EVENT: Keith Gessen is at the Bookshop on Thursday 21 March to discuss his new novel A Terrible Country with Vadim Nikitin. Book tickets here. Gessen’s sense of humour, excellent eye for detail and immersion in Russian culture has made for some great reporting in the London Review of Books – we’ve selected a few highlights below.
Gessen is particularly excellent at writing about people. Here he is on Boris Nemtsov, shortly after his assassination.
I spent a week with Nemtsov many years later, in 2009, when he was running for mayor of Sochi. He was still amazing. It was early spring in Russia and yet Nemtsov had a full tan. Everywhere we went he wore blue jeans, a black jacket and a white shirt with the top three buttons undone. He addressed everyone he met with the familiar ty, which was rude, and he hit on all the women journalists. But he was totally committed to what he was doing, and bizarrely, bull-headedly, fearless. By this point he had started publishing short, well-researched reports about corruption in both the presidential administration and the Moscow mayoralty. Later he would publish one about construction of the various Olympic sites in Sochi. Whoever he was speaking to he would say: ‘Have you read my book about that? You need to read my book about that.’ And he would start making arrangements to send them a pamphlet.
Gessen visits Odessa in the aftermath of the Maidan protests in 2014:
The next day I took a trolleybus to the end of the line, to the suburb where Vadim lives. He wanted to introduce me to his pro-Russian friend Natasha, who owns a bar. The bar turned out to be one of those improvised structures so common in the former Soviet Union. It was two shipping containers welded together, with windows cut out and plastic walls on the inside, and a sloping roof added on top. It had plumbing and electricity but no heating. It was two in the afternoon, and Natasha, a blonde in her thirties, served tea and beer to her husband, Vladimir, called Vova, a big handsome guy in a tracksuit, and Sasha, a thin man in his early fifties with a small tattoo on the webbing of his hand between his thumb and forefinger which might or might not indicate that he’d spent time in prison. Sasha said he wasn’t working much right now, but he used to run clothes from Turkey to Odessa, among other things. Did he run entire containers? I asked. ‘I ran entire container ships!’ he said.
Protesting again, Gessen joins the 99% in Zucotti Park in 2011 for Occupy Wall Street:
When the protesters started occupying Wall Street, I was busy (sort of), and, to be honest, reluctant. I hate this stuff. I hate standing in the same spot, hemmed in by police barricades, shouting stupid slogans. ‘No justice/No peace’: really? ‘Whose streets?/Our streets!’ Well, yes and no. The futility too is a little frustrating. I have attended protests against the bombing of Kosovo; the bombing of Belgrade; the invasion of Afghanistan; the invasion of Iraq. I wish I had some more local protests to cite, but apparently I only come out when they start scrambling the F-15s. No, that’s not true. I protested outside the Democratic National Convention in 2000. I thought Gore was too centrist. I guess that one we won.
Visiting his grandmother in Moscow in 2008, Gessen reports on the impact of the financial crisis on Russia.
I’m in Moscow for the year to keep my grandmother company and be generally helpful – go to the vegetable market, close the windows at night, that sort of thing – though I didn’t expect to be spending quite this much time checking the status of rouble futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. When I left the States, in early September, the Dow was going into free fall; when I got here, the Russian stock exchanges were falling too, but aside from that the situation was calm. Earlier in the year, Russia’s finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, had called the country ‘an island of stability in the worldwide turmoil’. This soon proved unrealistic, though many clung stubbornly to the notion. In late September the pro-Kremlin political analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov explained the world crisis (and its effects on Russia) on an evening news show; why, he was asked, can’t Russia break away from the failing global financial system? Nikonov, the grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister, smiled indulgently. ‘In the age of globalisation, everyone is connected to everyone,’ he said. His interlocutor, the host of the show, was not going to be put off by this pabulum. ‘Then why can’t we lead and they follow?’ he demanded. Nikonov’s smile froze on his lips; it was one of those moments in the life of a pro-Kremlin analyst when he has to say something against his intellectual conscience. Which was: ‘For that to happen . . . we’d have to become a global financial centre.’ Even the host could tell that Nikonov didn’t think a country whose inscrutable laws were so liberally interpreted by corrupt bureaucrats stood very much chance of becoming a global financial centre. ‘But,’ the host pursued, ‘when last year we proposed a new’ – he meant non-Nato – ‘European security arrangement, people laughed. Now we’re proposing it again and it’s being taken quite seriously.’ ‘Yes,’ Nikonov readily agreed, moving onto the more solid ground of nationalist propaganda. ‘The August events in Georgia solidified our standing in Europe. We are more respected now.’
Keith Gessen is at the Bookshop on Thursday 21 March. Book tickets here.