All happy families are alike; ours, obviously, was not a happy family.
What had we done wrong? By most measures, you would have thought we’d done everything right. For a few years in the late 1970s, the Soviets allowed the emigration of their Jews. First they sent the criminals and critics (“Let them rob and criticize the Americans!”), but there were only so many criminals and critics, and they eventually started letting out computer programmers like my father and literary scholars like my mother. My parents weren’t stupid. When you are given a chance to emigrate from a poor, decrepit, crumbling country to a wealthy, powerful, dynamic one, you take it. They took it. They filed their application, bribed someone who said they’d help, sold all their stuff — and off we went.
It wasn’t easy. I was six years old when we came over, and even I could tell. We stayed with another family at first, then in a weird apartment in Brighton, at the very edge of respectable Boston. Someone stole our security deposit. With my father’s first substantial paycheck we bought a giant, ugly car. As my parents drove around Brighton visiting their Russian friends — all their friends were Russian — I sprawled on the backseat and slept.
Eventually they figured it out, my father went from good job to better, and my mother became one of the few literary Russians to actually find a literary job. We moved from Brighton to Brookline to aristocratic Newton. But through it all Dima expressed the frustrations and limitations of our new life. He denounced the Russians my parents hung out with as losers; he dismissed his new classmates as idiots. He had hated the Soviet Union, he said, but at least in the Soviet Union there were people you could talk to.
The only person he seemed to like was me. As he started making money in his first jobs in America — he got a job as a gas station attendant, which included, he told me proudly, both a wage and some tips — he always bought me little gifts and let me in on his theories about capitalism. He sought to enlist me in his ongoing battle with our parents, and let me in on all the (limited) family dirt.
As Dima moved out into the world — he left home the minute he turned eighteen, declared to my flabbergasted parents that he wasn’t going to college, and incorporated his first company before the year was out (they made some kind of video game) — I watched him with profound fascination. What was this new world and what could a Kaplan hope to do in it? How could you live? I had no idea. My parents were good people but they lived in a Russian ghetto. It wasn’t just their friends who were Russian, it was everyone: our doctor was Russian, our dentist was Russian, our car mechanic was Russian, the clown who came to our house for birthday parties was Russian, the guy who fixed the roof was Russian. How the fuck did they know so many Russian people? The thing is, I knew this world, this close-knit community, would not be available to me. It was as if, yes, my parents had emigrated, but only to the Russia that existed inside America; Dima and I would have to emigrate all over again into America itself. Dima was the one who went out into the world and figured it out. He was the advance party for the two of us. I did not have to do what he did — in fact in most ways I would do the exact opposite — but from him at least I could learn the possibilities. Until I was about sixteen there was no one I admired more.
Then our mother died. She got sick when I was a sophomore, endured the terrible treatments, and still died, two years later, in terrible pain. My brother was in New York by then, working on Wall Street, and he spent a week with us in Newton after the funeral. All of us were in shock, more, I think, than we even realized at the time.
With my mother gone, it was like our entire history, our emigration, our lives no longer made sense. She had been at the center of it, she and Dima. Now we scattered: I left for college; my father sold the house and moved to Cape Cod, eventually marrying an American woman and starting a new family; and Dima quit his job and moved to Moscow. I don’t know if he thought of his return as a rebuke to my parents or an homage to them. Maybe it was both.
I don’t know all the things that he got into while he was making his way in the new Russian capitalism. He would periodically report on this or that exciting foolproof scheme on his increasingly rare visits to the States — he was investing in a demolition company in anticipation of the destruction of Soviet housing stock; he was buying a warehouse for auto parts; he was chopping down forests outside Moscow and selling them to the Norwegians — and then the next time he came it was on to something else. It was the same with his wives and girlfriends. He got married and divorced before I was done with college, once more while I was in grad school, and was now married a third time.
Dima was the one who went out into the world and figured it out. He was the advance party for the two of us. I did not have to do what he did — in fact in most ways I would do the exact opposite — but from him at least I could learn the possibilities.
