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The Last Man in Russia

British journalist Oliver Bullough describes a Russia that is destroying itself from within.

By Bob Blaisdell / May 29, 2013

The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation, by Oliver Bullough, Basic Books, 296 pp.

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British journalist Oliver Bullough’s excellent "Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus" follows the highly charged history of a region that, unfortunately, has again become a focus of our attention, due to the cultural origins of the suspects in the Boston Marathon horror. While Bullough was disgusted with Chechen acts of terrorism, his book also describes the centuries of Russian brutality inflicted on the Caucasus and reminds us that there is much to admire in the resistant groups and mountain peoples.

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The Last Man in Russia has a narrower focus and argument. Simply: Mother Russia, as crippled as she was during the Soviet era, is even more unhappy now and is drinking herself into oblivion. She's also not having enough babies to make up for those citizens departing through emigration or death. The bleak statistics Bullough presents are shocking: “In 2010, deaths outnumbered births by 240,000, and that was the best year for a couple of decades. In 1991, the country was home to 148.3 million people. In 2010, that number had fallen to 141.9 million. The Russian state is shrivelling away from within.”

And then there’s that disaster of rampant alcoholism: “although Russian men do drink more than women, this is not by any means a uniquely male problem. Anyone travelling to work on the Moscow metro in the morning will see well-dressed, made-up young women drinking beer out of cans. In Russia, buying alcohol is easier than buying bread.” We learn that the life expectancy of Russian males is only 63.

But Bullough prefers narrative to numbers, people to abstractions, and so he lets the story of his research rise and fall with one of the forgotten heroes of Soviet-era resistance, the priest Father Dmitry Dudko, born in 1922, just after the birth of the USSR itself. “In tracing the life and death of Father Dmitry," Bullough writes,"I am tracing the life and death of his nation.”

In the late 1960s, this amazing dissident began resisting governmental and church prohibitions against off-the-cuff sermonizing. When Father Dmitry spoke out against alcohol, he angered the government, which had a monopoly on that source of its citizens’ incrementally debilitating oblivion. He preached as if interpersonal trust, not suspicion, were the primary means of building a just society. He argued against abortion, which had become a most routine method of birth control.

Father Dmitry welcomed to the church men and women of all faiths and backgrounds. Young people were particularly drawn to him, discovering for the first time in their lives a voice and a sense of hopefulness, which the KGB, the USSR’s secret police network, found particularly alarming.

In spite of pressure from the church and the KGB, the former Gulag prisoner “was an old campaigner, and refused to change," writes Bullough. "He said the fight to save his nation was urgent, and could not be put off for tactical reasons. ‘In the camps we used to say, “You should eat today what you could eat tomorrow.” And I am doing today what I could do tomorrow, since otherwise tomorrow might not come,’ he said. ‘How many people were shot, how many were killed in the camps, how many died at the front with a meaningless scream? They died, and for what? So their children could suffer?’”

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