The Last Man in Russia by Oliver Bullough: review
Arthur House applauds an ambitious journey into the heart of Russia
By Arthur House
12:00PM BST 10 Apr 2013
If last year’s Pussy Riot trial established the feminist punk collective as the most prominent Russian dissidents of their generation, it also brought to global attention how popular the resurgent Orthodox Church is in Russia.
While now it stands for Kremlin-endorsed conservatism and nationalism, in the Seventies the embattled and poorly attended Church was, for the rebel priest Father Dmitry Dudko, a vehicle for preaching revolutionary love and fellow-feeling in a Soviet regime “almost perfectly designed to make people unhappy”.
In tracing the life of that dissident priest, The Last Man in Russia also reveals the Russian 20th century in all its hardship and depredation, as Father Dmitry endures collectivisation, the Second World War, the Gulag and interrogation by the KGB. At first the book reads like one of those familiar but still inspiring stories of the human spirit triumphing over oppression – until things take an unexpected and depressing turn.
Part biography, part history, Oliver Bullough’s book is also an attempt to demarcate the front lines of the battle for the Russian soul, a struggle which Father Dmitry may have lost, but which is still being fought today. While Russians have flocked to the Church to fill the existential void left by the Soviet Union’s collapse, they have also turned to alcohol. Vodka is not a new problem in Russia but, as Bullough points out, it has recently fuelled an alcoholism epidemic that is eating away at the nation’s fabric, both in a spiritual sense and as revealed by the stark statistics of a dwindling population.
So far, so bleak, but the subject matter is rendered palatable by Bullough’s brisk, lucid style and his skilful interweaving of historical context with his own rich experience of Russia. He has a talent for sketching the people he meets, often administering a welcome dose of humour (one landlady’s carefully dyed hair resembles “a squashed magpie”), and he appreciates the absurd, in the best Russian tradition.
Bullough’s questing, roving spirit is admirable, as he sets out on the late priest’s trail by bus, train and snowmobile, locating remote churches in the brutal summer heat and hunting for the graves of forgotten prisoners in the Arctic tundra.
The nation is dying, but it can be saved, Bullough argues, by community and renewed trust – the values that Father Dmitry preached. The book ends with cautious optimism, noting the mass protests for fair elections in 2011. Having witnessed two of the muted demonstrations after Putin’s re-election in March 2012, this reader is less confident that change is imminent. Nonetheless, this is an ambitious and wide-ranging journey into the heart of a great, sad country.
Penguin, £20, 284pp