Gregory Afinogenov at The Nation:
Everyone knows that Russia is a kleptocracy, a Mafia state run by corrupt oligarchs who live in fear of the arch-oligarch, Vladimir Putin. It is also a neo-Stalinist dictatorship that seeks to restore the Soviet empire and sow the seeds of subversion in every Western democracy. Somehow, it is also a traditionalist bastion of Eastern Orthodox social conservatism and neo-czarist monarchism. Comfortable in our self-satisfaction, we writers and readers of Western journalism about Russia have an endless supply of frameworks by which to understand Russia, and very few of them ever indict us in the process. Russia’s problems stem from a tragic legacy peculiar to itself, a spectacle at which we can marvel but about which we can do very little.
Keith Gessen’s new novel, A Terrible Country, asks whether it is possible to unlearn the habit of thinking this way about Russia. Narrated through the eyes of an academic named Andrei, who flees the United States’ collapsing job market in 2008 to care for his grandmother in Moscow, the novel shifts our picture of Russia from one of comforting alienness to one of disturbing familiarity.