“We Don’t Think of the Damage That We’ve Done”

Keith Gessen on the blinkered Western understanding of Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint press conference on June 5 in Vienna, Austria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint press conference on June 5 in Vienna, Austria. Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images

Keith Gessen’s second novel, A Terrible Country, tells the story of Andrei Kaplan, who returns to Russia—the country of his birth—to care for his ailing grandmother. After arriving, he starts engaging with Russian culture, history, and politics, and the book offers a picture of Putin’s Russia side-by-side with the often-humorous troubles of the—in some senses—very American Andrei. Gessen himself was born in Moscow, and after moving to America became one of the founding editors of the magazine n+1; he now also teaches journalism at Columbia University, and frequently writes about Russian politics and culture. A stern critic of Putin, Gessen also often challenges what he sees as a blinkered Western understanding of Russia, specifically surrounding America’s behavior towards the country after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Gessen and I recently spoke by phone. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what fiction about a foreign country can accomplish that journalism cannot, whether Americans are now too focused on Putin’s misdeeds, and if certain tendencies of American pundits end up excusing American foreign policy.

Isaac Chotiner: You have written a lot lately about how Americans have a simple-minded view of Russia. Without giving too much away, why did you title the book the way you did?

Keith Gessen: It’s something the grandmother says in the book a fair amount, and it sort of comes from within the book, which I thought was nice. Also, in the context in which she says it, it’s both a kind of statement of her assessment of the country, which she has lived in her whole life and finds violent, anti-Semitic, irrational. But at the same time, she’s a person who has not left, refuses to leave and has built her life there. The narrator also feels like this is a country with a lot of really terrible problems, but also he finds it really appealing.

Was writing a novel about Russia something you always wanted to do?

I always thought it was a place I was not going to be able to write a novel about because I thought I didn’t know it enough. Even though I was born there and I’ve been there a bunch, I haven’t lived there continuously for decades. So, I thought I knew enough to do journalism, where you are kind of anchored by facts, but not enough to write fiction, where you’re making stuff up, which is slightly paradoxical, but it seems like, with fiction, you need to have such command of the material that you know all possible paths that could be taken, right? Then you know enough to choose one. Whereas with journalism, you kind of follow the facts.

Then I did have this experience of living with my grandmother [and] when it was over, I started wanting to write about it and describe it.

I have been doing journalism about Russia for a while. Most of my journalism is about Russia, and I got to a point where I felt like it wasn’t very effective.

What do you mean by “effective”?

I had certain perspective on what was going on over there. Roughly speaking, that there was a lot of continuity between Yeltsin and Putin, that the ’90s were really bad, and really traumatic in a way that I think most American descriptions of Russia don’t really believe, don’t really take into account. I think Putinism is a response to that trauma. I don’t think it’s the right response, but it’s a response. You know, I was kind of trying to write this in my articles, and I didn’t feel like I was convincing a lot of people.

Do think this book is a way of communicating something about Russia that Americans or people in the west don’t get or have failed to get or are unlikely to get through journalism?

That was kind of, I guess, my hope. There are also just certain things a novel kind of does better than journalism. There’s a lot about grocery shopping. There’s a whole chapter devoted to trying to find a pair of slippers.

So, you wanted Americans to understand the Russian life experience as well as aspects of Russian politics and history?

Yeah, I mean I guess I think those things are connected. What happens in the book is you have this grandmother who was not one of the winners of the post-Soviet transition. She lost her life savings. She lost her dacha. Now she kind of wanders around from grocery store to grocery story, looking for inexpensive cheese, right? That’s actually the daily reality of millions of people over there. Certainly the elderly. If American cities are segregated racially, Russian cities now are segregated by age. You have all these public spaces that are only occupied by the elderly, like buses. You get on a bus in Russia, and you look around and everybody’s over 70 because young people have cars. And old people are stuck with public transportation. The grandmother is not a Putin supporter, but you could very well imagine someone like that being very grateful for Putin and for a higher pension that has come along with oil money post-Putin.

What do you make of the conversation about America­n–Russia relations right now?

I mean, obviously I find it horrifying. You know, you already had a really bad kind of feeling about Russia and a really bad conversation around Russia at the end of the Obama administration. In a way, the breaking point is really Ukraine, rather than Trump, at least kind from where I’m sitting and looking at it. That’s when you had a lot of the media, certainly a lot of policymakers, basically saying we did everything we could. We bent over backward for 25 years, for the Russians, and this is what we got.

