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By John Helmer, Moscow

A bad smell is emitted by those who go about their business claiming to be more virtuous than others when they are not. Take Keith (Konstantin) Gessen’s (lead image) newly published autobiography cum novel about his time in Moscow. The word for the book is a cross between the noun fart and the adjective virtuous; that’s to say, fatuous.

Six blurb endorsements covering the dust-jacket can’t improve on this because the endorsers have no expertise or experience of Russia, and are obligated to Gessen personally, institutionally or commercially, by way of Harvard University, Columbia University, the New Yorker, and Gessen’s personal magazine N+1.  In short, they are back-scratchers, log-rollers.

In New York Yiddish, the term for them is mishpocha. That means the family of people who understand what the word means; for them it’s a mitzvah (good deed required by religious duty) to help each other make money.  If you know the meaning of both words, you are ready for the Woody Allen world in which Gessen makes his money. Make that the Woody-Allen-world-before-the-sex-and #MeToo-scandals.

If there’s a difference between that world and the Russia which Gessen’s book claims to be about, this  doesn’t matter to him, and especially not to the mishpocha, whose mitzvah it is to tell you to buy this book.  If you are resisting, there’s a reason for those of you who don’t belong to the mishpocha and who don’t come from New York, to continue reading this review. That’s because Gessen, Russian born and Russian taught though he is, is a perfect example of the American inability to understand two vital lessons for American-Russian relations for the foreseeable future.  

Lesson No. 1:  Americans, the alt-right, alt-left, Clintonites, Trumpies, CIA, FBI and Pentagon  — all of them have failed to understand Vladimir Putin, particularly his weaknesses. Lesson No. 2 follows: the war the US has launched against Russia, a war no American is capable of stopping now, or even slowing down, will produce the very opposite of its regime-changing goal. This opposite, this outcome, is the Stavka – a military regime which has the capital, the force multiple,  the intelligence,  and the relative lack of corruption to defeat whatever Russia’s enemies  throw at it, and enjoy popular approval for doing so.  By the way, the Stavka will have an articulate civilian for spokesman – that’s Vladimir Putin.  

Gessen says on the book flap that his occupation is teaching journalism at Columbia University; that’s a place Woody Allen admired; many of his films were shot on the campus; many of his film characters were either Columbia students or professors. Columbia University Press has even published a study of just that.   The one time Allen made a movie about Russia without an assist from Columbia –  Love and Death in 1976  — he understood Russians much better.  Gessen isn’t so independent and not half as funny. There are no laughs in his book.  According to Gessen’s version of the cliché, Russian “men …fit a pattern. Big, kasha fed, six feet tall, stuffed into expensive suits, balancing themselves on shiny, pointy-toed shoes, never smiling.”

Columbia is more precise about Gessen: he is the George T. Delacorte Professor in Magazine Journalism.   Delacorte made the money he endowed  for Gessen’s paycheck at the Dell Publishing Company, a publisher of puzzles, comics, pulp thrillers. Today Dell is owned by a combination of Bertelsmann of Germany and Pearson of the UK.  Russia-hating is what these publishers have stood for editorially and politically; Delacorte and Dell in their day; Gessen and his publisher Viking (owned by Bertelsmann and Pearson) today.

Gessen’s story in brief is that the lead character’s academic career in Russian literature leaves him so short of money and prospects his girlfriend dumps him. He decides to fly to Moscow, where he was born, and from which his parents emigrated during the exodus propelled by the Jackson-Vanik Amendment; that was a Jews-for-trade scheme the US Congress started in 1974 and replaced in 2012 with the Russia and Moldova Jackson–Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act.  The purpose of his return to Moscow, Andrei Kaplan, as Gessen calls him, says on the first line, was to take care of his grandmother. She lives alone in one of the two adjoining apartments the family owns in one of the most expensive quarters of the old city, Chistye Prudy (“Clean Ponds”).


The section of the Chistye Prudy quarter in which Gessen’s Moscow story takes place.

His older brother has had to leave Moscow for London after he ran into a hostile takeover of his road contracting and petrol station businesses. The brother knows a great deal about local business; his younger brother knows nothing, but repeats what he hears. “I was in over my head”, Kaplan says at the beginning.  He was still there in the acknowledgements at the very end when Gessen gives credit to less fictional people, such as the Financial Times reporter Courtney Weaver and Masha Gessen, Keith’s  sister, who “made some timely corrections and was, as always, wise and generous with her counsel; her wonderful book, Ester and Rusya,  was…in many ways an inspiration for this one.”

