The Last Man in Russia
British journalist Oliver Bullough describes a Russia that is destroying itself from within.
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Bullough is not as wistful about Russia or as naturally humorous as Ian Frazier, whose "Travels in Siberia" visited Russia’s present and past so vividly. No, Bullough is angry and frustrated, and the indifference of those employed in everyday jobs – from waiters to museum guides – really gets his goat. His Russian tongue is apparently fluent, so we get to enjoy the fact that he knows how to give almost as good as he gets.Skip to next paragraph
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Researching Father Dmitry’s past in a frozen Gulag-built town, Bullough, the region’s sole foreign visitor, is greeted at restaurants with a peculiarly Russian rudeness. He details one such experience: “The waitress, who had the wattled neck and initiative of a tortoise, but none of the charm, refused [Bullough’s request for eggs, since most of the items on the menu were unavailable], pointing out that she had no way to enter 250 roubles into the cash register if it did not refer to a specific dish. None of the dishes featured eggs. Or, she added maliciously, any potatoes. The stand-off was beginning to look unresolvable when the cook emerged from the kitchen and told me I could have the eggs and some mushrooms too if I wanted them. Since I was the only customer, she cannot have been very busy. Perhaps she agreed simply to shut me up.
“I thought, as I ate my tinned mushrooms and mopped up the egg yolks with the one triangle of bread I had been allowed, that this was probably the worst café in the world.”
Bullough is a bold but not an intrepid traveler. When he visits that village near where Dudkino served several years in an Arctic-region prison-camp, it’s just too cold to try to experience the conditions Father Dmitry and millions of others suffered, even with all the modern gear he has brought.
“I was ready for the cold, I thought, but I was wrong," he writes. "Minus 34 degrees centigrade caught at my throat like sandpaper and at my thighs like a bucket of iced water.”
And during a summer trip to visit the monastery where Father Dmitry studied after World War II, Bullough is angry and disgusted with his situation in a “baking hot train” until he’s disarmed and charmed by a couple of fellow travelers: “The woman opposite me had tucked her arm through her husband’s. She did not remove it even when asked to show her ticket, as if she were worried he might be stolen. Their tickets checked, she closed her eyes and laid her head back on his shoulder. He did not wake up, and slept with a slight smile. Their fondness for each other improved my mood considerably.”
Bullough’s mourning over Russia’s demise might seem too heavy a burden for him or us to bear, but it’s not. The writing is sparkling and his appreciation for the real heroism of so many Russians is enough to give us hope against hope that the people will free themselves from their increasingly corrupt and incompetent government. The unreasonable and wonderful faith that Bullough, Navalny, and the persecuted rock band Pussy Riot seem to share is that as bad as Russia is now, as locked down as it is now, it can’t stay locked. There are too many keys in circulation that will open the door to Mother Russia’s revival.
Bob Blaisdell reviews for the Monitor, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Tolstoy Studies Review.