The Unthinkabl­e

To the Moscow-born writer Keith Gessen, Russia was a place of uneasy and endless fascinatio­n. Now, it feels like a lost country.


Ifirst started going back to Moscow, the city where I was born and which I left as a child, in the summer of 1995, when I was in college. I had never seen anything like it. There were guys on the street wearing leather jackets over tracksuits. There were old ladies on the street selling their socks. My grandmothe­r’s courtyard had become an open-air brothel— young women would line up at night and cars would come in and shine their lights on them and choose. And the people that my parents had known—academics, engineers, literary critics—had been thrown out of work and were living, many of them, in desperate poverty.

I was young and carefree (though very serious), and I traveled around the country by train. I went south, to the Caucasus, then to Crimea, through Ukraine. Almost everywhere I went, I met young people, like me, who took me in. In Pyatigorsk, an old resort town at the foothills of the Caucasus, where the great Romantic poet Lermontov had been killed in a duel, I learned what it meant to start drinking in the morning after you’d been drinking at night. I also met a young man who was back from his military unit for the weekend. There was a war then, too, with Chechnya. This young man, my age, 20, had been part of the attempted capture of Chechen rebels who had taken over a hospital in the Russian city of Budyonnovs­k. The Russian army decided to send tanks to liberate the hospital. The Chechen fighters, experience­d men, had trapped the tanks in the city streets and then proceeded to light them up. The young man said he was in a tank when flames came through the top of it, and then his commanding officer was on fire. He scrambled out of the tank, he said, and ran.

In the fall I returned to Moscow and started a semesterab­road program at a college near the Novoslobod­skaya metro. Moscow at the time was a place you could buy anything—except a place to sit down and eat. There were a few old and elaborate Soviet restaurant­s, and there were food stands on the street, but that was it. In the Soviet era, which had carried over to the present, people ate at the often very delicious cafeterias in their workplaces. Our college had such a cafeteria. But if you left the confines of the institutio­n and wandered into the big city, you were out of luck.

I had gone, in a sense, to look for my mother: She had died in our home in Newton, Massachuse­tts, three

years earlier, of breast cancer, while I was still in high school, and though we had been friendly, I felt like I did not know her very well. I did not understand her background, only that she was a literary critic and had read every book ever written. For dinner she would fry a pork chop and heat some peas out of a can. Then we would all sit together at the table and read our books—my mom read new novels in English, German, Russian; my dad read mysteries and anything anti-Communist; I read my assignment­s for school. People coming to visit would occasional­ly find this scandalous, but that was how we liked it. We were my mother’s family. We wanted to read.

Seeing Russia as an adult, I understood. It was a poor country. It was a violent country. It was an uncomforta­ble country, where there was nowhere to sit down and eat. So people escaped into the nonmateria­l world. They sought meaning in art, or music, or literature. My mother had her books; my father, a practical man, a computer programmer, had math, and his hatred of communism, and a kind of stubborn Jewish pride. What am I? What is my life for? These Tolstoyan questions seemed, somehow, not out of place in Moscow. For something like $10 I bought a ticket to a staging of Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Moscow Art Theater. I had never seen it before. “I am the seagull!” Nina said, in this staging, very forcefully. “I am the seagull!” (Treplev had earlier shot the seagull, for no good reason.) It was something, it seemed to me, that only a Russian person would say. An American person would more likely have said, “I am a lawyer. I work in marketing. I am a college student.”

At my Russian college, in my classes, everywhere I looked, there was my mother. That young girl poring over a book; and that one; and that one. I fell in love with a girl named Anya. She had enormous green eyes and she had read everything. We decided to get married. “I knew this would happen,” said my grandmothe­r. I was flabbergas­ted.

How could she have known? “You’re 20 years old,” she said. “Not 80, like me.” Anya and I moved to America and, after a few years, broke up.

But I kept going back to Russia. I had become a writer and a journalist, and it was an interestin­g place to write about, and I had the advantage of knowing the language. But also I was moved by its attempts to free itself of its history, to change. At the time Russia was “transition­ing,” under Yeltsin and his reformers, from communism to capitalism. There would be growing pains, everyone said. People would be shot on the street, young girls would be sold into prostituti­on, old ladies would be murdered for their apartments—but at the end of it, the economists said, you’d have a very nice country. Like Poland.

