Talking about the Russia stuff with Keith Gessen

Keith Gessen's second novel, A Terrible Country is funny and thoughtful and more than a little bit sad. It's about a young man who returns to his ancestral home of Russia to take care of his dementia-addled grandmother, and like any great novel, it contains a multitude of perspectives and concepts — smuggled away in the fiction you'll find dialogues about capitalism versus communism and little reviews of Tolstoy's lesser novels and meaningful critiques of United States foreign policy in the 21st century. It's a masterful novel — one that will rightfully stand near the top of most year-end best-of lists.

Unfortunately, Gessen published A Terrible Country at a point in our history in which everyone wants to talk about Russia only in one context: the election of Donald Trump. When Gessen appeared at Elliott Bay Book Company earlier this month, we talked at length about Russia and the United States. What follows is an edited excerpt of our discussion.

You started writing this book at a time when the United States had a very different relationship with Russia, when people here didn't really think about Russia at all. And of course now, after the 2016 elections, you can't go on Twitter without bumping into a liberal Democrat who is putting together a wild conspiracy theory about how Russia hand-picked Donald Trump at birth as the central figure in a long-term plot to overthrow the U.S. We've got kind of a new Red Scare going on. Can you talk about writing the book at a difficult period in US/Russia relations and publishing the book in the US under President Trump?

When I started writing [A Terrible Country] in 2009, Russia was not a hot topic. I kept writing it and writing it and then Russia invaded Ukraine and everybody was super-interested in Russia. And I was like, 'fuck! I should have finished this book because everybody cares about Russia all of a sudden!'

But lucky for me, they interfered in our elections, so people still care about Russia! It's a double-edged sword, right? Because I had written this book that actually complicates the narrative about Russia, and at the same time I think I'm benefiting from the fact that people want to talk to me because they want to talk about how evil Putin is. So it's tricky, but it's also an opportunity.

People are so desperate to know. I wrote this thing in the New York Times Magazine about American policymakers who worked on Russia going back to 1981. It was a very niche piece about policy. It was very wonky. My wife refused to read it — and she's very nice, very supportive, but she's like, 'this is too boring for me.' And yet, it was published because people are so desperate to read about Russia.

The other tricky thing about Trump/Russia that I can tell you as a person who knows about Russia is that Russians aren't that good at doing stuff. I had an event last night in DC with Olga Oliker, who is a very smart, funny political scientist. And this question came up and she said the myth of Russian competence does not survive a meeting with actual Russians.


So these weren't super-geniuses, but they happened to come upon a incredibly divided country whose institutions were breaking down, and whose one party was willing to take advantage of this.

One of the things I learned from one of the Trump/Russia books is that Mitch McConnell — when the Obama administration was trying to really raise the alarm [about Russian interference in the election] but not do it in a partisan manner, they were trying to get the Republican leadership on board. They wanted to warn the state electoral boards that they should be thinking about how to secure their machines. McConnell said, "nope, not doing this. You can't do this. I will raise hell."

So I kind of feel like every time Time magazine wants to publish a cover with a headline about "the face of evil" and there's a picture of Putin, I think that if they just replaced that picture with a photo of McConnell, I would be much happier. That would make much more sense.

So yeah, for me he Trump/Russia story is really a Trump story — Trump and the GOP.