It wouldn’t be right to say that I noticed some kind of change in him over time; I didn’t. He was the same person. But certainly as he became more successful and accrued more stuff, he became more himself. The Dima I had known growing up had been impatient, aggressive, and aggrieved — qualities that had made his teenage years a living hell for him and for our parents. But in Russia he found a suitable arena for these qualities. It was a place where being impatient and aggressive could pay off. I remember visiting him once, not long after I’d started grad school. He had just bought the apartment across the landing from our grandmother and was getting his floor replanked. The workers had done a less than perfect job — there was a slight gap between the last of the floorboards and the wall. By slight I mean a quater of an inch — I would not have noticed it had Dima not pointed it out to me. Nonetheless when the contractor, a burly Russian guy in work overalls, came by to get paid, Dima laid into him. The work was shit, he yelled, and he wasn’t paying for it. “You and your incompetents are going to come back tomorrow and do the whole thing over again,” said Dima. The contractor, whose large belly was about at Dima’s chest, looked like he was considering taking a swipe at Dima. But he tried to make peace instead. “Why don’t we take up the two or three adjoining ones and fix those?” he said. “It’ll look the same.”
Dima smelled weakness. “You will take up every single board, do you understand me, you fucking bear?”
The contractor puffed up his chest for a moment and then deflated. He must have made a calculation: If he took a swipe at Dima, he wouldn’t get paid, he might get arrested, and maybe even worse — if someone this small was yelling this loudly, it must mean he had all sorts of protection behind him. “All right,” said the contractor dolefully, and the next day his workers came back and redid the entire job. The contractor even seemed to take something of a liking to Dima, who by this point was all sweetness and light.
“No hard feelings, OK?” said the contractor, offering his hand.
“Of course not,” said Dima, and meant it. The contractor was Stepan, who now fixed stuff for Dima, and sometimes (grudgingly) for me. Eventually Dima’s fierceness won out over whatever flaws were inherent in the Russian free market, and he returned with some success to the moneymaking platform of his youth — gas stations. He built a small network of them, about ten, throughout Moscow and the Moscow region, and started making money. But then the Moscow– Petersburg highway project was announced, and with it a tender for the gas station contract. It was a large contract, twenty stations, plus the opportunity to sublease store space in the future rest stops — tens of millions of dollars, a whole new level for Dima. And here his problems began, because he wasn’t the only one who was interested. In the end, he lost the bid to our old friend RussOil, in what he claimed was a rigged process, and started raising a terrible fuss. That was about as much as I knew aboutit, and as far as I could tell that was why he’d had to leave the country.
My hope was that he’d straightened it out, one way or another — maybe his appearance on the radio was part of a tough negotiation — and would now be coming back.
When I told my grandmother that Dima was coming to visit, she freaked out.
“Where will he stay?” she said.
“In our room,” I said.
I took my grandmother to my room to show her the bunk beds that we had once slept in as boys. I had played hockey for the first time the night before and left my stuff to dry, a little haphazardly, on the floor. And the rest of the room wasn’t exactly a model of cleanliness.
“Dima can’t stay here!” said my horrified grandmother.
“Half this junk is his!” I said, which was true. But it didn’t matter. “I’ll clean it up before he gets here,” I said.
“All right,” said my grandmother.
The next day — six days before Dima’s arrival — she came into my room. I had cleaned up some of it, but she was unsatisfied. “Andryush,” she said. “I’ve been thinking. Maybe you can move out of this room while Dima is here?”
“And where will I stay?” I said. Theoretically I could have stayed in the back room, but this would have meant walking through my grandmother’s little room to go to the bathroom or get a drink of
water. And anyway I didn’t feel like getting kicked out of my room for a week.
“This room will be fine for Dima,” I said. “He’ll like it.”
“Are you sure?”
And on and on it went. One afternoon I came home from the Coffee Grind to find that my grandmother had set the table for three. She’d brought out her nicest plates and even the half-empty bottle of red wine that was still in the fridge for special occasions. I had no idea how long it had been there and we had not yet made any progress in finishing it. “What’s this?” I asked.
“Dima is coming today,” said my grandmother proudly. “Do you know my grandson, Dima?”
“I do know him,” I said, “because he’s my brother, and he’s coming on Thursday.”
