Keith Gessen on Rediscovering Russia

Question: Where are you from and how has that shaped you?

Keith Gessen: I was born in Russia and I came over when I was very little. I was six. And I grew up outside of Boston. My parents- first they lived in Brighton, which is where the Russians start out, and then they gradually moved west. They moved to Brookline, and then they moved to Newton, and that’s where they stopped. And now some people, they move out to Lincoln and Concord, where there are not very many Russians at all. But in Newton, there are a few Russians, so I’m partly from Moscow and I’m partly from Newton, and those things have shaped me in complex and confusing ways. My parents were from a particular milieu in Russia, a particular intellectual, social milieu. My mom was a literary critic and then they came to Newton, where they sort of managed to reconstruct that with the other Russians that were there. But it was cut off- it was a world that- they were cut off from the American world that surrounded them. So it was sort of an island of Russian computer programmers and intellectuals in a prosperous American suburb. And, for me, that was- it was confusing because I very much wanted to be an American. I wanted to fit in with the rest of the kids and I wanted to engage with American life. I wasn’t- I didn’t wanna sit at home with my parents and the Russian books and drinking tea all the time. But at the same time, I knew I could- I sensed, even though I didn’t acknowledge until a bit later, that my parents’ world was a very rich world, and I didn’t really understand it very well until I started going back to Russia when I was in my early twenties, and seeing the world that they had come from and understanding what their place in that world had been. And that’s been something that I have been sort of working and thinking about for a while, and this book is really the first time that I’ve actually really started getting at it. The book- it’s not about Russian immigrants by any means, but that’s kind of in the background. The problem of being a person who has a lot of ideas, who comes from a culture that’s full of ideas, and is confronted with an American reality that is not particularly interested in ideas at all. So my parents, growing up, there was just no context for them. They were these strange people living on Whipcliff Road in our little house, and then when I was going to Moscow in the ‘90s, I found a whole world of people just like my parents. And so- it just put them into a context that I could understand.

Question: Do you identify yourself as Russian or American?

Keith Gessen: For me, with regard to this stuff- a very important experience was toward my- toward the end of my senior year when I was working on my thesis. I was a major- my major was Russia in America, but I ended up writing on T.S. Eliot, who is neither really even- not even very American. He had spent a lot of time in England, but one of the groups of people that Eliot meant the most to in the States were these people around the Partisan Review, and I hadn’t really known about these people at all. They’re not- they weren’t really part of the college curriculum. And they were- and I discovered these people who basically were first-generation immigrants from Russia. So Philip Roth- the Editor of the Partisan Review was actually Ivan Greenberg, he was born in Russia, came over when he was little. Saul Bellow was born in Petersburg, and his parents left when he was still a baby. And so, these people who had all been born around 1920, so they were the age of my grandparents, had actually had very similar experiences to me, in a way, where they had- their parents were foreigners, they didn’t speak English very well, and yet they very much wanted to be part of American intellectual life. So, discovering those people and feeling like, in fact, I had a very similar experience to those people, in that they were much more- an experience that was much more like mine than that of my contemporaries, that of my American-Jewish contemporaries. That was a very important experience for me and that allowed me to, I think, develop a way of writing about Russia and thinking about Russia, thinking about this place thatI had come from and that had been very important to me, and certainly to my reading development. Writing about it in America, ‘cause that what these people had done, and they were all still very interested in Russia and the Soviet Union, and they were- they were using these things to understand American life. So, you know, so Irving Howe and Saul Bellow are people who have helped me a great deal.

Recorded: 3/18/08


Finding a context for his parents and himself.

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