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New novel ‘A Terrible Country’ rediscovers Russia and its paradoxes

In the new novel "A Terrible Country," young, Soviet-born Andrei Kaplan is struggling in his academic career and getting over a breakup, when he returns to Russia to care for his aging grandmother. Jeffrey Brown talks with author Keith Gessen about the ways the story parallels his own life and the country’s contradictions.

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  • John Yang:

    Now Jeffrey Brown has the latest addition to our "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The year is 2008.

    And young Andrei Kaplan, born in the Soviet Union, raised in the U.S., is struggling in his would-be academically career and has been dumped by his girlfriend. What to do? Return to Moscow to care for his aging grandmother and find his way in the new Russia.

    The new novel is "A Terrible Country." Author Keith Gessen was himself born there, raised here. He's a journalist and editor, translator of the Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich. And this is his second novel.

    And welcome to you.

  • Keith Gessen:

    Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So this is, in fact, thinly veiled fiction? Can we say that? You went back to Russia yourself around that time?

  • Keith Gessen:

    I did. I did.

    The question of how much of the material you use from your life is a — is an interesting question. Some things, you can have your raw material, and then you look at it, and you say, well, what can I do to make this interesting to someone else who isn't me?

    And you take some things up to 10, right? You take some other things down to two. And you look at it and see if that works. And you kind of tinker with it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You took a lot of things up, I think, up to 10 here, as in bringing this young character to this land he sort of knows, but doesn't really know.

  • Keith Gessen:

    I was trying to express something that happens to me every time I go to Moscow, which is that I expect it from reading the news to be this kind of horror chamber, right?

    I expect that I'm going to see people being arrested on the streets, that I might myself get arrested. And then every time I show up, it's — it gets nicer and nicer. There are cafes. There are people driving nice cars. They're talking on their cell phones. It seems perfectly normal.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

    I mean, you have Andrei in the book going and finding that he can't even afford a cappuccino, right, because they're $6 or $7 there in brand-new cafes.

  • Keith Gessen:

    And he can't understand how all these people are walking in and buying these expensive coffees and sandwiches, and not even uttering a word of protest.

    And that's the kind of paradox, right? It's, on the one hand, it's quite nice, and on the other hand, this other stuff is going on at the same time.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. I mean, all this stuff in the news is real, right? And that comes through in the book, too. I mean, there's that — along with the affluence and the growth, there is this sort of political atmosphere, right, oppressive political atmosphere.

  • Keith Gessen:

    When the Russians were surrendering at the end of the Cold War, they were basically told by us that, if they built a kind of thriving consumer society, they could also have political freedoms.

    What's actually happened is that they built that consumer society, but they lost their political freedoms. It didn't go the way anyone thought it would go.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You wrote an essay recently titled — it was titled, "Russia Was My Obscure Interest. Now Everyone Is Paying Attention," because there was that period where nobody was paying attention to Russia, right? And then — and now it's every day in the newspaper.

    Are you surprised in some way? Or how do you respond to it once again becoming the sort of boogeyman of our news, really, of our political culture?

  • Keith Gessen:

    I have mixed feelings.

    As someone who knows a lot about Russia, it's nice to see it on people's minds. At the same time, the political atmosphere in the U.S. right now with regard to Russia is, in my mind, poisonous.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In what sense?

  • Keith Gessen:

    I think we're blaming a lot of things on Russia that have nothing to do with Russia, right?

    I think the Russians interfered in the election. I think they would like to be a malign influence on our political culture. But it was the American people who elected Donald Trump. To put all of that on Russia, as some people would like to do, I think is a mistake.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Why is fiction the way to tell what is, after all, a very complicated tale that you're even trying to tell me right now about how we — how we see Russia, how it really is, how — what we might be missing?

  • Keith Gessen:

    There were two reasons I wrote the book.

    One of them was to kind of describe Russia at a more intimate level than I had ever been able to do as a journalist, to describe what it smells like and sounds like. I thought that could be done in a novel more effectively.

    And the other reason was a kind of personal reason, which is that I had spent this year with my grandmother taking care of her and hanging out with her. And that was a really — it was a really profound experience. It was a very emotional experience.

    It was an experience where I learned not just a lot about my grandmother, but a lot about Russia, and not just the Soviet experience that she had had, but the post-Soviet experience that she had had, and her feeling of being kind of a leftover or irrelevant person who didn't fit in to the new world of — that Russia had become.

    And that was a kind of personal experience that could really only be expressed, I thought, in a novel.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And I'm wondering if, for you, as with Andrei, it is still a country that you — that you know, but don't know, a country that is in some ways yours, but clearly not yours anymore?

  • Keith Gessen:

    Certainly.

    As I kept writing, one of the things I saw that Andrei was allowing me to do was, because he didn't really know the country, because there were things that he encountered that made him mad, or that surprised him, or that depressed him, or that delighted him, that that was something that I could sort of walk the readers through, through Andrei's eyes.

    And, in that sense, he was a very effective narrator for me.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, the new novel, "A Terrible Country."

    Keith Gessen, thank you very much.

  • Keith Gessen:

    Thank you.

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