“Well, what’s today?”
“Are you sure?”
That day I put a note on the fridge that said “Dima arrives Thursday,” but my grandmother took it down. “I know when Dima arrives,” she said. So we continued having these conversations until he was finally there.
Dima was my brother. We had emigrated together, acclimated to America together, we had attended our mother’s funeral together, and then we had helped my dad move out of our house together. We had had many arguments, but he was my brother; he had always been my brother. What else does one build a life out of if not people, and time?
People multiplied by time. But people can change. Circumstances can change. Money can change — money can change everything.
He came in the late afternoon, off the British Airways flight from London. My grandmother had spent the entire previous day cooking. She made borscht and kotlety and kasha. Dima in general ate very little, he seemed to exist on an inexhaustible fund of nervous energy, but when he came in, with his rolling suitcase, in a beautiful gray coat and expensive leather boots, he immediately agreed to eat. This pleased my grandmother immensely. “Dima!” she said. “I am so proud of you!”
“Thank you, Grandma,” said Dima.
“You are a really impressive person!” my grandmother insisted. She was beaming. Here was Dima! “We heard you on the radio!” she said. “Thank you, Grandma,” Dima said again.
“If only you’d get a haircut,” said my grandmother. Dima’s hair was a little on the long side. “And come see me more often!”
“I’m in London right now.”
“What?” My grandmother hadn’t heard him.
“London!” Dima said more loudly. “In England!”
“Ah!” said my grandmother. “England,” she said. “Yes, that is a nice place.” She had already forgotten why this was relevant. She said, sadly: “If only you would come see me once in a while. No one ever comes to see me.”
“I’m here right now,” said Dima.
“Yes,” said my grandmother, in the same sad tone.
Dima finished his borscht and saw that my grandmother had put water on to boil. He regarded the teakettle for a moment and then said to me accusingly, “Where’s the electric teakettle?”
“What?” I said.
“Grandma,” Dima said. “What’d you do with the electric teakettle I got you?”
My grandmother looked at him uncomprehendingly.
Dima got up. He started rifling through the kitchen cabinets. Finally, from behind some pots in one of them, he pulled out a brand-new electric teakettle.
“I got her this because she burned the last three of those,” he said, indicating the one in which water had just started boiling on the stove. Dima turned it off. “Grandma,” he said. “I got you this because it’s easier to use.”
“I don’t like it,” said my grandmother, waving it away. “It’s noisy.”
“It’s noisy?!” Dima almost yelled. He shook his head. “It’s safer, Grandma. You should use it.”
He left it on the counter. I could see he was investigating the kitchen further. “Where’s the trash can?” he asked me.
“What?” I said again. “It’s under the sink.”
Dima looked under the sink, where my grandmother kept a tiny little trash can; it was so small that it usually filled up in a day, sometimes twice a day, but that was OK because the dumpster was nearby and I was glad to throw our bag out whenever it got full.
“Grandma,” Dima now said, “what did you do with the trash can I got you?”
“I don’t remember,” said my grandmother a little stubbornly.
Now Dima set off to look for his trash can. My grandmother and I sat in the kitchen like guilty children. Eventually Dima emerged from the back room with a large, modern, stainless steel trash can. “This was in the closet in the back room,” he told me.
“Grandma,” he said, “this is a nice trash can. Bugs can’t get in.” (We had had some flies in the kitchen in August.) “And it looks good.”
“I don’t like it,” said my grandmother. “It takes up too much Space.”
“It fits right here,” said Dima. He put it next to the refrigerator. It almost fit there.
“Won’t you have some tea?” my grandmother said.
“I don’t have time,” Dima said to her. Then, to me: “I need to write some emails. After that maybe we can get a drink?”
I said sure. Dima got out his laptop and right on the kitchen table started banging away at it — apparently his computer communicated with the soldiers’ network just fine. I cleaned up from dinner and my grandmother, after trying and failing to get Dima’s attention a couple of times, went to her room. When Dima announced himself done with his emails and asked if I was ready, I felt like I was betraying my grandmother by saying yes, choosing him over her. But in truth I was also eager to get outside. I stuck my head into her room and said we’d be back in an hour. She was lying in bed, reading Chekhov. Without turning around, she gamely waved good-bye.
