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Keith Gessen
Author of the novel A Terrible Country (Viking).

My Brother Comes to Moscow

Getty / Penguin Random House

Keith Gessen | A Terrible Country | July 2018 | 21 minutes (5,369 words)

 

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.
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