The personal pronoun ‘I’ starts the first sentence and it’s there in the last sentence. In the narration of everything in between, the American and Russian characters with whom the narrator comes into contact express themselves through snatches of talk with him. From this dialogue their motivations are shadows cast on the wall of Gessen-Kaplan’s imagination. They like ice hockey, money, academic promotion, smart clothes, sex. They don’t like then-Prime Minister Putin. More of the hatchet job Gessen does on Putin in a moment.

The narrator’s grandmother comes more alive from the dialogue. She is 89 and in middle-stage dementia.  Gessen does a good job of conveying what that’s like, and how children and grandchildren deal with it in their different ways. He is correct to conclude that taking such people out of the environments they are most familiar with can kill them. In the story ending, he does it to his babushka anyway.  Before he does that, he gives babushka the title line of the book: “Don’t stay in this country. It’s a terrible country. Good people become bad people, or bad things happen to them.” Babushka also has the truest Russian line of the book: “Just don’t let there be another war.”

Gessen spends a large amount of page space discussing the fine points of Russian ice hockey, and the way in which his fellow amateur players use expletives on and off the rink. He also expatiates on cooking kasha and kotlety, repairing the kitchen sink, and the prices to pay for taxis, girls, sweaters, cappuccino.   

Why does Gessen do this? He says he’s exploring Russian capitalism and the revolutionary potential of the opposition circle calling itself October, to which he is drawn despite his conclusion that there is a “total absence of any real political discourse in the country.” Gessen demonstrates he would have a problem recognizing real political discourse if it bumped into him. Russian foreign policy, for instance, he calls “purely negative, reactive”. He contradicts himself on that one by declaring his belief that in 2007 Russia had “invaded Georgia”. He isn’t sure of the facts, so he adds: “Or Georgia had invaded a part of Georgia called South Ossetia and Russia overreacted.”

Gessen thanks the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library for paying him to spend a year reading up on stuff like this. (Cullman made the money for Gessen’s stipend applying the idea of profiteering with other people’s money, called in New York English the leveraged buyout.)

From this study Gessen and his narrator deliver old chestnuts about Raisa Gorbachev’s envy of Nancy Reagan’s dresses; how liberal Dmitry Medvedev was compared to Putin; how closely tied to the KGB Moscow’s higher academic institutions have been; what a victim of injustice Mikhail Khodorkovsky was.  

In fact, Kaplan’s narration, Gessen’s story is an exploration of social class in Moscow – from the point of view of an expatriated child of the Russian Jewish intelligentsia living in an apartment awarded personally by Stalin.  To such a fortunate young man,   working-class swearing is a novelty he can’t resist repeating in awkward English translation. But social class is a term which is anathema to members of Gessen’s, er, social class. This is because it smacks to them of Marxism; of the anti-semitism and repression which they associate with the Communist Party period; and of egalitarianism which they feel much too superior to accept.

Gessen’s portrait of Russian women is not less theoretical. For half the book the only women he encounters are Russian beauties who starve themselves to be thin and then sell themselves to be rich.  They don’t swear; they issue invoices Kaplan can’t afford and resents. So Gessen turns them into types, not characters.

The crux of the book is an idea which Gessen admits wasn’t his, neither Gessen the author, nor Kaplan the novel character.  The idea is spelled out as if it were a speech at a bookshop gathering of  university students – “unkempt”, Gessen calls them.  It’s a theory of how the Russian oligarchs have perverted Russian democracy and post-communist development, with the assistance and support of Putin. Gessen claims the author of this idea, the goalie on his hockey team, calls himself a communist.

Here it is on page 250: “The authoritarianism of the regime could best be understood in an international capitalist rather than a post-Soviet context. That the regime did not imprison its opponents because it retained a memory of Soviet methods, but because it wanted to continue making money for its clients (the oligarchs). Money, here as elsewhere, was the goal. Once you understood that, modern-day Russia came into focus; it made sense.” This idea is spelled out in the novel; in the academic paper which wins the narrator a professorship in New York;  and in the Tverskoy district  courtroom which convicts the idea’s Russian promoter  of  extremism and sends him to jail for three years. “I did my best to bring attention to their cause, and even wrote a New York Times op-ed,” Kaplan narrates.  If Gessen understands this made the indicted man’s predicament much worse, he doesn’t give the reader a clue.

The Tverskoy district court of the Moscow City Court on Tsvetnoy Boulevard, down the hill from the Kaplan-Gessen family apartment; it exercises jurisdiction over the Chistye Prudy quarter and the offences described in the novel.  

