The Last Man in Russia by Oliver Bullough

Oliver Bullough’s first book, Let Our Fame Be Great, examined the encounters between Russia and the smaller peoples of the Northern Caucasus. They generally ended badly for the smaller nations. In his second book, he looks at how the larger nation has fared. (At the time he wrote the book, he was Caucasus Editor for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. I have never met him, though in the way of things, we probably have mutual acquaintances.) If the title didn’t give the prognosis away, the subtitle of The Last Man in Russia And the Struggle to Save a Dying Nation certainly does.

As long as foreigners have been writing about Russia, they have been commenting on Russians’ propensity for alcohol. Bullough opens his book with a story of a fellow journalist, Misha, who called him in the middle of a four-day bender to ask, “What is the meaning of the word zombie hedgehog?” (p. 1) Asked later, Misha had no recollection of the call. On a trip to Chechnya a few months later, Misha had downed a liter of brandy before nine in the morning and collected a bottle of vodka shortly after breakfast. “This is not one of those stories of journalistic excess that end with the drunkard doing his job despite being barely coherent. … By evening, he was comatose and a few of us cobbled together some material to send to Moscow under his name.” (p. 2) Individually, the stories range from hilarious to tragic, the stuff of travelers’ tales or the colorful parts of a magazine article. Added together to encompass the entire nation, looked at demographically, they become something else entirely.

Done once, it is an amusing anecdote. Done daily and it is a disease, and it is killing the nation. Between 1940 and 1980, Russian consumption of all alcoholic drinks increased eightfold. The natiion decided, apparently as one, to go on a huge zapoi [a multi-day bender], and the consequences have been disastrous.
In 1950 — when Stalin was at his most erratic, when the country was still half destroyed by World War Two, when terrible sacrifices were being demanded from the population — births outnumbered deaths by 1.7 million.
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. In 2010, that number had fallen to 141.9 million. The Russian nation is shrivelling away from within.
And it is not just that Russians are not being born. Russians are dying. The average Russian male born in 2010 was calculated to live less than sixty-three years. Russians of both sexes taken together are almost four times more likely to die of heart disease than a Western European, and more than five times likely to be killed by an ‘external cause’ — murder, suicide, drowning, poisoning, car crashes. (p. 5)

In the late 1990s, when I worked for a think-tank in Munich, I looked at this from the perspective of global comparisons. Russia was the only developed country for which external reasons were in the top five (maybe even top ten, my recollection is not complete) causes of death. Alcohol is the reason.

It is widely assumed that the drinking and the population crisis are a post-Soviet problem. It is true that the problem accelerated with the collapse of communism and the extreme economic dislocation that followed. … Russians drank to blot out the times they were living through. In truth, however, they were drinking before.

Bullough talks about Russia’s shrinking population from two ends. First, lower birth rates. He notes that Russia dropped below replacement-level total fertility rate (TFR) in 1965. That’s not actually so unusual among industrialized countries. Japan was below replacement TFR in 1965, rose just barely above it for 10 years, and then slid steadily to a nadir of 1.26 children on average in 2005 before rising to 1.46 in 2015. In Western Europe, the fall below replacement happened slightly later than in Russia: by 1970 for West Germany, 1975 for France, and 1980 for Spain. In the former Eastern bloc, Hungary teetered around replacement from the mid-1960s, rising noticeable above it in the mid-1970s, before sliding gradually to its 2015 level of 1.44. (All figures from World Bank data.) On this measure, Russia is not faring badly, with birth rates that have risen steadily from around the year 2000 to the 2015 level of 1.75. (On the other hand, Bullough argues on p. 216 that the post-2000 rise is an echo, at reduced level, of the rise in the early 1980s when Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign raised both life expectancy and fertility.)

Russian people are having children at rates not too terribly different from their peers in other industrialized and European countries. It’s the other end of demographic measures where Russian differences appear. “In the early 1960s, the average Russian and the average Austrian both lived for about sixty-nine years. By 2005, the Austrian was living for an extra decade and a half, the Russian for four years fewer.” (p. 7) The main difference is alcohol.

“I could speculate about why Russians were drinking so much. I wondered if it was a simple function of availability. The Soviet Union produced vodka, so Russians drank it. But that is not a real answer. No one drinks themselves to death just because they can.” (p. 7)

Bullough finds a gap in both the historiography and official sources.

