What Does Russia Look Like, Now? Expat Keith Gessen on His New Novel, Putin, and the Guy Worse Than Him in the White House

Photo: Nina Subin/Courtesy of Penguin Random House

A character in Keith Gessen’s first novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men — a fractured portrait of three authorial alter egos, a study in ambition and romantic foolery and a forerunner of the autofiction movement of the past decade — remarks that New York City belongs to the young. It’s less clear in his second novel, A Terrible Country, whether the city of Moscow belongs to anyone. The city is violent, and entombed within it is a history of violence. Government purges and NKVD torture chambers have given way to gangster thuggery and casual street beatings. The city is also expensive, so most of the young people we meet, bohemians who teach at the university and organize protests, lead a marginal existence — it’s hard to say Moscow belongs to them.

It certainly doesn’t belong to the novel’s narrator, Andrei Kaplan. He’s an interloper: a 33-year-old grad student who’s returned to the city of his birth after 27 years in America to take care of his ailing grandmother, who’s approaching 90. Andrei hopes he’ll be able to wring some stories of Soviet times out of his grandmother, stories that might form the basis of a scholarly article that will land him a job back in the States. He arrives without the intention of staying any longer than he has to. He does, however, stay a little longer, making friends at a regular pick-up hockey game, falling in among a group of young leftists, and developing a deeper devotion to his grandmother than he’d known before.

His grandmother is a tenant in a city that history has taken away from her, just as old age is stripping her of her memories. She lives among Soviet furniture and buys her groceries at markets lingering from the Soviet era. She’s the novel’s emotional center, and her frailty is the source of its considerable heartbreak. The novel’s mostly absent id is Andrei’s elder brother Dima, who returned to Moscow from America in his 20s to make his fortunes, and has fled to London after a bid to expand his empire of gas stations has earned him dangerous enemies. It turns out he doesn’t even belong to the newly rich, at least not for long.

A Terrible Country is an autobiographical novel of a conventional sort. It doesn’t make much of what its author and its narrator have in common. Like Andrei, Gessen is a Russian immigrant who moved to the suburbs of Boston at age 6 and returned to Moscow, in the summer of 2008, to spend a year with his grandmother. They’re both also fanatical hockey players. What differentiates the two? Andrei is something of a fuck-up and more naïve than his author. He is also, to put it in 1990s terms, more susceptible than Gessen to the temptations of selling out. I can say this because I’ve known Gessen for 20 years. I’ve served as his editor, he’s served as mine (he is also my predecessor as book critic for this magazine) and I’ve watched him follow a path as a writer. In the ’90s, he was writing for the online magazine Feed (and selling tickets at the box office of the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a job that allows for a lot of reading); in the 2000s, he co-founded n+1 (“I felt I had a duty to help create the sort of literary culture I wanted to be a part of,” I recall him saying at the time); and now writing for The New Yorker and the London Review of Books (among other magazines), largely on matters to do with Russia.

Now 43, Gessen lives in Bed-Stuy with his wife, Emily Gould, and their two children, the youngest of whom was born a few days after this interview took place. We talked in a public garden a few blocks from their apartment about autobiographical fiction, Russia, and the epic novel he set out to write and shelved. In this way, Gessen has come to resemble the character in All the Sad Young Literary who is determined to write a great Zionist epic. The novel he has instead produced, A Terrible Country, has a spare emotional force, as beautiful as it is painful; serves as a keen document of history past and present; builds in an unlikely way to the suspenseful climax of a taut (and very human) political thriller; and is the funniest work of fiction I’ve read this year. Our conversation has been condensed and edited (quite heavily).

What draws you to autobiographical fiction?
The main reason I read fiction is to see what other people do with their lives. Like, literally, what do they do all day? How much money do they have? Are they happy? And for me the peculiar mixture of fact and made-up stuff that goes into autobiographical fiction is my favorite way of finding that out. And with any book that you like you could try to disentangle the autobiographical basis from the made-up stuff, but why would you? It would be a colossal waste of time!

