In Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country, Andrei Kaplan returns to Moscow in 2008 after many years, and goes looking for free WiFi. Of course, nothing’s free; he’ll have to at least buy a cup of coffee or something. But in the new Moscow he encounters, this proves a little difficult. He wanders around looking for a cheap internet cafe but finds travel agencies, restaurants, bars, a theater, and a Hugo Boss store. It’s unfamiliar, almost western. Fancy, intimidating cars speed by, and nicely dressed people emerge from the parked ones, talking into cell phones. “This was not the Russia I remembered,” Andrei thinks.
In this little scene, we see much of what A Terrible Country is about. When Andrei does find a nice cafe, he can’t go in, because it’s too expensive. It can’t be too expensive, because he’s broke, because unlike many of his peers, he’s focused on playing recreational hockey instead of finding a job in academia. But he needs WiFi, because he doesn’t have it at his grandmother’s place, where he’s staying to look after her (his brother sort of tricked him into it) and also because he couldn’t really afford to stay in New York. Once he’s online, he’ll look up his grandmother’s medications, so he can figure out if her dementia is as bad as it seems to be, or if the pills she appears to have stopped taking are ones that could be treating her illness.
Andrei does, eventually, find a place with free WiFi and a three-dollar cappuccino. “Maybe it was subsidized by the KGB,” thinks Andrei. “Well, good. They owed us.”
A Terrible Country is about coming home to a place you don’t recognize, feeling ill at ease in your chosen field of expertise (Andrei doesn’t want to specialize in Pushkin, but in a minor Russian poet whose claim to fame is that he knew Pushkin), being jealous of successful frenemies, getting over a breakup, living with the elderly, and Soviet coffee. It’s about what was happening in Russia in 2008, or trying to figure out what was happening: “What was the situation? I couldn’t tell! It was some kind of modern authoritarianism. Or authoritarian modernization. Or something.” On page four of A Terrible Country, Andrei says of himself: “I wasn’t really an idiot. But neither was I not an idiot.” But that’s not why he can’t figure out a changing Russia that seems to be staying the same. That game is for Gessen himself to play, which he does with assured writing and an effortless humor that transforms the ridiculously absurd into material that’s subtly funny.