A multi-layered portrait of Russia, intriguing and hugely accessible
Andrei, born in Moscow but now living in New York decides to move back to Moscow to look after his ailing grandmother. In so doing, he wrestles with this new Russia he is faced with, its communist past and what life means under the Putin regime. It’s deftly done through his everyday life; trying to meeting someone, struggling to make a living in academia, helping his grandmother navigate her health issues, playing hockey and what it means to face up to the Putin regime as a protestor. Alongside the everyday existence there’s a constant frisson of fear; Russia can happen at any moment – being pistol-whipped for no reason, extorted or imprisoned and it propels the novel forward. I was worried that the title ‘A Terrible Country’ would mean that this would be a book of one-way Russia bashing. In fact, it’s just something Andrei’s grandmother says regularly about Russia. Andrei often seeks and finds its beauty, which gives a nice complexity and depth to this portrait of the country.
I picked up this book after seeing Chad Harbach tweet praise for it (in the acknowledgements I learned he advised on an earlier draft of the book). If you like Harbach’s style (and I do!) of prose then A Terrible Country will sit nicely on the same shelf. It’s full of interesting characters, particularly members of the revolutionary group ‘October’ and Andrei’s grandmother. The ending was an uncomfortable one, which felt about right for this unsettling book. For a glimpse of modern Russia seen from the point of view of someone with a foot in both camps (American and Russian) it’s an intriguing read.