The Russia stuff

Paul Constant

August 07, 2018

On October 22nd, 2012, President Barack Obama mocked Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney on the topic of foreign policy at a presidential debate. "Governor Romney," Obama began...

...I'm glad that you recognize that Al Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not Al Qaida. You said Russia. The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War's been over for 20 years. Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.

In retrospect, after disastrous Russian meddling in the presidential election of 2016, Obama's statement seems painfully naive. Some have claimed that Obama was belittling Putin's standing in the international community as a matter of foreign policy — that he was simultaneously attacking Vladimir Putin and Romney with the same line — but regretful comments from Obama staff including then-head speechwriter Jon Favreau indicate that the president wasn't playing multi-dimensional chess. He was merely underestimating a nation that has always been underestimated.

Six years after Obama's underestimation of Russia, some liberals have run at full sprint in the opposite direction. It's impossible to spend more than twenty minutes on Twitter without encountering some minor far-left celebrity who is spinning a web of Russian collusion and conspiracies that casts every major political actor of the past decade as nothing more than a marker in a game of Putin's devising. Driven mad by Trump's election, some liberals refused to accept the fact that a significant number of Americans could fall in with the MAGA crowd, and so they've devised a narrative in which Russia has hijacked American discourse and turned it into something unnatural and ugly. The truth, of course, is likely to be smaller and dumber and meaner than anything some Twitter personality is likely to spin up in the shower. Russia didn't create Donald Trump, or American racism. They merely exploited our worst existing traits.

But nuance has never been America's strong point — particularly in matters of foreign policy. And so we're busy falling back into the Cold War headspace of painting Russia as an evil, immoral foe — America's deadliest enemy in a holy war that dwarfs every other conflict on the planet.

To those who feel uncomfortable with the vilification of an entire people, I'd suggest Keith Gessen's second novel, A Terrible Country. It's the story of a young American academic who returns to his birthplace of Moscow to take care of his ailing grandmother. Gessen, who was born in Moscow and moved to America at the age of six, clearly knows his subject matter. And the world he portrays in Country is too weird — too funny, too complex, too resistant to stereotypes — to be entirely fictional.

The Russia of 2008 as portrayed in Country is a broken nation, still coming to terms with its past as the USSR. In Gessen's hands, Moscow is a city forgotten by the world. It's trapped a few years behind modernity and trying to find purchase on a global market that has been shaped for decades in a very American brand of capitalism.

But this makes the scale of the book sound grand. In fact, Country is practically a chamber piece, detailing the relationship between a dementia-addled old woman and the grandson she never really knew. Andrei Kaplan, the protagonist, is a bit of a loser. He's running from failure in the US, and desperately trying to find some hidden source of strength in the place of his birth.

Instead, Kaplan finds people making lives for themselves in the hollowed-out husk of empire. He begins taking daily cappuccino breaks at a café across the street from the "massive and terrifying" remains of KGB headquarters. On the way between the civilized cafe and the meticulously preserved past of his grandmother's apartment, he sees the changing shape of life on Russia's streets. He notices the men:

Big, kasha fed, six feet tall, stuffed into expensive suits, balancing themselves on shiny, pointy-toed shoes, never smiling. Ten years ago you walked down a Moscow street and ran into a lot of thugs in cheap leather jackets. Those guys were gone now, replaced by these guys. Or maybe they were the same guys?

In the absence of support from other nations, Russia seemingly transformed itself into a staging area for the biggest grift in the history of mankind. You either had an angle, and you worked that angle tirelessly, or you were a victim. This, Gessen writes, "was the Putinist bargain: you give up your freedoms, I make you rich. Not everyone was rich, but enough people were making do that the system held."

Even Kaplan is working a grift of his own: he portrays himself as an altruistic young man trying to help his grandmother, but the truth is that he's also investigating angles for a research paper that might land him a tenured professor position specializing in Russian studies at some middling American university.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Country is how funny it is. Gessen displays tremendous compassion for his characters — the grandmother, particularly, is bestowed with a dignity that many delirious elderly characters in fiction don't enjoy — and that includes the compassion to find comedy in their lives. In a nation like Russia that is barely functioning on several important levels, locals need a sense of humor in order to survive. That mean, necessary sense of comedy inspires readers to immerse themselves in Country. It's the propulsive energy that keeps the pages turning at a steady clip.

But this isn't some vaudeville routine. Gessen slyly conceals in Country a serious economic discussion of Russia's past and future. A few characters in a lopsided pickup hockey league ("The thing about me as a hockey player," Kaplan tells the reader, "is that I wasn't very good") discuss socialism and capitalism and their various failings and successes. Though communism collapsed spectacularly in the USSR, they wonder, does that mean it's destined to fail everywhere?

Or maybe everything humans touch is destined for failure? The greatest joke in Country is that the Russia that Gessen portrays isn't all that far from the America of today. Our systems are sputtering and failing, and everyone seems to know it. The whole damn country seems about one good push away from a collapse. If you take the time to inspect these characters, with their wry comedy and their sour outlooks, you might recognize more of your own experience than you're comfortable seeing. Maybe America's number one geopolitical foe is staring back at us through sunken eyes in the mirror.

Books in this review:
  • A Terrible Country
    by Keith Gessen
    Viking
    July 10, 2018
    342 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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