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The Joys of Being Russian

Annabelle Chapman, a journalist focusing on Eastern Europe, talks to Oliver Bullough about his new book The Last Man in Russia: And The Struggle To Save A Dying Nation.

July 7, 2013 - Annabelle Chapman - Articles and Commentary

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Read Annabelle Chapman’s review of The Last Man in Russia in the summer 2013 issue of New Eastern Europe Issue 3(VIII)/2013: Why Culture Matters here.

The two books you have published to date present a Russia largely unknown in the West and don’t deal directly with the Kremlin or politics. What Russia have you tried to show?

I’m not really very interested in the Kremlin. I like reading books about it. But I’ve never been interested in trying to untangle what Vladimir Putin’s motives are, or get to know oligarchs, or anything like that. When I write a book, I like to look at something which is currently happening that is weird or somehow disturbing, and try to work out how it got to that particular point.

With my first book, it was: Chechens are blowing themselves up in Moscow – why on earth are they doing that? And with the second book: Russians are drinking themselves to death – why on earth are they doing that? With questions like these, the Kremlin isn’t particularly relevant.

I also like travelling a lot, particularly to places where I would otherwise have no conceivable reason to go. Both my books gave me a reason to do that. I used to go into the Kremlin as a journalist quite often when I worked for Reuters, but it just involves a lot of sitting around trying to figure out what someone meant.

What’s you new book, The Last Man in Russia about?

It’s about why Russians are drinking themselves to death. That is the first question. And the question even before this is: why are Russian demographics so bad. Why is mortality so high – particularly among men – and the birth rate so stubbornly low.

But why they drink so much is actually quite a difficult question to answer. Because obviously Russians have always drunk. In fact I think the first mention of Russia is in reference to drinking; when they reject Islam because drinking is one of the joys of the Russians.

Something happened around the 1950s or 1960s. The Russians had always drunk, but now they started to drink in a very different way. They started to drink all the time, not just on holidays or weekends; sort of pathologically. It had terrible effects on life expectancy and birth rates. But it’s actually difficult to find a way to tell the story that follows, because all the things you need to talk about – depression, and so on – were not written about in the Soviet Union. So that inevitably led me to the dissidents, who were the only ones writing anything uncensored. And that led me to Father Dmitry.

The central figure of the book is an Orthodox priest, Father Dmitry. What’s special about him?

I wanted to find someone who had written about alcoholism and depression in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s extraordinary: in his notebooks, his sermons and his articles (he had a self-published samizdat newspaper), he is very concerned about abortion, depression, misery, alcoholism, divorce – all the symptoms I wanted to find out about. And then I became interested in his life story, as a person.

And what’s good about him is he’s not a hero. When he starts off, you think he’s a hero. I slightly hope that, when people read it, they’ll think it’s another one of those books about a heroic dissident. And he is heroic, for about two-thirds of the book, and then it all goes wrong. The history of any totalitarian society is always a story of compromise. It is much more satisfying to us as humans to read about heroes, because we say: “Oh, I would’ve been like that, I would’ve stood firm to my principles.” But you wouldn’t. Most people found a way to compromise – and Father Dmitry compromised. And that’s why I thought he was a more interesting person to write about, because he was much truer to everyone’s experience.

What does the title The Last Man in Russia mean?

It’s George Orwell, my hero. He writes perfect English. The ideas in 1984, on how personalities are remade by pressure, are very important to me in this book. The alternative title to 1984 is “Last Man in Europe”, so I just stole it and made mine The Last Man in Russia.

Russia’s problem with alcohol winds through your book, but you also suggest that Russia’s demographic crisis is part of a wider crisis of spirit.

Yes, very much so. In my telling of it, collectivisation, but also the Gulag, the war, occupation and just the climate of fear and misery and this total, radical dislocation that affected everyone in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. They went from wooden ploughs to the atom bomb in a generation. That has never happened anywhere else. Going from the 17th to the 20th century with no gap. That was the crisis of spirit.

More than the fall of the Soviet Union?

In terms of demographics, in terms of the statistics which is very much what guided me in telling the story, the fall of the Soviet Union doesn’t really matter. The trend of decline accelerated in the 1990s, but it was the same trend. The picture is slightly complicated because in the late 1980s, Mikheil Gorbachev banned alcohol and therefore you get this sudden dramatic uptake in all indicators. But that was only over three years. Without those, it is effectively a straight downward line, from about 1964 to 2000. The fall of the Soviet Union is politically very important, but in terms of the effect it had on people en masse, I don’t think it was very important at all. It took a long time for any major effect of that to trickle through.

Is this in any way related to Russian politics under Vladimir Putin?

