Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Keith Gessen is in a better position than most to truly ponder on the relation between home and country, having grown up in the United States since the age of six after his family emigrated there from the Soviet Union. In A Terrible Country, he presents us with a man in his mid-30s by the name of Andrei who went through the exact same path, with a small difference: he chooses to come back to the country he left behind so many years ago. With few prospects to dream about in the U.S., he hopes to find in Moscow the topic for an article to propel his career… unsuspecting of an infinitely greater prize to his journey: profound insights into the human soul.
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Keith Gessen Returns to Russia
For those of you out there who were born, raised, and perhaps even retired in one country, the question as to whether or not you can call it home feels silly… there simply is no other country you could think of as home out there. The lines get rather muddied however for immigrants, and especially their children. With the advent of globalization, an increasing number of people make their ways to other countries and try to set up lives there, ensuring a future foothold for their families.
In the case of these people, what exactly can they call a home?
Is it the country in which they were born?
The country which took them in?
The one they happen to have a valid citizenship for?
I highly doubt there is a unilateral answer to this question, but nevertheless it’s a toothpick Keith Gessen has decided to pick our brains with in his latest novel, A Terrible Country . The story presents us with a relatively unremarkable man in his mid-30s by the name of Andrei, living in the United States of America, having immigrated there with his family from the Soviet Union at the age of six.
Unfortunately his prospects for employment are quite dire, even if he did manage to squeeze out a PhD in Russian Literature… all he does is teach massive online courses. With his bank account getting closer and closer to the red zone, he decides his life needs some change of pace to break him out of the stupor.
Thus, he decides to return back to the country he left as a child to care for his ailing grandmother who lives in an apartment fifteen minutes from the Kremlin, awarded to her by Stalin himself for her role in a propaganda film. Andrei’s main objective is to find a topic for an article which will earn him renown back in the states. However, as he engrosses himself deeper and deeper into Moscow and the curiously engaging people in it, his journey turns into one of discovery about family, loyalty, and the mysterious nature of the human soul.
An Air of Authenticity
The first thing which I believe should be mentioned about A Terrible Country, is the fact the author used a part of his own biography in order to create the character of Andrei. Indeed, Gessen too immigrated from the Soviet Union at the age of six with his family to go live in the United States… thankfully though, it seems his career has been much more rewarding than Andrei’s.
In any case, we often feel how close the author is to the main character, how he slowly builds him up, adds little details to his personality, makes him grow, and ultimately understands how he feels and what motivates him. I think it’s safe to say the author saw himself in the character he was writing for many passages of A Terrible Country, if not in its entirety.
This personal approach to the protagonist makes him feel extremely believable and realistic as a person, and no matter how many missteps he makes it’s difficult to find a reason to stop cheering for him. Moving beyond the character himself, the author has obviously done an incredible amount of research over the years on his home country and its history. If I hadn’t read up on the author’s biography before this, I would have assumed him to be either living in Russia or a scholar of the highest order.
To cook and clean yourself is intolerable. But to have someone else do it is exhausting.― Keith Gessen, A Terrible Country
He takes us not only through the capitalist Russia of today, but through the grandmother we also revisit many different periods of the Soviet Union and witness fragments from a unique microcosm in human history, perhaps never to be repeated.
Gessen is especially proficient in characterizing the secondary and tertiary characters Andrei comes across, making them feel like the random people you would expect to encounter on the streets of Moscow. They all give the impression of carrying a slice of life with them to show us, and while they may not always relate to anything in the story, they are certainly never boring.
The Values of a Modern Man
Politically-speaking, it is true Russia is currently a prominent player on many fronts, with everyone and their uncle having some opinion on their machinations. I think you’ll be quite glad to know Gessen sidesteps virtually all of that and focuses very little on the political front, just enough to set the stage and nothing more.
On the contrary, this story focuses a whole lot more on human values, themes such as family, loyalty, idealism, the sense of purpose, what you can actually call a home country, and impossible decisions, just to name a few. It is true Andrei is far from being a perfect man, and I can definitely understand why some people would dislike him for the decisions he ultimately makes at some crossroads.
However, I believe they are completely in line with the character the author was building and serve more to mirror reality than to give us a fictional satisfaction. Overall, I found Andrei’s journey through Moscow and all it has to offer to be a heartwarming and at times bittersweet affair; it almost feels like you can’t be reminded of the good in life without glancing at the bad, and vice-versa.
As you might have gathered, this isn’t the type of story where you’re going to find action, scares, thrills, chills or anything of the sort. This is really a story about character development and feel-good comedic moments, but Gessen does find ways of incorporating certain twists and creating some stakes where they were necessary.
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For example, Andrei faces a dilemma in choosing between staying in Moscow with a young woman or leaving back to the United States after having invested so much of himself in this city. In other words, it’s a book about witnessing and learning, rather than being excited, and I’m extremely thankful for it; we have more than enough of the latter populating our bookshelves.
The Final Verdict
With all being said and done, A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen is one of the more thought-provoking, eye-opening and heartfelt novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading recently. It’s a calm trip through the present and the past of a storied city, an exploration of the people who lived there and their descendants of today, a deep dive into the human soul. I highly recommend it to anyone who doesn’t feel intimidated by a slower-paced novel with a lot of food for thought.
Keith Gessen is an author who was born in Moscow in 1975 but moved to the United States of America with his family at the age of six. He grew up to be the co-founder of the literary magazine n+1 as well as the author of the novels All the Sad Young Literary Men and A Terrible Country.
He has written for numerous publications about Russia, including the London Review of Books, the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine.