CEERES of Voices: Keith Gessen "A Terrible Country"

so I’m Robert Byrd from the Department of Slavic languages and literatures and cinema Media Studies at the University of Chicago it’s a great pleasure to welcome today Keith Gessen author of a terrible country a new novel keith has a BA from Harvard and an MFA from Syracuse University he is known as a translator from the Russian most notably sadhana Alekseyevich –is voices from chernobyl Ludmila patrushev scares there once lived a woman who tried to kill her neighbors baby scary fairytales and of the poetry of Kiyomi Vidya whom I mention because he has of late been a frequent guest in these parts in 2004 keith became a founding editor of the n plus one magazine which keith once described and told us like partisan review except not dead and that it’s still not true i think oh that’s still true i should say still not dead it is still not dead yeah in part through n plus one I believe Keith became a quite visible activist for instance in the Occupy movement in 2011 and he has written extensively about those experiences both of being a founding and plus one and of participating in the Occupy movement Keith Gessen published his first novel all the sad young literary men in 2008 and is here at the seminary co-op bookstore to discuss his second novel a terrible country welcome ago oh yeah awesome the novel traces its protagonist during a year he lives in Moscow where he was born but never has been since the age since an early age it’s narrative ambitions are quite modest in in some respects it finds humor and significance in small details of the first-person narrators experiences in Russia but through these details he grapples with large-scale issues not only of contemporary Russia but also concerning history relationships and politics I was thinking it might make sense to ask you to read a small passage based on that I have a couple of options one-77 here – 178 or 159 to 60 so that’s other you probably don’t remember that by page but this is City gaze story 189 and okay 170 is where you’re reflecting on the cafe 176 177 are in 77 like done there I found myself gradually I feel like that’s that’s been more more speed okay and how far just uh okay great – the point at which you feel I found myself gradually but unmistakeably looking at the world a little differently I had once thought it so strange that across the street from the KGB was acute cafe with Wi-Fi but it wasn’t strange he wasn’t any more strange than the fact that my university back home a place where people were supposed to live silent and monk-like lives in the pursuit of knowledge had a beautiful multi-million dollar gym or that in my old Brooklyn neighborhood the violent displacement of people from the homes in which they’d lived for decades than the Stoops on which they were on which they were used to sitting sorry or that in my old Brooklyn neighborhood the violent displacement of people from the homes in which they’d lived for decades in the Stoops on which they were used to sitting took place to the accompaniment of cafes cute cafes were not the problem but they were also not as I’d once apparently thought the opposite of the problem money was the problem it had always been the problem private property possessions the fact that some people had to suffer so that others could live lives of leisure that was the problem and that there were intellectual arguments ardent ardently justifying this that was a bigger problem still okay that’s one of those examples of something very small this detail of the cafe that you’re in that you’re working in and the way in which it opens up under these large-scale issues which I I found your view on them so so revelatory at times and based on

that packet passage I thought I’d ask you to start off with to what extent you found as you were writing the bottle over the book the Russians situation sui generis or to what extent you find it part of a global process and and how you navigated that dilemma as you were writing the narrative mmm I mean you know so the kind of background to the book is that I started going back to I was born like the narrator in in Moscow and I start going back when I was in college so in the mid 90s and you know I had I was a was in the middle of my college years and I had been studying Russia but I hadn’t really experienced it as a as an adult and I certainly hadn’t experienced it in the post-soviet period so the first time I went back was 95 I don’t know when you started knowing over my first trip was 1989 oh wow cool so I’m celebrating 20 years harness and sorry 30 years that’s right yeah and then did you did you keep going back in the 90s yeah I’ve been back most years since then okay yeah well so I so I hadn’t seen it you know so I guess we were you know I we left in 81 and then we went back and I think 88 or 89 for a visit 88 and then and then 95 right so you know the the whole city was flooded with kiosks and you know people are just selling stuff on the streets currency exchanges I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a currency exchange right but the ruble was unstable so basically any time anyone had earned any money in rubles they changed it to dollars and then if they wanted to buy something and then change it back to rubles right so the currency exchange was like the best business you know in Moscow then that people could be in if they didn’t have a ton of capital I guess and so so that and I didn’t know what you know and I had come over you know I was a pretty standard kind of you know liberal college student whatever and I thought you know and I hadn’t thought very deeply about it but I kind of thought well the Russians need to get with the program and and once they build capitalism it’ll be you know nice like it was in America and I you know I saw quite clearly that that wasn’t happening and you know people had been sort of displaced from their jobs from there kind of a sense of the world right I didn’t really have a language for it but I did start kind of you know when I came back from that year at most I started reading kind of more leftist stuff and started thinking oh the kind of critique of capitalism that in that had seemed abstract when it was applied to American capitalism as I knew it in the 90s seemed fairly benign made a lot of sense when applied to the Russian case right and so it didn’t really you know so took me but it took me years before and it was actually reading Kitty innovative work which I discovered on a trip to Moscow in 2006 when when law published his texts published without the permission of the author and and that was when you know and he was basically just writing about Russian capitalism in the way that I had seen American leftists write about American capitalism and it just made and he and in fact he was reading a lot of Western Marxism right he wasn’t coming kind of out of a Leninist tradition I mean he was I think he was Rudy Marcos he was reading you know Frankfurt School 30 marks right so he was reading a lot of Western Marxism and kind of importing it into into Russia to try to explain the situation and of court and you know his the reason his texts were published without his permission is that he had rejected copyright to his works right so he began in a you know so the kind of critique of Western Marxism is that had become too cultural right but for Camille actually that was you know being able to connect what he did as a poet right as a kind of cultural worker with the broader stream of Marxism was very valuable right and he began by you know he began his activism as a poet right I mean in the kind of poetic field a long

