Russia is dying from within. Oligarchs and oil barons may still dominate international news coverage, but their prosperity masks a deep-rooted demographic tragedy. Faced with staggering population decline—and near-certain economic collapse—driven by toxic levels of alcohol abuse, Russia is also battling a deeper sickness: a spiritual one, born out of the country’s long totalitarian experiment.
In The Last Man in Russia, award-winning journalist Oliver Bullough uses the tale of a lone priest to give life to this national crisis. Father Dmitry Dudko, a dissident Orthodox Christian, was thrown into a Stalinist labor camp for writing poetry. Undaunted, on his release in the mid-1950s he began to preach to congregations across Russia with little concern for his own safety. At a time when the Soviet government denied its subjects the prospect of advancement, and turned friend against friend and brother against brother, Dudko urged his followers to cling to hope. He maintained a circle of sacred trust at the heart of one of history’s most deceitful systems. But as Bullough reveals, this courageous group of believers was eventually shattered by a terrible act of betrayal—one that exposes the full extent of the Communist tragedy. Still, Dudko’s dream endures. Although most Russians have forgotten the man himself, the embers of hope that survived the darkness are once more beginning to burn.
Leading readers from a churchyard in Moscow to the snow-blanketed ghost towns of rural Russia, and from the forgotten graves of Stalin’s victims to a rock festival in an old gulag camp, The Last Man in Russia is at once a travelogue, a sociological study, a biography, and a cri de coeur for a dying nation—one that, Bullough shows, might yet be saved.
In this his latest work, British journalist Bullough attempts to shed new light on the present-day Russia that has made the once proud country a "dying nation." Bullough surmises that by "assaulting religion and imprisoning priests," communism destroyed Russia's spiritual heart and its people's faith, thereby doing damage that has not and may never be repaired. Bullough traces "the life and death" of Russia by following the life of Father Dmitry, a dissident Russian priest who was first a rebel and a later a KGB pawn. Pursuing Father Dmitry's story takes Bullough on a crisscross journey of modern day Russia, affording glimpses into the lives of Russians, which is rich with vodka but little else, least of all hope. By incorporating facts ("Taxes earned from alcohol were greater than the defense budget") and statistics ("By 1991, the average Russian woman had had 3.4 abortions over the course of her life") into his retelling of Father Dmitry's life, Bullough creates a historical narrative that is both procedural and personal. While most of what Bullough finds in the past and the present shows why one Russian priest told him, "I look at the future with pessimism," the book does end with a glimmer of hope, which is a fitting tribute to Father Dmitry and to Bullough's ability to find and illuminate a story worth telling. Karolina Sutton, Curtis Brown Ltd.