I was warmer in prison

Vadim Nikitin

  • A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen
    Fitzcarraldo, 352 pp, £12.99, July 2018, ISBN 978 1 910695 76 0

One of my parents’ favourite Soviet films is called Autumn Marathon. Its main character, an academic translator, is living a double life. Out of divided loyalties rather than greed or excitement, Andrei spends most of his time running frantically between his home, his office at the university and the apartment of his typist, who is also his mistress. Each night, the drawbridges connecting these different parts of Leningrad are raised, threatening to leave the hero stranded. In its opening credits, Autumn Marathon calls itself a ‘sad comedy’. It is an equally apt description for A Terrible Country, Keith Gessen’s loosely autobiographical account of a not-so-young Russian-American graduate student’s ambivalent year in Putin’s Russia.

The novel’s hero – also named Andrei – is similarly torn. From his home in New York he promises his older brother – who has suddenly fled to London after getting on the wrong side of the Kremlin in a business matter – to look after their ailing grandmother in Moscow. To make ends meet, Andrei teaches online courses. But with no reliable internet connection in his grandmother’s flat, he ends up spending most of his time writing emails to students in an overpriced café. His burgeoning friendship with a group of opposition activists is in fatal tension with his ambition to win an academic post back in the US. Though sad in tone, A Terrible Country is nevertheless still a comedy: Andrei copyedits a neighbour’s online reviews of the sex workers he uses, finds himself thrown out of his coffee shop over an incident involving false teeth, and gets pistol-whipped outside a nightclub by the son of a Duma deputy. There is a feud with a self-aggrandising academic rival, and a love triangle.

Many of the characters’ romantic dilemmas, jokes and even literary references will be familiar to readers of Gessen’s first novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men. Published in 2008, the year in which A Terrible Country is set, that book too was a roman à clef about the beneficiaries of the ‘long luxurious adolescence of the contemporary Western male’. It shamelessly deployed Descartes, Hegel, Henry James, Isaac Babel and the Naqba as fodder for the rom-com exploits of its protagonists. Mark – an unmoored PhD student obsessed with Russian history, literature, beer and women – justifies sleeping with someone he doesn’t much care for by invoking Lenin in October 1917 (‘a time for action, for decisive steps’) only to realise later that the better comparison was with the ill-fated Spartacist revolt of 1919. This sort of thing is often funny, but a joke at the expense of America’s intellectual elite eventually descended into self-parody.

But if All the Sad Young Literary Men used big ideas to discuss trivial things, A Terrible Country does the opposite. It employs Andrei’s experiences to make arguments about the moral bankruptcy both of Russia’s liberal opposition and Western academia, as well as the possibility of a new Russian socialism decoupled from Soviet nostalgia. This time, when Gessen brings up Hannah Arendt, it is not to furnish a metaphor for a drunken hook-up but for the tortured relationship of an émigré to the country of their birth.

Early on in Andrei’s year in Russia, he meets Moscow’s liberal opposition at Jean- Jacques, a restaurant where a beer costs nine dollars and a glass of Grenache double that. The young people working in ‘advertising and magazines and public relations’ had all attended a recent anti-Putin protest and spend the evening dispensing judgment on their country, from the ‘goblins’ in the Kremlin down to the ‘typical Russian lack of culture’ of the man in the street. On learning that Andrei lived in New York, they start asking about ‘the art galleries and restaurants they knew there, which I had never been to or even heard of’. It is a revelation: ‘So these were the Russian liberals who opposed the Putin regime. It turned out they hated Russia. They sort of lived there, but they also sort of lived somewhere else. None of them watched Russian TV.’ If he exaggerates, it is not by much. In an essay in this paper published after Boris Nemtsov’s assassination in 2015, Gessen recounted a conversation he had had with Nemtsov, the permatanned figurehead of the liberal opposition.[*] Indignant about being undermined by a Kremlin apparatchik called Aleksandr Tkachev during an unsuccessful mayoral bid, Nemtsov asked Gessen: ‘You’re from New York … Who is more popular in New York, Nemtsov or Tkachev?’ The answer, Gessen writes, ‘was Nemtsov, but we weren’t in New York’.

To most ordinary Russians, the fact that the liberal opposition is dominated by people who have one foot in the West is an accepted reality. Yet where the New York Times and the Economist see only courageous truth-tellers defending their compatriots against ever-encroaching despotism, A Terrible Country stands out for being as critical of Russia’s liberal opposition and its Western cheerleaders as it is of the Putin regime. The fact that this remains a refreshing – even shocking – perspective testifies to the depressing state of most American scholarship and reporting on Russia. With a few exceptions – such as NYU’s Stephen Cohen and Pittsburgh’s Sean Guillory – even simple self-criticism is almost entirely absent from US Slavic Studies departments. Politically, nearly all the major scholarship of the past half century (some of it very good or even brilliant in terms of historiography) falls into three camps: the conservative right (Richard Pipes), neoliberal right (Anne Applebaum, Timothy Snyder) or the cravenly apolitical centre (Timothy Colton). They all treat Russia as a problem to be solved. What is the underlying reason, they ask, for Russia’s deviance from the ‘normal’ (read: American) mode of development? Their approaches differ only in their prescriptions: for Pipes, authoritarianism and expansionism are part of Russia’s DNA and the best thing the West can hope to do is contain it. In that light, Applebaum and Snyder, as well as second-tier thinkers like Obama’s ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, appear positively idealistic. For them, Russia can break its addiction to dictatorship at home and meddling abroad if it only adopts the right politics (competitive elections), economics (free markets) and society (respect for minorities, shareholders and property rights). In A Terrible Country, this conventional wisdom is personified by the smarmy Alex Fishman, Andrei’s academic and romantic rival. Fishman makes a successful living at Princeton by spouting platitudes like ‘the Putin regime is just totalitarianism in a postmodern guise.’ At a dinner party, when Fishman declares that Putin is ‘turning the whole country into the Gulag’, Andrei lashes out, accusing him of running down Russia while profiting from it.

