For the second time this year I enjoyed a novel I could have mistaken for a memoir. A Terrible Country tells of Andrei/Andrew returning to Russia to take care of his grandmother while he is looking for a job in academia as a professor of Slavic Studies. He hopes to mine his grandmother’s memories of every USSR regime and turn them into published, academic “gold.” His family left the then USSR when he was a little boy, so now he is back in the same apartment but in the new, Capitalist, Putin-ish Russia. The apartment his forgetful grandmother has called home for longer than he has been alive.
Dima, his older brother, has been a success in Russia until now. Their grandmother, like most 90-somethings, needs some looking after. She lives in the apartment given her by Stalin [well the government in the Stalin years] and has survived two husbands, the first, Andrei’s grandfather, who died in the war. The second, an engineer, helped create Russia’s oil wealth but was not rewarded for his work because it was still the USSR.
As Andrei comes to terms with his grandmother’s frailty, his brother’s possible treachery, and experiences the new Russia he is torn–stay here or go home to the USA? A girl comes into the picture, as do hockey buddies. One of his academic rivals is in the country too. And there’s a group of modern dissidents. But then life becomes a bit too….Russian? [No spoilers!]
I was a Russian Studies major in college and have classmates who have gone to study and research in Moscow and now work in parts of our government that deal with other countries, so this book was a good fit for me. I visited Ukraine (Kiev and Crimea) in 2003 and have watched with horror what happened there. This book rang true to me. But Grandma Seva might be right–this might be “a terrible country,” as she keeps telling her grandson. Or it just might be like any other country if you are from there. If it’s your home, you understand it and are used to it.
A Terrible Country: A Novel by Keith Gessen