“But speculation was all I had. Academics have largely overlooked Russia’s 1960s and 1970s. There is no decent biography of Leonid Brezhnev, though he led the world’s biggest country for close to two decades. Nor is there a good book about Yuri Andropov, though he headed the KGB for almost as long and took the top job too for a little while. Ambitious young historians look elsewhere to make their name. These are years of stagnation and decay, and far less sexy than the times of Joseph Stalin, when the Soviet Union was growing, or of Mikhail Gorbachev, when it was falling apart.” (p. 7)

Official numbers kept their silences, too. “State statisticians stopped listing vodka as a separate item on the yearly sales digest when its sales climbed too high. They instead lumped vodka into ‘other’ with ice cream, coffee, cocoa and spices, which instantly made ‘other’ the largest item on the list.” (p. 95) Bullough turned to unofficial writings, the samizdat produced by dissidents and either circulated by hand or smuggled out to the West and published there. “My research got me nowhere, however. The dissidents’ concerns were lofty and admirable … but did not seem the kind of thing to drive a mass epidemic of alcoholism.” (p. 8) He found a usable thread in a book by a human rights campaigner, Ludmilla Alexeyeva, who had been forced into exile. She wrote that in the stultifying atmosphere, the constant corruption, and the base hypocrisy of public life, people turned to anything they could find that offered hope and connection. “Enormous numbers of people tried to fill the resulting spiritual and intellectual vacuum with alcohol, others tried to fill it with the most diverse kind of activities, from gardening to philosophy.” (p. 8)

Some even turned to the Russian Orthodox Church. Although the communist state was officially atheist and had started with aggressive anti-religion campaigns, “Stalin realized during World War Two that the patriotic appeal of faith was a useful mobilizer of men.” (p. 9) Let back into Russian life, the Orthodox Church was subverted by the state. The ranks of priests were filled from top to bottom with KGB informers. High-ranking clergy, up to and including Patriarchs, were KGB men. Every now and then, though, someone genuine slipped through.

And among those priests was a man called Dmitry Dudko — Father Dmitry, to his friends. Alexeyeva described him in her book, so I read his work. He, I realized quickly, was an exceptional man.
While the state was engaged in producing reports on how well it was doing, and the dissidents were engaged in proving it wrong, Father Dmitry was quietly comforting the miserable and the down-trodden. And he was not just a compulsive comforter; he was a compulsive writer. He left notebooks and articles and sermons: hundreds of thousands of words. These ranged from accounts of parishioners’ confessions to autobiographical sketches, to poems, to sermons. They are a priceless source …” (p. 9)

Bullough finds that Father Dmitry is more than just a witness to his times, that he mirrored much of the life of his nation. He survived collectivization in a peasant region in western Russia, not far from the modern border with Belarus. He served as a soldier in World War Two. He spent eight years in the gulag. He was extraordinary in that he became a priest, and in the way that he practiced his vocation. “Father Dmitry’s life, for me, is the life of his nation in microcosm. In tracing the life and death of Father Dmitry, I am tracing the life and death of his nation.” (p. 10)

And so Bullough sets off to do what he does best: delve and report. He’s fluent in the language; at the time of writing, he had lived in Russia for more than a decade so he’s no stranger to how to make connections and what it takes to get people talking. He knows the context, how to get not just the story he’s come for but the one behind that, and the unexpected one that reveals even more. Even with all of that knowledge, it’s not easy; he still has an accent, he’s obviously not from around here, and suspicion of outsiders still runs strong in some places.

He has traveled far north to where Father Dmitry had been in the gulag, and made his way to a local museum of history, where he is making no headway at all.