My feeling, or the Russian perspective on that, and I don’t mean Putin’s personal perspective but, like, the reasonable Russian perspective is that the United States has just kind of dictated terms to us for 25 years. It did not feel to us at all like you were bending over backward. You were telling us what to do. If we play along with it, then you were very happy to treat us as a junior partner, and whenever we had a problem with whatever you were doing, you ignored us. Including, for example, the invasion of Iraq. So, after Ukraine, I feel like in the U.S. it was just a lot of blaming Putin personally for all this. Basically suggesting that anyone but Putin would have behaved in a different manner, whereas my argument would be that most Russian leaders who would have emerged from the ’90s would have behaved in a pretty similar manner.

I don’t disagree, but you can always point to past reasons why people behave the way they do. Saddam Hussein tried to kill an American president and invaded his neighbors. It doesn’t make people’s complaints about the invasion of Iraq less valid. Even if Russia was mistreated by the United States, I’m not sure how far that gets us when thinking about how to deal with Russia in 2018, other than in the long run you try to change American foreign policy.

I feel like there’s this tendency, probably a tendency everywhere, but certainly in the U.S. to say: OK, all this history is well and good, but what do we do now? We have this crisis. Muammar Qaddafi is about to slaughter the opposition. What do we do, right? Slobodan Milosevic is sending troops into Kosovo. What do we do now? What do you want me to do tonight? As a person who’s not in government, right, I don’t want to play that game. There’s never a good answer for it. Once you’re in the crisis, I’m not your crisis manager. To me, the history does matter. As long as we can treat everything as one crisis after another, and as soon as we’re through the crisis, we sort of breath a sigh of relief and move on to something else, we don’t think of the damage that we’ve done.

Right, there are kids showing up at the border because America helped immiserate El Salvador in the 1980s. You can’t talk about the “crisis” without that.

Yes, that’s a great example. Let’s go back to Russia. We should say, let’s look at this more deeply. Let’s look at the American footprint in the world, and how that’s caused people to feel. I, personally, am not a Russian citizen. I do not vote in Russian elections. I am an American citizen. I vote in American elections, and the only thing that I can actually control or try to control is what America does. I always want to talk about America first.

I don’t have a problem with anyone saying Russia illegally invaded and annexed Crimea, Russia illegally sent mercenaries into eastern Ukraine and then regular soldiers. But in the American context, I would just say, again, let’s look at our, let’s look at what we did and what we can change about our behavior. I’m very sympathetic to people who are made so angry about that, that they only want to talk about American culpability. To me that’s a more appealing position.

But hasn’t the situation changed recently? We have a president who right now seems intent on undermining NATO and who very well may recognize the annexation of Crimea on Monday. We don’t know. I have no idea what he’s going to do. I don’t think anyone does. But he clearly likes Putin. The concern is about him recognizing the invasion of Ukraine, or encouraging more election interference, or God only knows.

Does the way the last 18 months have gone make you think that we may have to sort of rethink how we conceive of what the danger is from an America­n–Russian relationship? The left has correctly said for a long time that one of the problems with American foreign policy is colluding and negotiating with bad dictators. It does seem that there would be a fear of that in this case too.

I think that’s the problem, right? It’s not that it’s Russia per se. It’s that Putin is a nasty right-wing dictator. Like Trump. This is what Trump wants to be. To me, again, I would just shift the kind of emphasis. The problem here is not Putin. Putin’s a problem. The problem, for us, is 65 million, or however many people voted for Donald Trump in the U.S. That’s our problem. Putin is going to Putin. So to me, of all of Donald Trump’s many sins and crimes, Russia did not rate very highly. His kind of affection for Vladimir Putin, you know, compared to the policy of separating kids from their parents at the border, feels like a real waste of our energy.

I think part of the reason people focus on it is that they think, correctly or not, that things like separating families at the border likely would not have happened if Putin had not meddled in the election, and if Trump had not welcomed such behavior.

I think the Russians did it. I think they are going to try to do it again—do some Facebook posts, right? Whatever. Again, compared to gerrymandering, compared to the sort of systematic disenfranchisement of millions of people, this is small potatoes.