You went to Russia right after your first book came out. You were there for a year and wrote several reported pieces for The New Yorker. Did you know you were going to write a book about that time?
I did not. I thought I could not. I was there to take care of my grandmother and I was living with her in this old apartment and occasionally sort of venturing out into the world and doing some reporting, but the whole time I thought, “I don’t know enough about this place. I don’t know it as well as I knew for example the world of grad students and young writers that All the Sad Young Literary Men was about.” I was pretty sure that’s how well I needed to know something in order to write a novel about it. Then I got back, and I was like, “Wait, actually, that was a pretty profound experience —”

Of discovering the country where you were born?
No. Of living with my grandmother and being trapped in that apartment with her and having those conversations. She couldn’t remember anything, and she couldn’t hear, so we just had these conversations about the same things over and over, about her obsessions — that she was abandoned, that her daughter (my mother) had died, that she didn’t know what we were going to eat for lunch. And it was on the one hand incredibly frustrating, but on the other hand incredibly sad. And once it was over I just really wanted to write it down somehow, to get it down.

The fact that it was a year gave it a kind of narrative shape. I knew I would have to make things up, because I wasn’t Beckett and couldn’t do a whole book about two people sitting in an apartment having the same conversation over and over, but the year gave it a finitude that was helpful. And I thought, “Okay, that’s the story: this guy goes to Moscow to take care of his grandmother and then he lives with his grandmother and then he leaves.”

But in between, I was writing those essays for you at the LRB and for The New Yorker. And, you know, I’d been doing that for years, in between writing fiction. And it’s like, man, you spend three, four, six months sometimes reading all these books and then you publish a piece in a magazine and then people throw it out the next week. I never regretted doing them but I wanted people to stop throwing them out! And I thought, “What if I embedded the essays in a book? If they were in a novel, people would have to keep them around.” That was my pitch when I got a fellowship at the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library. I was going to sit there for a year and read a thousand books and write these essays and then embed them in a novel. Isaac Deutscher has a line about Trotsky immortalizing his enemies by including them in one of his brilliant polemics — “like insects trapped in amber.” I wanted to trap these essays in amber.

So I did that, and actually there’s a draft of the book that’s kind of like a much less interesting version of the narrative as it exists now plus all these incredibly long essays. That was a very bad draft.

What were the essays about?
Anything you can imagine, anything to do with Russia. There was a long essay about the history of Russian oil. There was a long essay on Putin. There was a long essay on Joseph Brodsky and his best friend, Lev Loseff. It was basically this compendium of everything that I knew or had learned about Russia and it was 700 pages long if it was a page. It was awful.

It sounds awesome to me.
Trust me when I tell you. It was humanly impossible to read.

At one point the book was called Russia.
Right, the idea was that it’d be kind of everything you ever needed to know about Russia. But what I realized once I threw away the essays was that actually Russian history and politics were basically encoded into the lives of the characters. That’s what history is. So if I wanted to make it clear to the reader that the post-Soviet “transition” was inhumane, criminal, and a failure — there was no better way of doing that than to describe the life of Andrei’s grandmother, who had spent her whole life working for the good of the USSR and now had nothing to show for it but $500 in savings and an old apartment. And all she wants to do is go to a dacha for a week during the summer, because that’s what she used to do during Soviet times. That’s history. And history and politics is embedded too in Andrei’s relationship with his businessman brother; and in the hockey guys who love Russia but have summer houses in Spain; and in the socialist group that is trying to change things.

So, yeah, once I realized that the characters could actually kind of tell the story themselves, the book got a lot better.

In terms of the biographical material, your character in the book gets arrested–were you ever arrested in Russia?
I got arrested in Sochi when I was covering the mayoral campaign of Boris Nemtsov in 2009. He later got shot. I got arrested for going around to the polling stations with his campaign manager without a registration. It was a pretty different situation from what happens in the book, but it was very useful to me in writing it. I knew what it felt like to be trapped in a police station in Russia.

Have you ever gotten pistol-whipped like Andrei?
That happened to a friend of mine. I did a very close study of his face after it happened. I do not recommend getting hit by a pistol.

One of the far-fetched aspects of the book seemed to me was that you could have picked up a hockey game that involved both, like, a RussOil executive and a goalie who was consistently protesting RussOil.
I disagree. Pick-up hockey is a place where people come together. And the fact that he’s a goalie — goalies are strange. If someone on your hockey team is going to be a radical Marxist activist, it’s going to be the goalie.

There’s a depiction in your book of the marginal bohemian existence lived by Andrei’s new friends. It seemed harsher to me than a parallel bohemian life in New York.
Russia is not a rich country. Its per capita GDP is still less than Romania’s. Teachers are paid nothing, doctors are paid nothing. If you work in the oil sector or if you work in government, you’re part of the cash flow. Those people do quite well. But there are many, many people who are just eking out an existence.