And profit they have. When writing that scene, Gessen may have had in mind the former president of Harvard University, Larry Summers, who was a key Western adviser to the Russian privatisation programme. As a US Treasury official in the early 1990s, he helped design the institutions that would allow a small group of oligarchs to grab colossal wealth through rigged tender auctions (and the occasional murder). His protégé, the economist Andrei Shleifer, headed the Harvard Institute for International Development, which received millions of US tax dollars to support Russian reforms. Shleifer went on to preach the virtues of Russian shock therapy, a view hardly contradicted by the fortune he made from quietly investing in the very institutions he was helping to set up. When he was later charged with conspiring to defraud the US government and violating State Department conflict of interest rules, Summers reportedly used $26.5 million of university funds to settle the case.

Andrei arrives in Moscow expecting old-fashioned despotism. But what he finds most oppressive about Russia turns out to be his lack of money. The biggest threat to freedom, he soon realises, is not Putin but capitalism; Russia’s unabashed social Darwinism is revealed as the apotheosis rather than the perversion of Western values. This realisation comes after hearing a lecture given by a member of a left-wing opposition group, Sergei, who also happens to be the goalkeeper in his ice hockey team. ‘There is a dictator that is as tough as Stalin and as brutal as Stalin but is also more acceptable than Stalin, more popular than Stalin ever was,’ Sergei tells the audience. ‘It’s called the market.’ In drawing the link between Western capitalism and Russian authoritarianism, Gessen delivers a powerful rejoinder to the Fishmans of the world.

From his anachronistic idealism down to his stutter, Sergei seems to be based on Kirill Medvedev, whose provocative essays and free verse – with titles like ‘Big Rubber Cock’ – Gessen translated and published in 2012. He had first encountered Medvedev’s poetry at the Falanster, the same Moscow bookshop where Sergei gives his speech, and was struck by the way ‘it answered so many of the questions my friends and I had been struggling with in New York.’ For more than a decade, Gessen has translated and championed writers whose work interrogates both the trauma and the possibilities of the post-Soviet world – among them Medvedev and Svetlana Alexievich. Following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea, Gessen’s dispatches from Odessa and separatist Donetsk gave voice to the ‘losers’ from the fall of the USSR, whose many legitimate grievances, often flailing and inarticulate or couched in dated rhetoric, are dismissed by both local liberals and Western observers.

A Terrible Country is also a long farewell to the USSR. One of the reasons Andrei comes to Russia in the first place is to collect his grandmother’s experiences of socialism, hoping to publish them in a journal article. However, her advancing dementia makes that plan impossible, and Andrei concentrates on caring for her instead. In mimicking the simple patterns of his grandmother’s sentences as she struggles with her memory, Gessen’s unadorned prose comes into its own, revealing an emotional depth absent from his previous novel. An unsuccessful trip to the cinema to see a documentary about the poet Marina Tsvetayeva’s suffering at the hands of the Soviets is followed by delight when Andrei obtains a pirated DVD of Autumn Marathon. ‘Leningrad!’ she exclaims with affection on seeing the familiar city on screen. ‘We had watched numerous post-Soviet movies set in St Petersburg, but my grandmother had never recognised it,’ Andrei says. But now, ‘there it was. The USSR. The very images … spoke of values she believed in, however much, under the Soviets, they had been honoured only in the breach.’

This notion of the Soviet Union as a repository of cherished human values separate from its official ideology runs through much of Alexievich’s work, which Gessen doggedly promoted in the US long before the 2015 Nobel Prize made her famous. As one character tells Alexievich in her most recent book, Second-Hand Time, the Soviet Union ‘might have been a prison, but I was warmer in that prison’. Andrei’s grandmother’s love of Soviet films shows that nostalgia can be divorced from the politics of socialism (under which she lost her academic job and her only daughter to the West); A Terrible Country as a whole takes the next step in the argument, that the USSR has become a political red herring.

For the Jean-Jacques crowd, Medvedev wrote in a 2007 essay, ‘the Soviet Union was what they opposed: they were the new, free, entrepreneurial, Western Russians, unlike “them”, the autistic, godforsaken, backward, totalitarian suckers.’ For Putin and his circle, it was something to ‘exploit and appeal to – industrialisation, the victory in the war, the first man in space and so on’. Yet the failure of both camps to solve Russia’s problems requires a new politics beyond Stalinism and/or capitalism.

By the end of the book, Andrei’s grandmother’s flat is sold to a Bulgarian gangster. His only anchors to the USSR are now a Soviet-era backpack, an old duffel coat and the ever-dwindling number of decrepit Ladas still willing to take a hitchhiker. ‘The new epoch we are finally entering,’ Kirill Medvedev writes, ‘is defined by the fact that the USSR can no longer help anyone. You can no longer use it positively or negatively … The only thing to do now is live without it.’ That is easier said than done. But as Gessen’s lighthearted yet morally serious novel shows, some young(ish) people – on both sides of the old iron curtain – are giving it their best shot.