A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen
The book, “A Terrible Country” by Keith Gessen, is an impressive work of fiction that details the life of an immigrant Russian Andrei, whom moves back to Moscow to take care of his grandmother after almost 30 years in the US. The reader learns early on that the grandmother is struggling with dementia, a theme that runs through the entirety of the novel. The two main aspects of the book, are this [dementia] and the trials and tribulations of life in modern day Russia.
“A Terrible Country” is saying that refers to how Andrei’s grandmother describes Russia, after having spent the entirety of her life there, starting with the years of Stalin and total oppression. The irony in the novel is that the oppressive state worked better for the grandmother than the new more “democratic” and “liberalistic” regimes that Russia has had since Stalin. This is something Andrei also finds to have a strong resonance through the people he ends up spending his time with. The novel gives an impressive insight in how the daily lives are affected by Putin and the stronghold he also has on the country. Furthermore, Gessen does well to touch upon how the scholars in the country all are able to see how money is what makes the country sick, but still are afraid to leave the world of work and money behind. Even Andrei, we learn, becomes more of an anti-hero in this regard.
The theme of dementia is also very well covered. Not only does Gessen manage to cover the sickness from both the perspective of Andrei as the family member, but in also in a very clear way from the perspective of the grandmother. The reader feels like Andrei’s experience in Moscow one big metaphor for how the early stages tend to affect the mind. Every time Andrei feels at home in Moscow, or as if the city is finally treating him well, an event occurs which will throw our main character back to square one. This draws clear parallels with the grandmother in the story. As Andrei begins to suspect that she is remembering him, his mother, the country, or in general improve her awareness, the next day will feel completely different. This allows for the reader to get lured into a sense of comfort, only to get shot back to reality, the same way the disease seems to affect the grandmother.
Overall, a great read. This is especially for other readers fascinated with the current affairs in Russia, and how the people of Russia feel, being called “the puppets of Putin” by the media in the west. Moreover, a very well written intricate story, that will guide you through the life of Andrei.
Review by Gustav Groot