How would you compare Moscow in 1998, 2008, and the present?
I don’t want to sound like a poor man’s Tom Friedman, but in 1998 in Moscow there was no place to get a cup of coffee. Zero places. You could walk around all day and not find one. But there was a lot of political freedom. If you watched the news, there was just crazy stuff happening all the time. There was an oligarch war going on, where Vladimir Gusinsky, who owned one of the largest TV networks, used all his media to attack the other oligarchs. This was not a high point for Russian press freedom, but it was very entertaining. They had tapped phone conversations being published in their rival newspapers. But like I say, no coffee. And Gusinsky later got run out of the country by Putin.

2008 is somewhere in between. There is less political freedom, but more places to get coffee. Now, in 2018, in terms of coffee, it’s amazing. There’s coffee everywhere. It’s lovely. But then you turn on the TV and it’s pure propaganda. Quality of life and political repression have moved in a chiasmatic pattern — the higher the quality of life, the lower the level of political freedoms. Which is of course exactly the opposite of what was predicted by modernization theory or the neoliberal consensus or whatever. So actually I’m not Tom Friedman. Because it turns out you can have cappuccinos and political repression.

How do you characterize the Putin regime generally?
The argument that the socialist hockey goalie Sergei makes in the book, and it’s an argument I happen to agree with, is that the Putin regime is first and foremost a capitalist regime. It’s there to protect the prerogatives of large capital. It’s a regime that cheats within the confines of the international system, but it’s not trying to overturn the international system as such. It’s not a revolutionary regime by any stretch.

Now it’s also the case that the regime became more dangerous after Crimea. After Crimea, it mobilized the population in a way that it hadn’t done before, when it wanted people really to stay out of politics. After Crimea, it drew them in to this nationalist orgy. To an extent, that’s still ongoing. But it’s basically your run of the mill right-wing authoritarian regime which also happens to have a large military and one sixth of the Earth’s landmass. It’s not back to the USSR.

And how bad is that?
I mean, that’s one of the questions that the novel deals with. When do you know that it’s become really bad? Even the worst political system, Nazi Germany, if you were a German person you could go about your life and pretend it wasn’t happening. And I mean, at some level, you have to go about your life. You can’t lie in bed all day crying. But there does come a point where you can’t or shouldn’t go about your life anymore. It’s hard to know where that point lies, though.

Putin used to say this interesting thing, whenever he’d be asked about political freedoms. He’d say, “Look, things aren’t great but at least it’s not 1937.” It was interesting because what does that mean exactly? Are you supposed to cheer for Putin that he’s not dragging people off in the night? Or is he making a veiled threat (I can make if 1937 if I want)? But also, it wasn’t entirely true. For example in Chechnya it’s been 1937 for a while. If you’re gay in Chechnya, you really will get dragged off in the middle of the night. So it is 1937, for some people.

Right now, in the U.S., with children being separated from their families at the border, I personally find it hard to go about my day. I don’t have a solution, but neither do I feel like just carrying on with things. And I thought the arguments people were having about Holocaust analogies were very interesting. I mean, the entire point of studying history is being able to say, “You know what, this looks a lot like that. And everyone agrees that that was bad. Ergo, this is also bad. Let’s not do this.” That’s why you study history! I mean, if you can’t see that when people of a certain ethnicity are being separated from their children by the government, and those children are being put in camps — if you can’t see the relevance of the Holocaust to that discussion, then frankly you have missed the entire point of knowing anything.

In Russia right now, for the most part people aren’t getting dragged off in the middle of the night, but they’re getting there. It’s close enough to 1937, frankly. And it’s the same here. Maybe that question, “Is it 1937?” is no longer a useful question. We don’t need for it to become 1937 before we start worrying about it.

Is Trump worse than Putin?
Absolutely. Yes. Putin, as bad as he is, is well within the mainstream of Russian politics. His opinions about things are pretty average, for a Russian. I mean that as a factual statement, not as an excuse. Whereas Trump is a radical fringe figure. That’s one of the frustrating things about Russiagate to me — the idea that the worst thing Trump has done is cozy up to Putin. But Trump to me is far worse than Putin! Further outside the mainstream of his country’s political life, and frankly further outside the mainstream of world political life. And for all the talk of Putin’s plot against the “West,” it’s Trump who’s proved more destabilizing and ultimately more dangerous. Cozying up to Russia is just about the best thing Trump has done.

Keith Gessen: Trump Is Worse Than Putin