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It was evening now, and Dima suggested we go to the strip club on the second floor above the bookstore. “Have you been already?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Wellll,” he said, drawing it out in disappointment. “Nuuuu. You must change your life.”
We headed out. It was so strange walking down the street with Dima. He was thin and small and elegant and dark-haired, with a thin, very Semitic nose, the exact opposite of the big, ungainly, flat-faced Slavic men who walked down the street toward us. He was the opposite of a typical Russian, he was an anti-Russian, and yet he fit in here. He knew no one liked him, and it put him at ease.
The strip club was called Gentlemen of Fortune, after a famous Russian film of that name, and it consisted of two large rooms. The first was set up pretty much like a café, with tables and chairs and topless girls going around serving drinks, and the second room was an open space with benches along the walls, where the men sat and the girls danced for them. The girls looked like they ranged in age from about nineteen to twenty-four, and though some were blond and blue-eyed and others were dark-haired and brown-eyed, and in fact were of multiple nationalities, they were almost all uniformly slim, petite, and very attractive. I found it disturbing, in fact, how attractive and fresh-faced they all seemed. Dima and I sat down in the café part; Dima ordered an expensive drink and I ordered a beer, and then as I tried to ignore the topless girls he told me what was happening with his business. As he told me more I forgot all about the girls.
When I told my grandmother that Dima was coming to visit, she freaked out. ‘Where will he stay?’ she said.
“Basically,” Dima was saying, “they’ve shut me down. I filed a lawsuit to demand an audit of the highway tender, and they didn’t like it. My stations started getting raided by the tax police. I tried to get in touch with the people I know in the Kremlin and they stopped answering my calls. The tax people closed my stations. There’s fucking police tape around them, like a murder took place there. I had to leave to avoid criminal prosecution, and they still have a case at the ready should they ever need it.”
He paused to see what effect this was having.
I said, “That’s not good.”
“No, it’s not. Now that they have me by the nuts they’re going to take my stations; if I don’t give them up, they’re going to continue with a criminal prosecution. So I’m getting out.”
“What?” I didn’t quite understand.
“I’m not coming back. This is it. I’m done with this place.”
I had not expected this. “You’re just going to leave?”
“Yes. What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know!” I said. I didn’t know, of course. “Stay? Fight?”
“And get put in prison like Khodor?” Khodor was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch who stayed and fought and had been in prison, by that point, for five years. “No, thanks.”
“OK,” I said. I wasn’t going to argue with him about it.
“So here’s the thing,” said Dima. Apparently what he’d said until then was just a prelude. “How long are you planning on staying?”
“Here? I was planning on staying until you came back. I thought it was going to be soon.” A pathetic note of reproach entered my voice, though I tried to suppress it. “I already told my subletter I need my room back.”
“OK, great,” said Dima. “Do you still want to do that?”
“Well, I don’t know. I — why?”
“Because my legal bills are insane, and I need to start liquidating assets. And I want to start with the ones that are the least devalued right now.”
“OK.” I didn’t see what this had to do with me.
Dima said, “The least devalued assets are real estate.”
“What?” It was more the way he said it than what he said that made me realize what he was talking about. “Do you mean the apartment?”
I said, “Isn’t it also down?”
“Not like my other stuff. Have you seen the MICEX?”
“The stock exchange, professor. It’s down eighty percent. Eighty! The apartments are down ten, fifteen at most. I’m not moving on those shares until they’re back.”
“But you can’t sell Grandma’s apartment. It’s not yours!”
“It is, actually. It’s in my name and I have power of attorney. And it’s the best thing for her. She can’t get up those stairs much longer, and this will give us some cash on hand to hire someone to take care of her.”
“She’s been in that apartment practically her entire life.”
“What does that matter? She can’t remember what she had for Breakfast.”
“But she knows where stuff is. She can orient herself.”
“We’ll set up the new place with her stuff, we’ll put it in the same places. Like at Emma Abramovna’s.”
I thought a second. “Why don’t you sell your own apartment?”
