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Struggling to Love, Work and Do the Right Thing in Putin’s Russia

As this novel pushes forward, however, Gessen’s patience, his ability to husband his resources, begins to pay off. He introduces character after character — goalies and oilmen and comely academics, the heartbroken, the disinherited and the excluded — each of whom blooms in the mind.

Keith GessenCreditNina Subin

Which is another way of saying that this earnest and wistful but serious book gets good, and then it gets very good. Gessen finds an emotional tone for his material. He writes incisively about many things here but especially about, as the old saw has it, how it is easier to fight for your principles than live up to them. At the wrong moment, in front of the authorities, Andrei flinches.

Andrei’s grandmother is a particularly vivid presence. She may be losing her mind, but she still destroys Andrei at word games. When anything goes wrong in her apartment, she clutches herself and mumbles, “We’re ruined, we’re ruined.” She pulls out her false teeth in cafes, causing children to scream.

She embodies, in her way, this novel’s complicated sense of Russian politics and morality. She lost her beloved country house due to capitalist machinations. But she got her apartment in Moscow, near the central K.G.B. offices, thanks to her work on a propaganda film for Stalin and to the misfortune of another family in the Stalin era.

Referring to the apartment’s nearness to former execution chambers, Andrei says, “It was like living down the street from Auschwitz.”

There are wonderful moments in this novel when Andrei begins to rent old Soviet-era movies of which his grandmother is fond, because she cannot stomach the violence in new films. They

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