I spent New Year’s Eve at home, but it was not uneventful.
First, we received in the mail a New Year’s greeting from Prime Minister Putin. It was addressed directly to my grandmother. “Dear Seva Efraimovna!” it read. “May you have a wonderful New Year. Our country is grateful for your sacrifices. We will not forget and we will not forgive!”
My grandmother was not taken in. “They can go to hell,” she said, and threw out the postcard.
A little while later, as I sat in the kitchen sipping instant coffee and listening to Echo of Moscow, the radio station of the liberal opposition, my grandmother came in and handed me a key.
“Andryush,” she said. “I just found this key. Do you know what it’s from?”
It was a small, old‑style desk or cabinet key, and I figured there couldn’t possibly be too many answers to that question. “Let’s see,” I said. With my grandmother trailing behind me, I went into her room and tried it on the desk drawer, which was already unlocked. Happily, it was not the key. And then I tried it on the standing shelf in her room, which had been locked the entire time I was here, and which now, voilà, opened.
“Hooray!” said my grandmother.
“Did you need something in here?” I asked.
“I don’t know!” said my grandmother. “What’s in there?”
There were many things. My grandmother’s old work papers. Her old photos. Various other documents. And then, above it all, there was an old chocolate box full of letters. They were from my mother to my grandmother, after we emigrated. And then my grandmother’s letters to my mother—my father must have sent them back to my grandmother at some point, after my mother died.
I spent all day reading the letters. My mother’s were filled with long, lively, not always ecstatic descriptions of our life in America, my childhood, her occasional alienation from my practical father; my grandmother’s contained sad evaluations of the home lives of the friends and relatives my mother had left behind. About her own life my grandmother spoke with a kind of hollow bravado. Even in letters designed to assuage her daughter’s guilt about leaving her, my grandmother couldn’t help but let a note of sadness enter. The winters in Dubna were so drab; the movies that she saw in Moscow disappointed her. And there was an envy or even resentment of Uncle Lev, disguised as wonderment. “He is entirely consumed by his work, he won’t even tear himself away from it when we’re traveling—when we were in Koktebel last month he started wondering why no one had ever checked for oil there. An amazing person!” This was not sarcastic exactly, but it was a little rueful: my grandmother had chosen a profession that turned out to be implicated in all sorts of political nonsense, and she had had, essentially, to abandon it, whereas Uncle Lev had become a scientist, and, tempted as the Party had been at times to meddle in science, it left its oilmen alone.
Above all, in my grandmother’s letters there was a longing to be reunited with her daughter, a feeling that the center of her world had disappeared. The letters were incredibly frequent—as many as one a week for the first few years, and then never less than one a month until the late 1980s, when telephone contact became easier. My mother had a nickname for my grandmother; my grandmother addressed my mother as “my beloved little daughter.” And though the letters were sophisticated, ironic, full of conversation about movies they’d seen and books they’d read, they addressed each other with total, unaffected honesty. Though it made perfect sense—my grandmother had raised my mother all alone, through some of the most difficult years of the century—I had had no idea, really, how close they had been. I had no idea how much they had missed each other. There was even talk, as the Soviet Union started falling down around their ears, of my grandmother and Uncle Lev coming to Boston to live. It never happened. Uncle Lev had a security clearance, and even in the final years of the USSR people like that were not allowed to leave. And then my mother died.
“It’s my fault, you know, that she left,” my grandmother said after reading through a few of the letters herself.
“In what sense?”
We were in my grandmother’s room—I on the green armchair next to her bed, she in the bed that turned into a sofa, resting.
“I told her the truth,” said my grandmother. “Even when she was a little girl, I told her the truth about this place, about what a terrible country this was. So when she became old enough, she left. And it’s my fault that she died. When she worked here, they had mandatory mammograms. But not in America. If she had stayed here, they would have caught it in time.”
“You don’t know that,” I said automatically. But now I understood what she had meant all those times she said that my mother had gone to America and died. I had thought it was a statement of two unconnected facts. But my mother had died of breast cancer after a diagnosis that arrived too late. My grandmother had a point.
That evening, I got us a bottle of wine and we drank to the New Year. “It’s so nice to have you here with me, Andryushenka,” my grandmother said. I was very moved. She called her friend Emma Abramovna to wish her a happy New Year and went to bed early. For my part, I went across the landing to see the guys next door. They were a group of expats, but my grandmother called them “the soldiers.” They were going to a big party later on but for the moment they were having a mini‑pre‑party at their place.
