involved in the Occupy Movement, and edited Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager and co-edited Occupy!: Scenes from Occupied America.
His new novel begins at this pivotal moment: It’s the summer of 2008, in the months ahead of the global financial crisis, when Andrei receives a gchat message from his older brother Dima. Dima wants him to stay with Baba Seva, while he goes to London for an “unspecified period of time.” Unlike Andrei, Dima moved back to Moscow as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed to “make his fortune.” Indeed, post-Soviet Russia attracted a slew of opportunists looking to “rebuild” the country and “help” with the transition to capitalism. It was not always easy money though: Dima once convinced his American friend Tom to open a bakery there, but “Tom opened his bakery too close to another bakery” and “was lucky to leave Moscow with just a dislocated shoulder.” Likewise, Dima’s own departure seems partially motivated by some dangerous dealings gone wrong; he won’t tell Andrei why he needs to go to London because the “very serious people” he’s involved with might be monitoring his messages.
Andrei, recently dumped by his girlfriend at a Starbucks and coming off a third unsuccessful year on the academic job market, decides that moving to Moscow might be the shock to his system he needs. He moves into Baba Seva’s grand apartment in central Moscow, lodgings awarded to her by Stalin in the 1940s for her successful work consulting on a patriotic film about Ivan the Great. Baba Seva, we learn, was a professor of history at the prestigious Moscow State University. The apartment she received is a source of lifelong guilt as Andrei later learns: “For my grandmother to receive a Stalin apartment, someone else had to lose it.” Indeed, the thorny moral calculations that educated people made under Soviet authoritarianism and now under oligarchic capitalism is a prominent theme in Gessen’s novel.
One of Andrei’s central preoccupations throughout the novel is the difficulties that Russia experts face in a tightening academic job market, in which the pursuit of knowledge can often feel reduced to the pursuit of a competitive edge. Andrei’s graduate school nemesis Alex Fishman represents an extreme version of this problem, bragging about his colleagues at Princeton and regularly posting on Facebook about his career successes. Andrei runs into Fishman at a dinner party in Moscow and unloads on him, accusing him of profiting off of Russia without giving anything back. “What have you ever done for Russia, Fishman,” he chides. In keeping with the novel’s sense of humor (which refreshingly deflates any character who verges on becoming self-righteous), a bottle of beer Andrei has been hiding falls out of his pocket and rolls across the floor.
But Gessen is careful never to reduce any group of people to a caricature (surely being from Russia and seeing Western news coverage of his home country has played some part in that). Like Baba Seva, who just wanted to help make a historically accurate movie about Ivan the Great, the other postdocs and graduate students at the dinner party are “sweet, earnest people who had gone into academia because they cared about knowledge…That they were now all stuck in a demeaning pursuit of professional advancement, and in a shrinking field to boot, was not their fault.” Like many idealists before them, “They had gone into this with the purest of motives” and were now struggling to stay true to themselves in the face of market pressures.
Which brings us to the second half of A Terrible Country: the communists. Whereas the first part of a novel centers on Andrei as he takes care of his grandmother, attempts to find a hockey game, and grits his teeth at the successes of his grad school friends, the latter half is dedicated to October, a Marxist reading group he stumbles into and gleefully gets swallowed up by. After Andrei leaves the explosive dinner party, one of the other guests, a “cute” Russian PhD student named Yulia, invites him to speak on the topic of neoliberalism in higher education at a leftist bookstore. It turns out that Andrei is the warm-up act for the main speaker, a charismatic “street professor” named Sergei.
Andrei becomes entranced by Sergei, a former university instructor who quit “in protest” over “the increasing privatization of education in Russia.” He now teaches in “mobile classrooms,” offering Russian language lessons to migrants from Central Asia and free test-prep to poor high school students as he drives around Moscow in his Lada. Andrei decides to write about Sergei and the October group for an article in Slavic Review, a top peer-review journal in his field where his advisor has been pressuring him to publish. But Andrei develops a twinge of guilt; turning October into a line on his CV feels slimy, a “betrayal” of all the things that attracted him to Sergei in the first place. It doesn’t help that his advisor ecstatically begins branding the project with buzzwords and phrases like “The return of the repressed. The incorrigible Russians.” Thus begins Andrei’s research: He spends the next months debating Marx at their meetings, attending anti-fascist protests, and attempting to lure Yulia away from her husband, a disgraced former member of October who left them for the anarchists.
Despite the seeming intensity and sobriety of the debates that suffuse the novel—neoliberalism, aging relatives, careerist Westerners—A Terrible Country is filled with moments of levity. It never takes its subjects, even the ones it presents as heroes, too seriously. For instance, Andrei learns that the Marxists originally named themselves September, the idea being “if the revolution is in October, we were in the month before the revolution.” When Andrei asks if there’s a political explanation for the switch to October, Sergei explains, “Well, no. We just decided it was a stupid name.”
That isn’t to stay that Gessen trivializes the work of October. In fact, by the end of the novel, things get very serious indeed and the consequences of political action for those involved contrast starkly with the relative security afforded a foreign academic who merely researches political action. When two members of October are jailed for protesting, Andrei writes an op-ed in The New York Times. He intends the piece to stir up international support, but it only brings him professional accolades from his academic colleagues in the U.S. Reflecting on the unfairness of it all, Andrei mournfully remarks that his friend’s “prison experiences had not done as much for his career as they had for mine.”
Gessen’s novel, peppered with references to Russian literature throughout, is both an homage to the great writers of his home country and a sad reflection on how little value they command in a market driven society. The people who try to preserve their legacy—academics, journalists, or like Gessen, both—find themselves adrift, often compromised. In the plot of A Terrible Country, Gessen has shown how literature, academia, and anti-capitalism—topics often pushed to the periphery of political debate—have in fact much to say about the dehumanizing effects of neoliberalism. Tolstoy, who by the end of his life opposed private property, renounced the copyright to his literary works, and started a school for peasants, would probably like it.