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A Journey to Russia’s Heartland

The Last Man in Russia: And The Struggle To Save A Dying Nation. By: Oliver Bullough. Publisher: Basic Books/Allen Lane, New York, London, 2013.

September 26, 2013 - Annabelle Chapman - Articles and Commentary

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This review of The Last Man in Russia appeared in the summer 2013 issue of New Eastern Europe Issue 3(VIII)/2013: Why Culture Matters

A society shattered by seven decades of Communism, an Orthodox priest and a land awash with alcoholism. This is the flavour of Last Man in Russia, the second book by British journalist Oliver Bullough. The theme is Russia’s demographic decline. Bullough wants to know why Russians have a low life expectancy and why they are not having enough children. “The modern world has never had to confront a situation where a country does not have enough people to support itself anymore,” he writes. Armed with notebooks and thermal underwear he returns to Russia, where he worked as a reporter for Reuters in the 2000s.

The result, again, is Bullough’s signature blend of travel writing and history. In his first book, Let Our Fame be Great, Bullough pieced together a strikingly original account of the North Caucasus, from the 19th century to the Beslan School Massacre in 2004. His second book takes us to the Russian heartlands, with the compulsory metallic-domed Orthodox churches, vodka and sub-zero temperatures. Meanwhile, the book weaves through almost a century of Russian history, from the 1920s to the protests that rocked Moscow in the winter of 2011-2012. We witness collectivisation, the cancerous growth of the Gulag system and the blossoming of the dissident movement. Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and finally Vladimir Putin all make an appearance, as do Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the best-known Soviet dissidents. But above all, it is the story of one man through the decades: Father Dmitry Dudko, an Orthodox priest.

A search for “Dudko” on Google immediately lists his obituary in newspapers such as The Guardian, The Economist and The New York Times. Dudko was well known to Western journalists – first as a hero and later as a disappointment. When he died in 2004 he was still a puzzle. But Bullough saves these twists for later, starting Dudko’s story at the beginning. It moves forward chronologically, backed up by Bullough’s travels. He visits Dudko’s parishes one by one, catching sweaty suburban trains and lingering over cups of tea with the priest’s former disciples. He does a great job of finding and meeting Dudko’s friends and relatives, many of them priests. He seeks out Berezina, the village in Western Russia where Dudko was born, and the labour camp where he was sent to after his first arrest in 1948, in the small town of Inta in the northerly Komi Republic.

Dudko spoke out about alcoholism and abortion as a priest during the 1960s and 1970s (which is what led Bullough to Dudko’s writing in the first place, as he tried to understand the origins of Russia’s alcohol problem). He was concerned about the future of the Russian nation. But, significantly, he viewed Russia in an inclusive sense. His followers not only included Orthodox Christians but many Jews. They gathered first in Moscow and then in village churches to talk religion and social issues, to eat and pray together. Dudko was forced to change parish several times and his services were infiltrated by the KGB. Still, for many years he held out, creating a community of trust around itself.

But it was too good to last. The KGB was able to find his weak point too. Here Bullough makes a direct parallel to George Orwell’s 1984 and its “Room 101”, a personalised torture chamber where each prisoner is confronted with his greatest fear. In the Lubyanka, the KGB’s notorious Moscow headquarters, Dudko faced similar pressures and ultimately gave in. It was 1980. In the final chapters of the book, Bullough asks: did Dudko have a choice? Bullough’s Dudko is an ambiguous figure; charismatic but never entirely likeable, even in the first half of the book. Yes, he did have a choice, Bullough replies. But those who held out to the end were the exception, not the rule. Most Russians compromised with the system in some way.

Last Man in Russia is not strictly about demographics, although the theme recurs throughout, backed up by figures here and there. The emphasis is more on visual proof, like near-deserted villages, and on conversations with ordinary people. At one point, Bullough pauses in a cemetery, noting down the dates on the tombstones. “Here was the death of Russia, in hard dates, in front of my eyes.” The root of the problem, he believes, is that the Soviet Union deliberately destroyed Russians’ trust in each other. “Any totalitarian state is based on betrayal,” on people informing on their neighbours, he writes. It was a way to divide and rule the country. In this narrow sense, he sees Russia under Putin as a continuation. Yet Bullough stumbles across snatches of hope in unexpected places – such as on a visit to Perm-36, a former labour camp near the Urals where locals now organise a lively festival. He documents, often comically, the minutiae of travelling in Russia as a foreigner: the inflated hotel prices, the suspicious officials but, not least, the dozens of Russians who helped him along the way.

Despite some weaker points, Bullough’s book reads well. Leaving the subject matter aside, it stands out for the pleasing clarity of its writing. It may well be the only popular book on Russia’s demography. More importantly, it is refreshing to read a book in English about Russia’s regions, as many do not venture out of the shadow of the walls of the Kremlin. With this book, Bullough has further established himself as one of the leading young voices on Russia. Read it on a long train journey through Russia this summer. Or, better still, read it if you are unable to go to Russia yourself.

Annabelle Chapman

Read an interview with Oliver Bullough online here.

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