After we’d had a couple of beers, one of the soldiers, a British journalist named Howard, took me aside. “Listen,” he said, “I need to ask you a favor.”
He had met a girl through a customer‑reviewed sex worker website and gone over to her place. “I show up, and her mother is there in the kitchen. A very nice lady. We drank tea together and then this girl takes me into her room and fucks me. Can you believe that? I felt like a teenager. It was one of the most erotic experiences I’ve ever had.”
Howard paused. What favor could he possibly have in mind to ask of me?
“I’d like to write her a very good review, but in Russian,” said Howard. “If I write it and email it to you, will you check it over so that it doesn’t have too many mistakes?”
A few days later, I received some interesting news. My adviser called me on the phone. “S novym godom!” he shouted. Happy New Year.
“Thank you,” I said.
“I have some sad news,” said my adviser. “Frank Miller has died.”
Frank Miller was a beloved professor of Russian studies at a place called Watson College. Watson was a small undistinguished liberal arts school located in the far frigid reaches of upstate New York, but it had going for it that an eccentric alumnus, who had made millions manufacturing weapons systems at the height of the Cold War, had endowed a permanent professorship in Russian history and literature. Frank Miller had occupied it with distinction. He was also a close friend of and mentor to my adviser, and when Miller had gone on sabbatical a few years earlier, my adviser had arranged for me to take over his classes. I had done my best, both to teach the classes and stave off depression, and the student evaluations had been good.
“I didn’t know he was sick,” I said.
“No, he kept it quiet. And it was pretty sudden. Over Thanksgiving he got the news that it was in his liver, and from there it happened really fast.”
“That sucks,” I said.
“It does suck,” said my adviser. “But here’s the thing. Get your CV in order. I think they’re going to do a search for his replacement and they’re going to do it fast. I’m going to tell them they had better look at you.”
“OK,” I said. “Thank you.”
“But also,” he went on, “you need to publish something. Everybody’s obsessed with publication right now. Has your grandmother told you a lot of cool shit about the USSR?”
“Well, think of something else, then. You need to get a publication. That’ll help you a lot.”
It was a strange phone call to get. I had pretty much resigned myself to my new Moscow life, and now here was my adviser pulling me back in the direction of the life I’d had. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. But I updated my CV.
The Falanster bookstore, which was to host the discussion of neoliberalism in higher education, was hard to find. After dropping off my grandmother at Emma Abramovna’s, I walked there in the bitter cold and then wandered around the vicinity of the address for about fifteen minutes, going in and out of a courtyard through a big archway and growing increasingly cold and worried that I would miss the event. Why did I still think that just because I knew the address, I’d be able to locate a place, even after all the times this had proved not to be the case? Finally I asked someone and they pointed me to the archway. Over the generations Russians had taken these old tsarist‑era buildings and divided them up in a million different ways, and here was an actual bookstore inside the structure of the archway.
You could tell right away that it was a good bookstore. They had all the academic books from the legendary New Literary Observer, and a terrific journals section. There were no posters of Putin above the cash register, as there were at the bookstore under the strip club on Sretenka, no lurid books on America’s Plan to Steal Our Oil, no obscure tracts on revealed religion. There were serious books of poetry, philosophy, and political science. And there was a small plaster bust of Karl Marx in the corner, against which was leaning a stack of old journals.
The bookstore was filled with about a dozen people, and I saw Yulia, in a red sweater and brown wool skirt, looking both severe and sexy. She was talking to some dude and didn’t appear to see me. Did she forget she’d invited me? I was pretending to study the stacks of books in the middle of the store when I saw a very familiar‑looking person enter the space. I had positive associations with him, but where from? He was so decontextualized that for a moment I couldn’t figure it out. Then I did. “Sergei!” I said. It was the goalie from my hockey team. He looked up and smiled and came over to me. “What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I’m speaking,” he said. “What about you?”
“I’m also speaking.” This sounded somehow unconvincing, like I was imitating him, so I added, “Yulia invited me.”
“Ah, Yulia,” said Sergei. “Well, great.” He patted me on the shoulder and moved off to speak to someone who had been trying to get his attention.
“Ah, Yulia,” meaning what exactly? I had to put the thought aside as Yulia now came over. “Thank you for coming,” she said, putting her hand on my arm momentarily. “Sergei Ivanov”—our goalie!—“is going to give a lecture on his path through contemporary education, but I thought it’d be useful to have a bit of global context, so if you don’t mind, I’ll introduce you and ask you to say a few words about the American situation, and then I’ll introduce Sergei. Does that sound all right?”
