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Russia — And Grandma — Defy Expectations In 'A Terrible Country'

Jul 14, 2018
Originally published on July 14, 2018 10:07 am

It's the summer of 2008, and Andrei Kaplan doesn't have a whole lot going for him in New York. Money's tight, his girlfriend dumped him, and, at 33, his academic career has stalled. So, at the urging of his brother, he returns to Russia, where he was born, to take care of his aging grandmother, Baba Seva.

Andrei's fantasy is that he will arrive in Moscow and Baba Seva will tell him stories of Stalinist Russia that he can turn into an academic article to jump-start his career. But that doesn't really pan out, says journalist and translator Keith Gessen, author of the novel A Terrible Country.

"Once he gets there he's disappointed to find that his grandmother hardly remembers who he is, much less various details about Stalinist Russia," Gessen explains.


Interview Highlights

On Russia not fitting his expectations

He reads the news about Russia a lot and he really expects when he gets there to find this place that is under a terrible dictatorship. People are oppressed. You know, he thinks he's going to show up and possibly get arrested at the airport. And instead he finds that the country has become quite rich. Everybody's walking around, talking on sleek little cell phones. They all seem to be driving fancy German cars. It's not what he expected.

On Russian attitudes toward wealth

Andrei leaves this country, [the U.S.], where he found himself measured all the time by whether or not he had money. ... And he shows up in Russia to find that it's the exact same thing — that Russians have very much adopted these values of thinking that the amount of money you have is a sign of your success and your virtue and that those people who weren't able to make money in the post-Soviet period ... who are suffering or are barely getting by — that they deserve to suffer.

On the demographic changes Andrei sees in Moscow

It has gone through radical gentrification and most of the ... old school Soviet people — a lot of whom were elderly, who were living in the center of the city — have basically been priced out, some of them quite violently. There were a lot of scams in the '90s where elderly people who had prime real estate in Moscow had bad things happen to them.

On Baba Seva making ends meet

His grandmother is one of the few kind of holdovers in this part of the city who is from the old days who has very little cash [and] is basically living off her pension. She has this kind of Soviet geography ... she knows which store has the cheapest cheese, which store has the cheapest butter, which store has the cheapest cucumbers. And Andrei finds this very frustrating because to go on a shopping trip with her takes at least three times as long as it has to.

On the humor in the book

Whenever I go over there I have the same reaction as I describe Andre having in the book, which is: I spend all this time reading about what's going on over there and a lot of it is really bad and then I get there and people are sitting in coffee shops. And, you know, you think: Are all these people just kind of living in illusion, or do they have to just go about their lives? And the answer is kind of kind of both, right? I mean, you can't live with a constant sense of how bad things are politically. You do have to go out and get coffee.

Ian Stewart and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We're spending a lot of time these days thinking about Russia and its relationship to the U.S. The big news yesterday was that indictments against 12 Russian intelligence officers have been brought for conspiring, among other things, to influence the 2016 election. And there will be more news Monday when President Trump sits down with Vladimir Putin. So it's fortuitous that Keith Gessen set his new novel in Russia. He was born there and describes a place we can't divine from the headlines.

It's set a decade ago in the middle of the global financial crisis and protests in Moscow. Andrei Kaplan, brought to America as a boy, has spent his entire life studying Russian history and literature and now in the novel he can't find a job. So Andrei decamps to Moscow to look after his 89-year-old grandmother, frail and living alone in what she calls a terrible country.

KEITH GESSEN: He has this fantasy that if he goes over to Moscow and starts interviewing her, she will produce all these stories about Stalinist Russia, which he can then sort of repackage into an academic article and make his career take off. And of course once he gets there, he's disappointed to find that his grandmother hardly remembers who he is, much less various details about Stalinist Russia.

MONTAGNE: He gets there and what does he find? Because it's been a while since he had visited Moscow.

GESSEN: As an American, or Russian-American who's interested in Russia, he read the news about Russia a lot, and he really expects when he gets there to find this place that is under a terrible dictatorship. People are oppressed. You know, he thinks he's going to show up and possibly get arrested at the airport. And instead, he finds that the country has become quite rich. Everybody is walking around talking on sleek little cellphones. They also seem to be driving fancy German cars. It's not what he expected.

MONTAGNE: There's a passage where you write about this, the shock, the shock of the change. Why don't you read us a little bit of that?

GESSEN: Sure. And the set up to this is his grandmother who can't remember anything, she remains very curious about what's happening in Russia, so she's constantly asking Andrei what's the situation? What's the situation in the country? And then he thinks this (reading) what was the situation in the country? It was true I didn't know, but it wasn't true that I had no idea. Everyone in Moscow seemed to drive a black Audi, and there were websites where you could order a prostitute after reading all her customer reviews. Every time I walked into the Coffee Grind and bought the cheapest item on the menu, I was amazed at all the other customers. Where did they come from in this traumatized and wounded country? Some of them were walking over from the KGB building across the street but not all of them. And anyway, this was the cheapest cafe in my grandmother's neighborhood. These people were buying a couple of double espressos and pastries and sandwiches and being charged $30. The worst part was they didn't even argue. You'd have thought some of them at least would have said what? None of them said it. They handed over the money. They didn't even blink.

MONTAGNE: There's a way in which money - money is practically a character in this novel. A lot of people have it; others, like the grandmother, Andrei's grandmother, barely getting by.

GESSEN: Yeah. And, you know, Andrei leaves this country where he found himself measured all the time by whether or not he had money. That is to say the United States. And he shows up in Russia to find that it's the exact same thing, that Russians have very much adapted these values of thinking that the amount of money you have is a sign of your success and your virtue and that those people who weren't able to make money in the post-Soviet period and who are suffering or barely getting by, that they deserve to suffer.

MONTAGNE: Although his grandmother is quite poignant because she's old-school. I mean, she will walk to five stores to get the best price she can possibly get.

GESSEN: Yeah. I mean, the - one of the things that has happened in the Moscow that Andrei discovers is that it has gone through radical gentrification and most of the kind of old-school Soviet people, a lot of whom were elderly who were living in the center of the city, have basically been priced out - some of them quite violently. There were a lot of scams in the '90s where kind of elderly people who had prime real estate in Moscow had bad things happen to them. So his grandmother is one of the few kind of holdovers in this part of the city who is from the old days who has very little cash, is basically living off her pension. And she has this kind of Soviet geography that she keeps to where she knows which store has the cheapest cheese, which store has the cheapest butter, which store has the cheapest cucumbers. And Andrei finds this very frustrating because to go on a shopping trip with her takes, you know, at least three times as long as it has to.

MONTAGNE: The book is funny, laugh out loud sometimes, and yet there's a darkness there. Is that capturing something that is Russian?

GESSEN: I hope so. You know, for me, it's this - whenever I go over there, I have the same reaction as I describe Andrei having in the book, which is I spend all this time reading about what's going on over there and a lot of it is really bad. And then I get there, and people are sitting in coffee shops and, you know, you think, are all these people just kind of living an illusion or, you know, do they have to just go about their lives? And the answer is kind of both, right? I mean, you can't live with a constant sense of how bad things are politically. You do have to go out and get coffee.

MONTAGNE: Keith Gessen - his new novel, set in Russia, is called "A Terrible Country." Thank you very much for joining us.

GESSEN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.