The crisis of spirit long pre-dates anything that is going on now. I think it’s improving now; life expectancy is almost at its highest point. The birthrate is ticking up a bit as well, although not enough. Tragically, I think it’s too late. It’s nice though that people are feeling able to have more children. I don’t think it’s a Putin question; it’s a Stalin and Brezhnev question really.

Your first book, Let Our Fame Be Great, is a journey among the peoples of the North Caucasus, past and present. What was it like arriving in the North Caucasus for the first time as a young journalist?

I was first there in late 2002 or early 2003. I was very nervous obviously, because I expected to be kidnapped and have my head chopped off. I was staying for the weekend with some Meskhetian Turks in the Krasnodar region, near Anapa. It was brilliant. We just got incredibly drunk, the whole weekend. Then I kept going back – every single encounter confounded me somehow, it was always something you didn’t expect. I love the North Caucasus, in every single way.

For that book, you travelled to a dozen countries including Turkey, Israel and Poland. The web of connections is striking.

It’s extraordinary. Chechens in Poland, Circassians in Jordan, Karachai in Kyrgyzstan. People from the Caucasus have been scattered in every direction.

What about travelling in Russia, for your second book?

I was a bit down on Russians after my first book. I didn’t mean to be. But Let Our Fame Be Great is a series of genocides committed by the government in Moscow against Russia’s ethnic minorities. It might of rubbed off a bit, leaving me quietly a bit prejudiced against the people whose government that was. I thought the people of the North Caucasus were unusually hospitable. But actually having researched my second book and travelled among Russians, I have found that Russians are equally hospitable. There were people who would just meet me at a bus stop and give me a bed for the night. Amazing. I liked researching this book as much as I did the first one.

You now work as Caucasus Editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Do you think there is still a lack of knowledge about the region which encourages stereotypes of conflict and violence?

One of the things that’s disappointing for me at IWPR is that the idea of the project really is to train local journalists to reach beyond stereotypes of “the enemy”, and create a truth between them. So you have Azeris and Armenians or Georgian and Abkhaz, and so on. It’s very difficult, because stereotypes are becoming stronger with time. The younger generation is much more likely to say outrageous things about “the enemy”, even though the older people are actually the ones who did the fighting.

There are individual Chechens who seem determined to be their people’s worst enemies. I have travelled among the Chechen diaspora, and I do think that Chechens are having a lot of trouble adapting to life in the West. But the debate about the Boston bombings seemed to separate entirely into people saying: “Oh, the Chechens did it because they’re Muslims,” and “Let’s not even discuss the fact that they’re Chechen or Muslim.” Isn’t there a ground in between that, when you can use it as a chance to talk about alienation or difficulties of integration in refugee communities, particularly among Chechens? It’s a very important issue, which got swamped in the wave of online commentary that came out immediately afterwards.

What will the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics bring to the region? Is it an opportunity, or an excuse for a further crackdown by Moscow?

I was hoping that with Sochi the Russians might start talking about the Circassian genocide. But they haven’t – in fact they’ve gone the other way; which is a shame, because I don’t see when else the Russians will talk about it. I’m sure they’ll do a great Olympics. It’s Russia; it always works out in the end. But, no, I don’t think there’s anything really good to be said for the Sochi Olympics. The corruption and environmental degradation has been so gross, and it has allowed a lot of people to rake up some really nasty episodes in Russian history.

Here in London, is there anything you miss about living in Russia?

Oh yes, absolutely. I don’t miss living in Moscow so much, particularly now I’ve got a child. It’s not somewhere I would want to bring up children, just because it doesn’t have parks in the way that London does. It’s cold, as well. When it’s not cold, it’s really hot. But I miss Russia terribly.

And working in Russia?

I’m nostalgic for when I had a job. Being a freelancer at the moment is pretty rubbish. But when I had a job as a journalist I never would have had the opportunity to take a 36-hour train journey to Inta (a town in Russia’s northern Komi Republic – editor’s note) to see what’s there. No way. There is no conceivable justification to pay for that. But if you’re writing a book about it, you just can.

Finally, are your two books part of a trilogy?

I hope there will be another book. But I don’t think it’s going to be about Russia. I’ve sort of come to thinking that maybe it’s time to write about my own country. So I’ll probably write about Britain, although it’s early days.

Oliver Bullough is a British journalist and author of Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus (2010) and The Last Man in Russia: And The Struggle To Save A Dying Nation (2013). He was previously a correspondent for Reuters in Moscow.

Annabelle Chapman is a journalist focusing on Eastern Europe. Writing from Warsaw, Kyiv, and in between, her articles have been published in the English-language and Polish press. She is also working on a PhD on the cities of the region under communism, at Oxford University.

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