Embarrasingly for a university professor is the evidence Gessen provides that alter ego Kaplan thinks through a hole in his pants. For 231 pages of the book, Russia is the “terrible country” of the title. That changes on page 232, when the book declares “that night Moscow changed for me forever. It went from being the terrible place I was born to being – something else… I felt the terrible freedom of this place…It was a gigantic country, and even now, in the twenty-first century, barely governed. You could do anything, really. And amid this freedom, this anarchy, people met and fell in love and tried to comfort one another.”

What happened was that on page 232 Gessen’s character has sex with a nice Jewish girl named Yulia. The halo of orgasm isn’t forever; it lasted until page 321. That reports on the evening after Kaplan is arrested and interrogated about his friends and political activities by two officers from the Federal Security Service (FSB). From then until the end of the book on page 335, Russia turns into a terrible country again, and Gessen/Kaplan flies back to the US to become the inaugural professor of Gulag Studies at his New York university, with an above-grade salary, a brand-new Manhattan apartment and  research budget thrown in – all on the strength of a single article in an academic journal. As his taxi drove out towards Sheremetyevo airport, and towards this future,  he “watched the city of my birth race by, decrepit building by decrepit building, and here and there some poor carless bastard walking along, scrambling through the broken glass and heaps of piled-up shit.”

(This is pure fiction. The road to the airport, Leningradskoye Chosse, was redeveloped commercially and maintained administratively as a showpiece for foreign investors and visitors for years before the American professor of Gulag Studies-elect made his getaway.)

At the same time, the girl who has dumped Kaplan replays the history of 19th century political activism in Russia. She marries the still imprisoned leader of the Octobrists and joins him at his prison camp in fareastern Siberia. The others in the group run away, or are pushed, to Germany, Estonia, Ukraine. Grandmother dies swiftly and in pain. The Gessen character’s last line is that after burying babushka in a Moscow cemetery, “I have not been back since.”

“At a time when people are wondering whether art can rise to the current political moment, this novel is a reassurance,” says George Saunders on the back blurb; Saunders is a professor at a New York university and publishes stories in the New Yorker.  

Why? What reassurance and for whom? Why can’t sex with a Russian girl match a New York university professorship and an apartment  on Astor Place? What does the Russian in the gulag have in his head or in his pants that wins the girl when the professor of Gulag Studies cannot?  

The answer to these questions from the George T. Delacorte endowment, the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center, Gessen, his family, friends, business associates, and Viking the publisher, is President Putin. He’s a “bloody tyrant”; “our cold-blooded killer, our ruthless dictator, our gravedigger.”  Also: “this was the Putinist bargain: you give up your freedoms, I make you rich”.  Grandmother is recorded as responding to Putin’s appearance on the TV news: “Oy, oy….who is that man? Oy, what a horrible face.” By innuendo, Putin is to blame for the Moscow apartment bombings of September 1999 and the polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.  Also, “[Putin] had dirt on everyone. That’s how he got people to do things. He had all the dirt.”

It is to be expected that American professors of Gulag Studies taking their inspiration from Masha Gessen say this sort of thing – at  least when their heads are clear of orgasm. Remember what the professor-to-be says when he gets out of Yulia’s bed that first glowing time: “It was a gigantic country, and even now, in the twenty-first century, barely governed. You could do anything, really. And amid this freedom, this anarchy, people met and fell in love and tried to comfort one another.” Either Putin should get an A, maybe B+, for letting Russians have orgasms with Americans. Or else Putin should carve more notches on his tyranny weapon by putting every Russo-American orgasm under surveillance.  Kaplan wants it both ways, so in Gessen’s ending, the terrible country of Russia lets him have it.

As Russian endings go, this is trite and unfunny, compared to Woody Allen. His Russian hero is shot by a firing squad. A little later his ghost visits his Russian girlfriend. “What’s it like to be dead?” she asks. “You know the chicken at Tressky’s restaurant?” he replies. “Well, it’s worse.”

Left: Woody Allen as Boris Grushenko, dead, 1976; Gessen was one year old at the time. Right: Tom Lehrer performing his race-hatred National Brotherhood Week song  in 1965; Gessen had to wait another ten years before he was conceived.

There’s another New York comedian Gessen’s book might have benefited from, if he knew of Tom Lehrer. From the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Jewish, Harvard alumnus, mathematical prodigy, university professor, Lehrer retired from song-writing and comedy performance at the end of the 1960s, before Gessen was born. “I feel,” Lehrer once advised from the stage, “that if a person can’t communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up.”

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