answer a question but but yeah and he was you know is reading his work and then kind of understanding that actually the US case and the Russian case were pretty you know obviously the US more advanced but they had a lot to say to each other mm-hmm well that’s fascinating because the it’s fascinating to hear that the the idea as it were of viewing the Russian case as a local instance of the global development of capitalism far precedes the novel because it you portray the America as really coming to this realization at a somewhat later moment in the development of capitalism in Russia after the rise of the digit the digital world they the wife ization of Russia etc so there’s a very specific context within which your narrator is it’s coming to that consciousness and it really seems seamless in the story that he is encountering no which raises I guess the question when you were writing that story as you were writing that story did you come to view the situation differently did this did the story or was the story really produced out of this concept of Russia and its integration in the world capitalism I mean I mean certainly you know I served in I’ve been reading about Russia for many years mostly as a journalist also as a translate but you know working as a translator but mostly as a journalist and I had been trying to you know have been trying to say this for a while as a journalist and I’ve not found that I have succeeded you know and and partly just because of maybe I’m not a good enough journalist or there’s kind of a nature of the have this the way I you know I think if I were more polemical kind of journalist I might have made more headway but I did feel like I’d failed to kind of deliver this message and and I saw I did want to do the novel as a way of kind of making this argument I mean the thing that changed so that argument was always part of the book that kind of part of the challenge was having the narrator go through this journey in six months that I think it’d mean we’re like ten years right although I you know I did have that initial kind of encounter with what Russian capitalism actually looked like which was you know I remember that very clearly the kiosk the kiosks of the 90s plays an important role in the novel and in key moments yes yes that is now more a less prominent feature oh yes yes and you know I’m do you remember when that happened a couple years ago yeah and people you know they’ve been reading but reading about it in the Western or kind of in the and the kind of liberal Russian press there you know and it was like it was you know like the night of ananka long night they were like they finally like Soviet eyes Moscow and then I saw I hadn’t and I was sort of hadn’t been for a couple years again and I was there a year ago after post kiosks looks great I mean you can see where you’re going look you know I’m torn on it yeah I read someone say the other day that that’s a single most important thing that’s happened in post-soviet Russia or something getting rid of the kiosks but I was someone who depended on them for various things including Wi-Fi in fact had a cafe that I worked at it for a relatively long stretch of time in the late 2000s was one of these temporary buildings in front of parabot square metro station oh yeah those were firewalls thing yeah there’s no K cafe and it was open really late and it had good Wi-Fi in them yeah and then one fine day yeah it’s gone but he was unsightly you know yeah it literally prevented you from seeing the building but to pursue this question a bit more so you’re someone who pursues a pretty broad range of literary activities you have a broad range of the toy commitment so where how do you find out how do you place fiction among that broad array I mean specifically with your political commitments oh I mean I you know I I think of myself as a fiction writer who has been distracted by many things you know certainly n plus 1 and in translation and you know probably M plus 1 in journalism I’ve taken up the most time and you know and I understand why I’ve been distracted by those things they’re sort of more immediate and and they’re fun and and you know that they’re gonna get published or that’s the assumption with