“What do you want me to say about the American situation?”
“Just whatever you think. The situation of professors and adjuncts and the job market.”
I knew exactly what she meant: the shitty and embarrassing position of adjuncts, the humiliations visited on them and their students by the university, the rise of PMOOCs—short for “paid massive online open course”—as the solution that solves nothing. How did she know I’d know all this? Maybe she had talked to Fishman about me. Or maybe she just knew. I wanted to ask but I couldn’t think of how to word it, and in any case once she’d explained what she wanted she left me, moved to the front of the room, and asked everyone to take their seats. Looking around, I saw people in their twenties, many of them with glasses, ratty sweaters, poor posture; they looked a little like the group from dinner the other day but more unkempt—they were grad students who might not actually have been grad students. I liked them all immediately.
“Our first speaker,” Yulia said, beautifully, “will be Andrei Kaplan, from New York, where he is an adjunct professor of Russian studies. Andrei?”
I got up and a little nervously—I would have been nervous in any case, but speaking in front of a group in Russian made it worse—gave a short description of the plight of adjuncts in the United States. My main complaint was inequality: if you won the academic sweepstakes and got a full‑time job, you were paid about $15,000 a class. If you didn’t, you might be paid something more like $3,000. (Or $1,000, for a PMOOC.) This was unfair. There was, in my opinion, no justification for such a huge disparity in payment, especially in institutions that considered themselves models of democracy and liberalism.
I said all this as quickly as I could. People nodded in agreement or understanding and then gave a small round of applause when I finished. Yulia got up, gave me her smile, ducked her head to hide her teeth, and thanked me. I sat down, relieved and happy, and then Yulia introduced Sergei.
“As s‑s‑some of you know,” Sergei began, with a little stutter, “I quit the university three years ago in protest over the increasing privatization of education in Russia. My initial impulse after I quit was to do something else entirely. I thought I might write a novel. But I found this boring and in any case I had no talent. And I started thinking more about what my experience in the university had meant for my experience of life in our country.
“The term ‘neoliberalism’ has come into vogue of late in foreign academic and political writing, and for a long time I was pretty sure that it had nothing to do with us, with me. It was a foreign word and our realities were different from the realities being described, even in such an apparently analogous situation, as Andrei Kaplan has just outlined, in the United States.
“But the more I thought about it, the more clear it became. It’s an ugly word but it describes an ugly phenomenon. It’s a description of the privatization of matters that were previously public, of the marketization of human relations and affairs. And in Russia it explains a lot of what we see.
“We’re used to thinking of our dictators as Stalin: Is this Stalin or is this not Stalin? Is this 1937 or is it not 1937? And if that’s the question, the answer is always going to be: it’s not 1937, and this is not Stalin. The supermarkets are overflowing with goods, the people have new televisions, some are driving new cars: everything is fine.
“But not everything is fine! You know it and I know it. Stalin is no longer the benchmark. Because there is a dictator that is as tough as Stalin and as brutal as Stalin but is also more acceptable than Stalin, more popular than Stalin ever was. It’s called the market.
“What we’ve seen in Russia in the last twenty years is the replacement of a stagnant, sometimes violent and oppressive, but basically functioning state with a dictatorship of the market. People have died, of starvation, of depression, of alcoholism and violence, and not only have they done so quietly, they have done so willingly. They have praised their conquerors. We all know about the Bolsheviks who confessed to terrible crimes in the 1930s of which they were innocent. This was a lot like that. Except the Old Bolsheviks had been tortured! People like our parents did it of their own free will. They had built a country; they had served it loyally and to the best of their ability. Now they were confessing to sins attributed to them by neoclassical economics. They were willing to renounce everything they had ever thought because they believed that, in the grand sweep of history, they were in the wrong.
“And, you know, for a long time I agreed. I thought communism was the worst thing that could happen to a country. The lies, the shortages, the violence against dissidents. It was abominable.
“A lot of us knew that things in the ’90s were bad. That the new capitalism was in many ways more destructive, more deceptive, and more violent than the Soviet Union had been in the seventies and eighties. When Putin became president, a lot of people thought that he represented the return of the USSR—that we had failed to ‘cleanse’ the country of the communist menace, and that now we were in for it again. As you recall, others argued that Putin was young and a ‘reformer,’ that the KGB was the only businesslike structure in the USSR, and that he would continue the ‘reforms.’
