The Russian émigré is not uncommon in modern fiction. Generally, said immigrant comes to the states and cultural misunderstandings abound—plus feelings of displacement, pathos, yada yada—until a reckoning in which America and the émigré come to terms with each other and are both better for it. But what do you get when more than two decades after arrival in America, the young immigrant has to go back? You get Keith Gessen’s sad, funny and altogether winning novel, A Terrible Country.
Thirty-three-year-old Andrei Kaplan is stuck in a rut. His life is small, his New York City sublet is smaller, and he was just dumped by his girlfriend at a Starbucks. So when Andrei’s shady older brother, an aspiring kleptocrat living in Moscow, asks Andrei to return to the land of his birth and take care of their ailing grandmother, he agrees.
But Andrei, who left Russia when he was 8, is surprised to find himself in Putin’s Russia, where espressos are outrageously priced, the KGB has merely changed initials, and everyone is grasping for riches with both hands.
So Andrei cares for his grandmother, plays pickup hockey games and teaches online courses while waiting to go back to the U.S. It’s a lonely, hermetic existence—his lone attempt to experience the Moscow nightlife ends with a pistol whipping—until he meets Yulia, who is attractive, mysterious and a communist. Drawn into Yulia’s world of clandestine meetings and anti-government protests, Andrei grows closer to both her and Russia, and decides he will stay in the country. But taking on Putin’s government becomes all too real, and Andrei discovers the hard way that his choices affect not just his life but also those of his new friends.
Gessen is the author of the novel All the Sad Young Literary Men and an editor of popular literary magazine n+1. Like his protagonist, he moved to the United States from Russia as a child. His first novel in 10 years is a compassionate, soulful read that avoids dourness by being surprisingly funny. A Terrible Country shows us that while you certainly can go home again, it often turns out to be a lousy idea.