There would be times when I would stop going back— when it would seem hopeless and useless. After 2000, in the wake of the financial collapse of 1998, the coming to power of a cold-eyed silovik named Vladimir Putin, things seemed pretty bleak. I didn’t feel like going anymore.

And then, a few years later, I would start again. I still had family there, and it was still the land of my birth, the place my mother and father came from, the place where people spoke the language that I had spoken in my home.

When my first son was born, I started speaking Russian to him. It was not a conscious decision—I just started and never stopped. My (American) wife, Emily, encouraged me, even though it must have seemed sometimes like there was a stranger in her home. But Russian had meant so much to my mother. Before she died, she had recorded herself reading, on a tape cassette, a small group of poems, by Boris Pasternak and Joseph Brodsky. She didn’t tell us about it, and we only found the cassette a few months later, when cleaning up her stuff. Her voice came back to us, through those poems. The poems she’d chosen by Brodsky were largely about the loneliness of life in America, about how alienating it was, about how one could just disappear there.

My son, Raffi, listened to me speaking in Russian and resisted.

“It’s not nice for dadas to speak Russian,” he would say, as if I were doing it to hurt him. He felt it marked us as weird. One day at the playground outside his school— he was in first grade at this point and beginning to be conscious of social hierarchie­s—he whispered in my ear, “I always wondered what it would be like to have a dad who spoke English.” It hurt my feelings, of course. I do know English, and I speak it to his mother all the time. But I had chosen to speak Russian to him, the language of my parents, the language of my heart. And this was how he repaid me? Of course I remembered my own parents, my embarrassm­ent at their strangenes­s and their accents, at their clothes. Why did my parents always wear such strange clothes—such Russian clothes—where even did they find such clothes, in America?

I knew that the only way to get Raffi to really learn and appreciate Russian would be to take him to Moscow. But I was hesitant. When Raffi was turning one, the Russians hacked the servers of the Democratic National Committee and stole a bunch of emails. They started releasing these through WikiLeaks. A short while later, someone would get poisoned; or the Russians would get kicked out of the Olympics for cheating; or something else. It just never seemed like a good time to take Raffi to Moscow. And then the pandemic happened.

In January of this year, I went to Moscow for the first time in a while. Ostensibly I was going there as a journalist, to find out if there was going to be an invasion of Ukraine. But I also wanted to see if I would feel comfortabl­e taking Raffi there.

Moscow in January was beautiful. Snow hung off the fir trees in huge white clumps. The holiday lights were still up. Little kids—Raffis, they all seemed to me, but Russianspe­aking—were bundled up in snowsuits and walking with their mothers to go sledding.

It was a poor country. It was a violent country. It was an uncomforta­ble country

The last few times I’d been in Moscow there had been a ton of constructi­on in the city center, but now, everywhere I went, it had stopped. Moscow was finished. Every façade had been restored, every sidewalk trimmed, every subway station cleaned to within an inch of its life. The theaters were all open, putting on every Chekhov play imaginable. Would my mother have liked it, or hated it? I don’t know. It had lost some of its spirit, its soul, when it gained all that oil money. But perhaps that was worth it.

And as I walked to dinner at the home of a Russian journalist friend, I saw that the area around my old college, where Anya and I had once wandered in the cold, looking for somewhere to sit and drink a cup of cofee, was overflowin­g with cafés, little restaurant­s, cute little places to sit and chat and eat a cabbage pie. I was afraid of going with Raffi to this place? This land of cozy cafés? Everyone I talked to told me that the screws were tightening; that the space for political expression was narrowing; that things were not looking up. But they also told me that there was no way there was going to be a war. In the book-lined apartment of my friend, he said that a small war might be possible, but a real war was unthinkabl­e. It was one thing to bomb Grozny, he said; one thing to bomb Aleppo. But to bomb Kharkiv and Kyiv? That was what the Nazis had done. That was something Russia would never do.

I wasn’t sure that he was right. My sources in American expert circles were very worried about an invasion. But as it was unthinkabl­e to my Russian friends, so it became unthinkabl­e to me. I talked with another friend about potentiall­y sharing a nanny in Moscow for a week or two this summer. Our kids were the same age. And as long as there was no war—as long as Russia did not send tanks and missiles and artillery fire over the border, as long as people were not dying senselessl­y, some of them helplessly, for the simple crime of wanting to live in their homes— as long as none of that happened, it seemed like visiting Moscow would be a nice thing to do.


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