“What I realized at the university in 2001, 2002, 2003, as I watched the administration adopt more and more of the lingo and practices of big business, was that the reforms were in fact continuing. And that Putin was a reformer, just as the optimists had said, but that, as the pessimists had said, he was adopting Soviet methods of political repression, control of the press, and so on. It appeared to be a contradiction. But it wasn’t one. As I read more about it, I understood: This is what capitalism looks like on the margins of the world system. Turkey, China, Mexico, Egypt . . . all of them had governments that looked like ours, economies that looked like ours. Whether this was a permanent state of things, I didn’t know (though I had some guesses). What I did know, what I continue to know, is that this was a state of affairs, and a regime, that needed to be resisted. And it needed to be resisted in the name of anti‑capitalism. Not anti‑communism, as the liberals thought, and think, and which aside from being a misdiagnosis of the situation also aligns them with the worst forces in international life, but anticapitalism, which happens to be correct and also aligns us with the best of those forces—with the radical students in Greece, with the striking autoworkers in Spain, with the protesting oil workers in Kazakhstan, with the newly conscious academic workers in the United States.” Sergei nodded at me. “So, that’s what I finally understood.”
Sergei paused for a moment and took a drink of water. As he did so, I tried, as unobtrusively as possible, to turn around in my seat in the front row and see how the audience was taking it. I had felt like something very special was happening here, but now, looking at the others, I saw nothing more nor less than a group of students politely listening. A few of them were even taking advantage of Sergei’s short pause to look at their phones. “You could come to them with the Sermon on the Mount,” my adviser once said, “and they’d just sit there taking notes.” This wasn’t the Sermon on the Mount, I knew that—but to me, in that room, at that time, it might as well have been. I couldn’t believe it. Sergei was a good goalie, but not an outstanding one. He seemed like a nice guy, but not a superhuman one. In the vulgar yelling and joking of our locker room, I hardly ever noticed him.
Yet he had figured it out. Suddenly everything I had been looking at—not just over these past months in Moscow, but over the past few years in academia, and over the past fifteen years of studying Russia— became clear to me. Russia had always been late to the achievements and realizations of Western civilization. Its lateness was its charm and its curse—it was as if Russia were a drug addict who received every concoction only after it was perfectly crystallized, maximally potent. Nowhere were Western ideas, Western beliefs, taken more seriously; nowhere were they so passionately implemented. Thus the Bolshevik Revolution, which overthrew the old regime; thus the human rights movement, plus blue jeans, which overthrew the Bolshevik one; and thus finally this new form of capitalism created here, which had enriched and then expelled my brother, and which had impoverished my grandmother and killed Uncle Lev. You didn’t have to go and read a thousand books to see it; you just had to stay where you were and look around.
Yulia sat a few chairs from me. If I were her I would be in love with Sergei. But she appeared not to be. She was watching the audience more than she was watching him. She had organized the event and wanted it to go well. I went back to listening to the lecture. In addition to everything else, I noticed that Sergei’s stutter disappeared when he was speaking like this.
“It was hard for me to leave the university, despite all the reasons I had to do so. We had a small child, and though my salary was meager, it was something. And I believed in the university as an idea. I believed in education. But then again, what is the point of education? The end point of education is liberation. There can be no total liberation, and so education never ends. What I realized is that you do not have to remain inside an institution of education to continue your education and to continue educating others. The goal of our movement is freedom, and in order to be free, we must first learn how to think. We must learn how to think together; we must practice solidarity; we must organize ourselves and we must organize others. Only that way can we move forward against the darkness; only that way can we build equality and democracy here on earth.”
“I’ll be happy to take some questions.”
The question‑and‑answer session lasted an hour. When it was over, Yulia told me that she and Sergei and some others were going to a nearby bar for a drink. I would have loved to get a drink with Yulia or near Yulia but I needed to pick up my grandmother at Emma Abramovna’s. I walked in that direction down Tverskaya, pondering what I’d just heard.
It was the first time I’d walked through Moscow that I didn’t see only expensive restaurants and execution chambers. Yes, there were expensive restaurants and execution chambers. But there were also the homes of the people who had been executed in those chambers. There were the books they’d read and the books they’d written. And then, arriving at last at Emma Abramovna’s, where she sat with my grandmother playing anagrams, there were the homes of those who had, one way or another, survived.