fiction you just never know what’s gonna happen but yes I I think of myself as a fiction writer who has who has strayed but but with the with the political stuff I mean I you know I would have sayings just a minute ago was I felt like I I couldn’t hadn’t done it as a journalist could I put it in a novel right and I feel like I mean I don’t this has not done clearly has not the overturned most Americans yeah yet yes yes no it’s a slow burn yeah hasn’t been that much time yes yes well and that you know and the book is selling you know you know a bit by bit bit by the way we do this work but um I feel that you know I I think it’s it’s kind of a nice way to deliver a political message the novel actually and you know and and if I think of my own maybe not my politics but certainly kind of ones humanism right I mean it’s certainly the novel has in my own kind of life reading light has played by far the the greatest role right so you know Tolstoy you know I think the person I learned the most about I’m trying to be a good person okay about being a good writer I mean I wish who this was a question that my colleague who I hope will make it this evening but he sent me just in case his question which is what writers contemporary in Russia and the US or English language and Russian language writers he says you take the deepest interest in hmm oh so many I you know patrushev scare as as a fiction writer as whose work has a you know amazing continuity from the kind of Soviet to the post-soviet period because she was writing about the domestic sphere right which has which was violent and and unequal and has remained that right so she didn’t have to really change very much I you know kill eels work really kind of changed my idea of what a writer could do and should do you know I was writing this book I read one of the flattest short books I thought that was pretty Pushkin Hills just actually translated by his daughter that’s good book yes yeah yeah so yeah I mean I’m I mean ever I can read everything and any and people writing in English Oh what have I read I’m a big fan of elephant it seems mutual oh yes but I was you know I was a fan first yeah before she was a fan of mine who else you know I think Franzen’s a great novelist now zinc her novels I’ve really enjoyed recently we’re picking up on a lift but human mentioned there the the protagonists of your novel and the Ray Kaplan is a recent PhD in Russian literature yes and one strand of the narrative concerns his ambivalence about his profession mm-hm and it’s odd to me how frequently maybe it’s just my particular vantage point but how Frick frequently novels written in English seemed to take aim at the study of Russian literature really well and that those people who perform the study of Russian literature so edit back to humans novel is one recent example and David Lodge has a novel and I can’t remember the title of it actually but what the protagonist is trying to write this book about Lermontov okay during it mm-hm so for me as a professor of the Department of Slavic languages literature’s here I wonder about these potshots but your character takes certain profession what is it about us that bothers you Oh nah nothing no no III love are you kidding my Alex Fishman yes once the you do you don’t want to wish to laymen yes but he is the the bit more of the meal yes a guy who succeeds initially but but maybe not in a long time in this field but it was a curious strand how did that I’m just wonder how that came about in the novel oh yeah I mean I I began you

know it’s it’s it’s based on my own you know I did actually go and take care of my grandmother for a year like the narrator happened during that exact period of time you know so some some stuff happened some of it not but you know and so initially I had kind of thought well can it can he be kind of like me can it be like translators or journalists right I did being a journalist forget him out of house but it it wasn’t it wasn’t I didn’t enjoy writing that and then I made him an academic and then I really and then I had started having a lot of fun so that’s my question was it’s so fun oh I mean I got that’s interesting I mean so yeah I mean I love I love Slovak studies no no joke I mean I you know most of the books that I read you know certainly you know historians the Soviet Union have meant a lot to me you know both on the left Sheila Fitzpatrick University of Chicago and on the right you know Richard pipes actually great historian in my opinion okay Russia Russia and she’ll isn’t no well yes no I’m gonna push that I don’t I don’t think he behaved very well it’s weren’t heard for example but Russia under the old regime yeah that’s good Bob and ya know so I love xylose lovak Studies I do you know I to be I guess to be fair I you know the Fishman character is a person who profits off the sort of fascination with the kind of macabre of aspects of Russian history Randy’s doing him he’s digitizing the gulag right I didn’t actually have any academics in mind I had some it’s more that’s more of a kind of a thing that journalists and you know think-tank people engage in right you know it less so in academia right boom academics tend to be a bit more circumspect yeah bu you do teach if I’m at the Columbia School journalist yes and do you have interest in extending into literary academia oh um we hope for a book of collected essays on Russian writers for example oh yeah I would love to do that you think that you think I should you think people care why you’d have to write them first okay yes it’s possible yes no well you know I I so I did my undergrad in in Russian history in literature oh you do yeah and so I studied with the bottom buoyant and Marshall Poe and I took classes with pipes and Edward Keenan so I mean that was a very lively in a Russian group of Russian scholars my mom worked at the Russian research center back before the Davis centre with nikich who was the head of it back then I was a bill Alexander nekritz you yeah so so I very much feel like the Slovak Department is my home but but I don’t have a PhD so I’m not qualified I did I tried to teach at the the journalism schools very practical so it’s kind of it’s a professional school it’s one year so you’re just students get there they need to learn how to report they need to learn how to kind of package that reporting in spring they do kind of longer stuff but the so last year we actually did a class on Russian you know reporting on Russia but in the US and so and that was fun it was a bit more of an academic class then then it’s typically taught at the J school so yeah there I mean and actually the the reason I was able to do that is because Russia is so in the news yeah for better or for worse yes yes sir yeah for us it’s it’s it’s yes I don’t know how do you feel about it how do I feel about the fact that it’s in there yes yes well it’s the the news is a problem you know what they pick up what the news picks up is it’s possibly not what I would want to shine the light on the link and and I I know that you might agree with that there are deeper processes occurring in various places that tell us a lot about the longer-term processes that are afoot possibly then the things that end up in our news which and of course the fixation on Trump’s meetings or not meetings with Russian leaders I think in the long run are

going to seem very inconsequential well those things are going to seem very inconsequential but I I do have a growing sense of alarm about what is happening in Russia hmm and I yeah I’m hoping that we find a way to talk about that and possibly your novel will indeed help us to find a way to talk about that in America in the english-language press in public culture in a more intelligent and informed way so that when people that would be great for from your it lips – yeah but well thank you very much for joining us here thank you and we’ll be back soon with another installment