The director — Yevgenia Ivanovna Kulygina — greeted me with all the warmth of a border guard. I had expected to be friendly, to be glad someone was taking an interest in the gulag, so it came as a shock when she demanded my passport and my press accreditation, insisting that I explain myself and the nature of my journey. I told her I was trying to trace the movements of Father Dmitry, at which point she asked me what I already knew.
Cross with my reception, I then described what I knew of his life in ludicrous detail, from his birth in Berezina to his father’s imprisonment, to his service in the army, his education in Moscow and finally his arrival here.
“Well then, you know more than us,” she said coldly, and told me there was nothing more she could do to help. I was spoiling for an argument, and she was swelling like a thundercloud, when the door opened and a second woman walked in, middle aged and short haired. She greeted the director as Zhenya, the diminutive of her first name, and introduced herself to me as Tanya Podbrabinek.
Surprised by being greeted warmly for the first time since my arrival in Inta, I told her that I knew a man called Alexander Podrabinek in Moscow. Were they by any chance related?
He was her brother-in-law. And it was if a switch had flicked. Yevgeniya Ivanovna’s frown vanished. She sank back in her chair and smiled. Tanya put the kettle on, and suddenly it was decided that we should all go to Abez the next day together, because — apparently — Father Dmitry had spent time in the camp there. The table filled with pie and coffee, and the room with buzz. At times, there seemed to be more conversations than people, especially with the arrival of Nikolai Andreyevich, a greying man summoned for my benefit. He was renowned for his knowledge of the gulag camps and lectured everyone with good-natured persistence. …
I had read many times about how, in the Soviet Union, access to almost anything was a function of who you knew, but I had never witnessed such a dramatic example of it. If Tanya had walked in ten minutes later on, or had failed to mention her surname, I would never have achieved anything. As it was, I was having a great time. I reached for another piece of pie. It was made with berries that grew on the tundra and was delicious.
Nikolai Andreyevich was all the while piling relevant books and magazines in front of me. It became rather overwhelming. When I mentioned that I would like to talk to someone who had known Inta in the years when Father Dmitry was here, he grabbed the phone and began to make calls. (pp. 61–62)

Stories like that one are the strength of the book, and its lively 250 pages are chock full of them. Bullough finds the places where Father Dmitry grew up, the seminary where he began his education to be a priest in the immediate postwar years, until a fellow seminarian informed on him and he went to the gulag. Bullough makes trips to Father Dmitry’s particular corner of the gulag not only in the summer, when the pleasures of berry pie compete with clouds of mosquitoes that swarm anyone who ventures outside, but also in the very dark depths of winter, to experience what the gulag inmates contended with every turn of the season. He finds some of the people who were drawn to Father Dmitry in the early years, who felt the human connection that managed to flourish in the cracks of Soviet gray concrete in a Moscow suburb.

Father Dmitry’s circles did not long pass unnoticed. The hierarchy pressured him. The police harassed him and his parishioners, and his parishioners’ families. State security eventually arrested him. In earlier decades, the security organs would have shot him out of hand. By the Brezhnev era, the barbarism had decayed as well, or perhaps the organs had become more subtle and effective in other ways. Bullough covers this part of the story as well, how imprisonment, forced hospitalization, internal or external exile, and other methods were used to oppress anyone who challenged state power. And since the state aspired to be everything to everyone, something as simple as speaking openly and humanely in a church was a challenge.

In Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, it couldn’t last. It didn’t. Some of the participants hadn’t spoken to each other since, and Bullough becomes a conduit among people who had been Father Dmitry’s spiritual children. He tells their stories, illumined by a period that was important in each of their lives, though they have gone in very different directions since then.

Bullough shows the sadness that some people have that settlement in the far north is contracting. The places that have been their homes, where their parents and grandparents lived, will not be there for their grandchildren. The industries that provided livelihoods are gone or much smaller, the supporting structures such as local dairy farms, are closing and much more has to be imported from the south. Eventually, there will not be enough people to justify the power and heating plants, and when those close the settlement will have to be abandoned. On the other hand, the north was settled with slave labor in the gulag, its railroads were built with the lives of inmates. In the Brezhnev era, the high salaries that drew some people there were subsidized by “mainland” Russia. If constant subsidies are required to keep these small towns going, eventually people will ask why.

And now? Bullough’s final chapter stands in the light of the massive protests in the winter of 2011–12 against stolen parliamentary elections. Some of the fighters from Father Dmitry’s time see the spirit of freedom rising again. Bullough describes how a former camp near Perm has been turned into a museum, largely through private effort, how it hosts an annual festival that is both serious and joyful. The festival in the year Bullough visits is closed by a ska band from St Petersburg. In a Russia where such a thing as “St Petersburg ska” exists, there’s obviously far more freedom that in previous decades. People can connect in groups like Father Dmitry’s, they can find the private expression that they need. But libel is again a criminal offense, “meaning that Russians could be jailed in future for criticizing [Putin].” (p. 232) Police harass protest leaders. Bullough mentions Alexei Navalny as an “anti-corruption blogger.” He’s become much more in the years since The Last Man in Russia was published, but his freedom is precarious. Boris Nemtsov, who came of age in the years Bullough’s book depicts, and who might have been a bridge to the new generation of its last chapter, was gunned down within sight of the Kremlin in 2015. Bullough closes on a note of hope; four more years since the book’s publication have not seen those hopes vindicated, nor yet extinguished.

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