The next day at the Coffee Grind I looked up Sergei on the internet. His break with the university and the regime that supported it had been public and, it turned out, controversial. He had announced it on his LiveJournal page and then spent weeks arguing with people in the comments. I read all of it. He was accused of abandoning the education of young Russians, of exaggerating the level of corruption within the private university, of being a communist. Sergei calmly and methodically answered every accusation. He was abandoning the education of the rich, he said, but he intended to continue educating those without resources; he was not exaggerating; and, yes, he was a communist.
Where did he think the money for the university—for the physical plant, for the library collection, for the salaries of lazy professors like him—was going to come from? Sergei answered that it should come from the government, that education was something people should pay for through their taxes, as individuals and as corporations. “If the state can reform its military and put billions of dollars into superhighways, why shouldn’t it help its universities provide free education to its children?”
“People like you teach children godlessness and all sorts of other idiocy,” said one person. “Why should I pay for that?”
“Ah,” said Sergei.
But he had not backed down.
We had hockey that night and I came early in case Sergei did too. But he arrived with the others. He said hi to me and complimented my talk from the other night; I spent at least part of the game wondering how I would broach the subject of our talking again. Sergei was the one who suggested it. In the locker room after we lost he asked if I needed a ride home. I’d been getting a ride home from Oleg but I immediately said yes. Oleg didn’t mind. He had recently found a tenant for the bank space vacated by the Europeans. When he mentioned this in the locker room, and named the group he was renting to, I saw several of the guys raise their eyebrows. Not understanding, I asked, “Is it a bank?”
“Not exactly,” said Oleg. It turned out they were a criminal outfit. When Tolya wondered aloud if this was wise, Oleg laughed. “I’m not going into business with them,” he said, “just renting them a space.” He seemed giddy with the news, as if he’d once again managed to pull a great trick on the world, and I realized then that Oleg was less careful, less reserved, than the other guys we played with. It was part of his charm, but I could see that the guys were worried about him.
Sergei had a boxy old Lada and we loaded our stuff in the back. If I was worried about striking up a conversation with him, I need not have been. He seemed happy to basically continue his talk from the night before.
“One of the important political events of my life was the Iraq War,” he said. “Or, rather, watching the reaction to it inside Russia. I saw people who opposed Putin, which I instinctively agreed with, supporting the Iraq War, which I instinctively disagreed with. So either my instincts were wrong, or there was something the matter here.
“Until then I’d been a fairly standard liberal. I voted for Yeltsin. But I started thinking about my parents and grandparents. They were good people, hardworking people. And they had been totally decimated by the reforms. I started looking into it. I studied literature, like you. I wrote my thesis on late Soviet nonconformist poetry. But I started reading about politics, world politics and Russian politics. And the more I read, the more I understood that it wasn’t my parents who were the problem, it was the reforms that were the problem, it was capitalism that was the problem, and Putin was a particular kind of capitalist. Once I saw that, I saw a lot of things.”
By now we’d reached Trubnaya Square; Sergei pulled over next to one of the big construction sites.
A few years ago, he said, he and some friends had started a political group called October. It was still small, like twenty people small, but it was growing.
“And Yulia?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“Yulia joined the group with her husband, Petya Shipalkin, a year ago. But then they broke up. We kept Yulia, and Shipalkin joined the anarchists.” Sergei laughed. “Yulia’s a very good organizer,” he added.
It was the first I’d heard about a husband, but he was now an ex-husband, and I had a more immediate question, about Fishman.
Sergei was surprised. “Sasha Fishman? You know him?”
“Yeah, he was in my department.”
“Well.” Sergei laughed again. “Fishman is Fishman. A little sneak. He’s a friend of Shipalkin’s, but now that they’ve split up he calls Yulia when he comes to Moscow.”
“Yeah,” said Sergei. “That’s Fishman.”
“There’s another group,” I said, “called September?”
“Oh, that’s us. I mean, it used to be us. It was like, the revolution is in October, and we were in the month before the revolution.”
“And now the revolution is closer?”
“Well, no, we just decided it was a stupid name.”
“Did you guys do that protest against the Moscow–Petersburg highway?”
“My brother is Dima Kaplan. People accused him of being involved in that.”
“That’s your brother?” Sergei was amused. “No, we had nothing to do with him, nor would we ever. He’s a capitalist snake. No offense.”
None taken. I thanked Sergei for the ride and retrieved my stuff from the trunk.
“I’ll see you next week,” said Sergei, before driving off.
I had finally found some people I could talk to.
Excerpted from A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen. Published by Viking, July 10th, 2018. Copyright © 2018 by Keith Gessen. All rights reserved.