“Oh, I will,” said Dima. “But the buyer I have wants both apartments so he can combine them. He’s willing to pay a premium for that.”
“No,” I said. “You can’t do that to her.”
“I can’t?” Dima looked at me like he was studying something on my nose. “I’m sorry. I must have missed all your contributions to Grandma’s health and well-being these past fifteen years. Did you do them in secret?”
Dima paused as if waiting for an answer. “No? You didn’t? So you haven’t actually been here all this time, and you haven’t actually set foot in this country in however many years, and you don’t actually know anything about what’s going on? I thought so.”
He sat back momentarily with his expensive drink. It had an orange peel in it. He was so much older than me that we had never wrestled or fought the way brothers do, and anyway he wasn’t the wrestling type. He was all brain, and the brain was devoted to maximizing profit and proving he was right. And in this instance he was right. I’d been in America all this time. My grandmother had descended into senility without me. That I had finally showed up didn’t change that.
I asked, “When are you planning on doing this?”
“As soon as possible. If you leave around Thanksgiving, that would be great, we could probably get three hundred for the place. I might need to borrow a hundred out of it for my legal fees. The rest, two hundred thousand, we put in a Grandma fund — for renting her a place, hiring a live‐in nurse, and any medical expenses that she incurs in the coming years. If her burn rate is about three thousand a month, that’s, what, sixty-six months, five and a half years. That’s a long time for her.”
“Yeah,” I said. Our grandmother was not going to live another five and a half years.
“Half that money is yours and I should be able to get it back to you within two to three years. We can draw up a contract.”
“I don’t need any money.”
“OK, Mr. Moneybucks. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.” I sat in silence. I had been looking forward to going back but this was different; if I left, it would mean my grandmother having to move to some random place.
“So what do you think?” said Dima.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I need to think about it.”
“OK,” said Dima. “Think about it.”
He then made some gesture that I didn’t catch, and one of the girls came over and sat in Dima’s lap. She was topless, and she clearly knew Dima; he whispered something in her ear and she laughed. He turnedto me. “Vera says she has a friend who’d like to meet you. Should we invite her over?” Then he added, in English, “It’s on me.”
Part of me wanted to take him up on it but another part did not. In any case I was too confused by Dima’s news. I thanked Vera and Dima and said I was going to head home. Dima shrugged. “See you there,” he said, and that was the end of our conversation.
I took a roundabout way home so I could clear my head. The evenings were growing colder. I was in a sweater and a fall coat but it was not enough. Until now I had been so eager to leave. I walked past the expensive cafés that I didn’t like, the Hugo Boss, the experimental theater . . . I was just getting used to this place. And I had maybe found a hockey game. But maybe too it was for the best. I was not exactly the world’s greatest caretaker of my grandmother.
Did I think Dima should stay? I mean, between going to prison and leaving, of course he should leave. But it didn’t sit well with me somehow. There had always been a kind of moral argument that Dima made alongside his moneymaking. He wasn’t just coming to Russia to make a killing; he was coming to build capitalism, democracy, a modern nation. He was continuing the work begun by the great Soviet dissidents whom my parents so admired. That’s why he could get so high and mighty on Facebook or when Elena interviewed him on Echo. It’s why he could sleep with strippers and still think of himself as a righteous dude — he was building the new Russia! Of course he had to blow off some steam! Now he was leaving. And that was OK. But if the idea had been to build something, and it was still unbuilt . . . did that mean the idea had never been to build anything at all?
By leaving we had ruptured the generations. We had abandoned my grandmother. It took a while to unspool all its ramifications, but that emigration, more than anything, was the great tragedy of my grandmother’s life.
Maybe I was being unfair. But one saw the same thing in academia. People came to Russia, interviewed Russians, wrote their articles and books — and then they got a job, or tenure, or the Nobel Prize, and what did the Russians get from it exactly? All this money that the Russians now had, it wasn’t from Dima coming over and building gas stations, and it sure as hell wasn’t from some academic writing articles. It was from Uncle Lev and the great Jewish-Italian defector Pontecorvo figuring out the goddamn molecular nature of oil. It was from Uncle Lev building instruments to detect neutron emissions. No Americans ever came over and showed the Russians how to find their oil; the Russians did it all on their own.
