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'A Terrible Country' follows an ex-pat who returns to experience life in Russia

An academic learns to see Russia through the eyes of his 90-year-old grandmother.                                                                                                      

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A Terrible Country
By Keith Gessen
Viking
352 pp.

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Andrei Kaplan, narrator of A Terrible Country, is a 33-year-old Russian-born American teaching on-line Russian literature courses. Andrei’s older brother, caught up in shady Russian business deals that “temporarily” require him to flee to London, begs Andrei to leave New York to take care of their grandmother in Moscow. Having been dumped recently by his girlfriend, Andrei agrees to go. He expects to be able to extract an academic article about his grandmother regarding her decades of experiences as a professional woman in the USSR while fending off anti-Semitism. She also suffered widowhood twice over, along with facing the death of her daughter (Andrei’s mother) after she and her family emigrated to the Boston area in the early 1970s.

Andrei does not suggest that his narrative is being processed through his diary, though sometimes if feels as if that is what he is doing as he describes a year of his life in Moscow in 2008-2009. Among his frustrations are reengaging with his first language (it takes him almost the whole time to learn to curse correctly), the city’s transportation challenges, the country’s crooked economic system, and Baba (Grandma) Seva’s persistant complaining.

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Needing daily breaks from his grandmother’s apartment, Andrei, an avid amateur hockey player, eventually makes his way into several pick-up games around the metropolitan area: “Traveling all over to play hockey, I saw the strangest things. Once you left the center of the city … the immediate vicinity of the Kremlin, it was as if civilization fell away. Or rather it was as if some other civilization – the Soviet one – had come here, like the glaciers of the Ice Age, and erected its massive apartment towers.… And then, like the glaciers, this Soviet civilization retreated.”

Through his volunteer work as an English translator for his hockey-goalie friend’s socialist newsletter, Andrei eventually gains a girlfriend, but "A Terrible Country" is not a love story.

It’s a novel about this young academic at a crossroads becoming refamiliarized with Russian customs and history through his 90-year-old grandmother. Despite the fact that she is losing her memory, she remembers, sometimes even fondly, the old days in the USSR.

Anti-Semitism infects the past and present, however, and reminds Andrei and Baba Seva of the reasons his family left. He and his grandmother love and hate this “terrible country”: “ ‘Andryush,’ she said … ‘You are a good person.… Don’t stay in this country. It’s a terrible country. Good people become bad people, or bad things happen to them.’ … “Yes, I thought, it’s a terrible country a lot of the time, but here we were, across the street from the KGB no less, and it wasn’t so bad. You could find little oases here, little islands of peace.”

Comically or tragically, Andrei’s warm feelings are in the very next moment poisoned.

For those of us fond of Moscow’s street scenes, the fine descriptions of Andrei’s walks along the Garden Ring and his shopping trips and errands will draw out pangs of recognition while also dampening any sparks of nostalgia: “[W]ould I really be able to stay in Moscow indefinitely? On the one hand it was appealing.… But the daily grind of life was something else. Just to do anything – to get my skates sharpened, to get a library book, to get from one part of the city to another – was an unbelievable hassle. What in New York took twenty minutes, here took an hour.… The frowns on the faces of the people wore you down. The lies on the television too, after a while, wore you down.”

The only wholly created character, loved and seen and wondered about, made vivid again and again, is the grandmother. Though we are always in Andrei’s head, he remains an enigma, neither likable or unlikable, and his friends and brother most often seem constructed but not created; the characters in Gessen’s only previous novel, "All the Sad Young Literary Men," were similarly indistinct. But here, the grandmother, losing sight of the present but often glimpsing her past, is always vital despite the ravages of time. The kitchen-sink plumbing catastrophe that she and Andrei face on the morning of her birthday party would be, if extracted, a marvelous humorous short story worthy of Gessen’s fellow Russian-American Lara Vapnyar. “I tried not to lose my cool,” recounts Andrei. “I was covered in filth and I had just dismembered the sink without any clear plan of action, I was ignorant of plumbing. I was ignorant of the entire physical world!”

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Once the disaster is averted, the party dramatizes the height and precariousness of family happiness: “For dinner we set everything up in the back room and put my grandmother in a spot from which she wouldn’t be able to get up and try to fetch people things. She accepted this. I worried that she would start hinting to Emma Abramovna about her dacha, and everyone would see how her oldest friend evaded her, but she never brought it up. Periodically she would ask, when there was a quiet moment, ‘Whose party is this?’ At first it was worrisome, but then it almost seemed like she was teasing us. “ ‘It’s your party!’ we said, and she said, ‘My party?’ and we said yes. ‘All right,’ she agreed.” Lovely, touching, comic.

The novel’s best, sturdiest theme is that life is, if not attractive, then at least possible in that “Terrible Country” of Russia.

Bob Blaisdell reviews books on Russia and literature