A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen review – perceptive portrait of Russia

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Astute analysis and goofy prose combine in the story of a young man and his grandmother

There seems to be an unwritten law of publishing that says books about Russia and the former Soviet Union must have the gloomiest possible titles: The Long Hangover, The Last Man in Russia, Lenin’s Tomb, The Harvest of Sorrow, A People’s Tragedy. Russian writers started it, of course, back in the 19th century, with Demons, Dead Souls and The House of the Dead. From its title and the pedigree of its author, who translated Svetlana Alexievich’s searing Voices from Chernobyl, you’d think A Terrible Country might resemble the works of PG Wodehouse’s fictional writer Vladimir Brusiloff: “grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide”.

In fact, Keith Gessen’s second novel is a very funny, perceptive, exasperated, loving and timely portrait of a country that its author clearly knows well. It tells the story of Andrei Kaplan, like Gessen the US‑raised son of Russian émigrés, who goes back to Moscow to take care of his octogenarian grandmother, Baba Seva. It’s 2008 and Andrei is 33, a likable nebbish who’s just split up with his girlfriend and is failing to get traction in his academic career. An expert on Russian literature and history, Andrei lacks the steely focus and aptitude for specialisation that impresses hiring committees. One of his less noble motives for going back to Moscow is to mine his grandmother for research material. Or, as his academic adviser puts it: “She’ll tell you stories about the USSR. You can weave them in and out of a tale of modernity. That shit is gold, my friend. People love that shit.”

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