When I got home, my grandmother was in the kitchen in her nightgown, drinking a cup of tea. She had her teeth out and gave me a toothless smile when I sat down across from her. She always looked very cute without her teeth, like a very old, wise, gray-haired baby.
“Andryush,” she said, “you’re home. I was worried. Where did you go?”
“I was out with Dima.”
“Dima? Is he here?”
“He’s my grandson, you know,” said my grandmother sadly. “He lives in London now.”
“I know,” I said.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “There’s some pancakes with jam. Doyou want some?”
She started to pull herself up by the table and I stopped her. “I’ll get them,” I said.
The pancakes were on the windowsill — it was really more like a window alcove, it was two feet deep — in an aluminum dish, covered by another dish; my grandmother owned no Tupperware. I put two on a plate and came back to the table. My grandmother was slowly, methodically sipping her tea.
Dima and I had just spent I didn’t know how much money on those drinks. Thirty dollars? And Dima was no doubt going to spend quite a bit more. How much was Vera’s cleaning fee? Two hundred dollars? Five hundred? I had no idea, but five hundred struck me as plausible. That
was the entirety of my grandmother’s life savings.
“My mother used to make these pancakes,” my grandmother said suddenly. “She wasn’t a good cook. She was a dancer. And she was very good at chess. She was one of the best female chess players in Moscow.”
I had never heard any of this before.
“Yes,” said my grandmother, “she was very talented but she didn’t like children. But once in a while we would come home from school andshe’d be there and she’d have these pancakes for us to eat.”
My poor little grandmother, I thought. She had lived such a long life, but she still remembered her mother’s pancakes.
It was wrong that she was alone like this. And it happened because we had emigrated. It didn’t seem that way at the time — at the time it was a great adventure — but by leaving we had ruptured the generations. We had abandoned my grandmother. It took a while to unspool all its ramifications, but that emigration, more than anything, was the great tragedy of my grandmother’s life.
“Do you want to play anagrams?” I asked her.
Her eyes widened. “Of course!” she said. And we played three games. She slaughtered me. Then we went to sleep. Whenever it was Dima came home, I did not hear him.
The next morning I wrote to the drummer that my plans had changed, and if he hadn’t yet made other arrangements, he could stay. He wrote back right away to say that he hadn’t, and would be happy to stay.
Telling Dima was more difficult, but — uncharacteristically for me, it must be said — I decided not to put it off. I told him I wanted to stay a few more months, that I was just getting started here, and that I didn’t think we should move my grandmother while I was still around to help.
He took it better than I expected. “All right,” he said. “If you’re here to help her up the stairs, we save on a caretaker, so fine. But if the place loses value, I’m taking it out of your end.”
“OK,” I said.
Dima was in Moscow an entire week. We ran a couple of household errands together and watched the election returns come in, and Obama’s speech, on his computer, but other than that I hardly saw him.
He slipped in and out of the apartment like a ghost, either very early in the morning or very late at night. He was avoiding my grandmother, I think, and she could tell. Every time she saw him, she said, “Dima! I’m so proud of you! You’ve made such a great career for yourself! We heard
you on the radio! If only you would come see me once in a while! I’m right here!”
“Grandma, I have to go,” Dima would say, looking at his phone and putting on his coat and boots and hat. “We’ll talk about this later, OK?”
“Can’t you stay a little bit?” my grandmother would say. “We’ll play Anagrams.”
“I can’t right now.”
“Just one game?”
“You never can.”
“I’m very busy!”
The more she pressed, the more he pulled away. I recognized the dynamic. He thought she was criticizing him, minimizing or even ignoring all the time he had spent with her over the years, all the attention he had given her, whereas she was merely stating a wish and also, I now saw, helplessly trying to think of something to say. There was Dima. What to say to him? And the first thing that came out was always some kind of rebuke. She was just trying to make conversation, to get him to stick around a moment longer, to engage.
I watched it and became so sad. Perhaps I could do things differently. Dima was going to leave. But I was going to stay.
* * *
From A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen, to be published on July 10, 2018 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.