The Last Man in Russia

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

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

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.

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?’”

By the early 1970s Father Dmitry had inspired a miraculous movement and created an all-faiths brotherhood.

“Father Dmitry and his friends were together, and they were not afraid," writes Bullough. "In the words of Andrei Amalrik, one of the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group and a prolific writer, ‘The dissidents accomplished something that was simple to the point of genius: in an unfree country they behaved like free men, thereby changing the moral atmosphere and the nation’s governing traditions.’”

The church transferred Father Dmitry further out of Moscow to hamper his influence.

Meanwhile, the KGB, having infiltrated Father Dmitry’s flock, had begun to intimidate some of the congregation, which started to fray at the edges. In 1980, Father Dmitry was arrested and brought to the Lubyanka headquarters in Moscow.

“Father Dmitry had thought he had been serving his nation by spreading trust, and fighting abortion and despair, but, in doing so, he was defying the state," Bullough writes. "And that was not allowed. That was why he had to be crushed. His fate parallels the fate of his whole nation. Through the twentieth century, the government in Moscow taught the Russians that hope and trust are dangerous, inimical and treacherous. That is the root of the social breakdown that has caused the epidemic of alcoholism, the collapsing birth rate, the crime and the misery.”

Finally, after being promised state-supported power and state-provided comfort, Father Dmitry completely caved in, and when the KGB invited him to announce on TV the folly of dissidence, he did.

“He admitted being a tool of the West working to destroy the Soviet state," writes Bullough. "This was not like the show trials of the 1930s. He did not look traumatized, thin, pale or disoriented. On the contrary, the most shocking thing was that he looked himself.”

Father Dmitry betrayed his followers and fellow priests, and became an enthusiastic spokesperson for the government. Even before the USSR’s fall in 1991, he became a stooge for nationalist politicians, encouraging anti-Muslim policies and the usual anti-Semitism that has always brought out the worst in Russians.

"He had resisted anti-Semitism and hate he had been brought up with, the hate under Stalin, the hate under Hitler, and the prejudice from his spiritual children," writes Bullough. "But this was too much. He had already been lured into humiliating himself on television by an appeal to his patriotism. Once he had given in to that, it was a short step to join the KGB’s paranoia and start seeing the plots they saw.”

While reading Father Dmitry’s alternately pathetic self-reproaches and weaselly justifications for his recantations, Bullough reports, “His guilt was so huge that it seeped off the page.... It was the torment described by Father Dmitry, and his knowledge that he had betrayed everyone and everything he loved, that was making me feel sick in sympathy.”

Most of Father Dmitry's congregants, seeing their spiritual hero crumple, gave up the fight, just as the protesters in 2011 that began standing up to Putin’s threatening fists are, for now, warily standing back while the Russian president attempts to beat down the blogger Alexei Navalny and other opposition. Bullough has tracked down some of those past and present brave souls who have stood up to the monstrous pressures and violence; doing so, Bullough has renewed his own and our faith in the tradition of Russian dissidents’ remarkable integrity.

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.

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.

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