In "A Terrible Country," Keith Gessen's second novel, Andrei Kaplan heads from New York City to his birth country of Russia to take care of his grandmother. She's approaching 90, suffering from dementia, and is fond of reminding whoever is around her that all of her friends are dead. Moscow is not a welcoming place for Andrei, an academic with a focus on Russian literature and history, who has failed to find a job in the States. While abroad, he hopes to find a subject for a journal article so that he might improve his prospects.
Like Andrei, Gessen was born in Russia and moved to the United States with his parents as a child. This insight is essential to what makes Andrei such a compelling character. From the moment he arrives in Moscow, he is overwhelmed with confusions and insecurities. Russians are much richer and more European-seeming than he remembers. He feels like a foreigner and is concerned that he looks like one, too. He can never decide whether to use formal or informal pronouns. This is anxiety-inducing, but Gessen's dark humor is a balm. At one point, Andrei wryly sums up why Americans loved to read about the Soviet gulags: "It made them feel better about the U.S. of A."
"A Terrible Country" is set during the financial crisis of 2008, but Gessen's writing of Russia's political situation is no less vital than if it were set today. The authoritarian character of Vladimir Putin and his regime is always on Andrei's mind. In the beginning of the book, he knows it is there but struggles to see it. "It was hard to square all the talk of bloody dictatorship with all the people in expensive suits, getting into Audis, talking on their cellphones. Was this naïve? … For me — and not just for me, I think — Soviet oppression and Soviet poverty had always been inextricably intertwined."
Later, when Andrei joins a socialist group and participates in protests, the consequences of Putin's "bloody dictatorship" become very clear to him.
Gessen, author of 2008's "All the Sad Young Literary Men," has done marvelous work here. "A Terrible Country" is a contemplative and compassionate novel about what it means to return to a place that is no longer home, and a fiercely political book about what oppressive regimes do to societies. There are few writers that do either as well as Gessen does both.
Bradley Babendir lives in Boston. He has written for the Washington Post, the Nation and elsewhere.