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20 November 2018

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A Terrible Country

Keith Gessen (Viking, $26, July 2018)

Andrei is, by his own admission, not really an idiot. “But neither was I not an idiot.” He is also not really Russian, and not really not Russian.

His family emigrated to the US from the USSR when he was six, and now he is a PhD postgrad in Russian literature, unable to find work. Which makes him open to his brother Dima’s request to go to Moscow on an open-ended stay, to look after their elderly grandmother.

Long separated from Russian reality, but well educated in Russian history and literature, and seemingly informed by western media, Andrei thinks he knows what to expect. But he soon finds that Russia is rather different from the inside looking in.

“Don’t stay in this country. It’s a terrible country,” his grandmother warns. “Good people become bad people, or bad things happen to them.”

While admitting her wisdom, Andrei has few options. So he tries to make friends, to have people to talk to, to fall in love, to get involved. The friends and characters he meets are a sampling of modern Russia, from disaffected socialists to rabid hockey players, from loath- some bankers and anti-Semitic pen- sioners, to struggling students and oversexed expats – and sometimes more than one of these things at the same time. Andrei finds a path, a way in, but of course it does not end anything like he hopes, for him or his friends.

Gessen makes Andrei’s a compelling journey of self-discovery through the “terrible freedom” that is modern Moscow – “a fortress set down in a hostile environment.” All the more so for Russophiles, as he sprinkles it with interesting bites of Russian culture – from Tsvetaeva to Autumn Marathon – like street food along way.

A Terrible Country is a moving novel of how outsiders struggle but never quite fit in, how emi- grés never leave, and how language can make communication harder, if only because not everyone can agree what words are worth.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: May/June 2018