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Saturday, 13 April 2013

Review: Oliver Bullough, The Last Man in Russia



When I saw this book on the table at Waterstones, I bought it at once: I had read Oliver Bullough's Let Our Fame Be Great , an impressive, very well-written combination of reportage and research about the Russian Caucasus. 

But though still well-written and once again a combination of reportage and research, this is a broken backed book. It tries to do two things and they don't quite come together.

First, as the cover suggests it is a book about Russia's core problems: a shrinking and ageing population, falling life expectancy, high levels of crime and violence. Bullough identifies alcohol and alcoholism as the driver of all three. He is probably right but he doesn't really develop the case he opens up. Too many things are mentioned in passing, like Gorbachev's anti-alcohol programme and Putin's more limited initiatives.  There is no reportage from the cities or suburbs where homelessness and crime are driven by drugs as well as alcohol. And, surprisingly, Bullough misses a trick when he fails to make any mention of Russian Brides.

Young women want to leave Russia for many reasons, but a major one is to escape the possibility (even the  probability) that they will end up married to an alcoholic whose life style will depress their standard of living and make for domestic misery. And the fact that many women of child-bearing age do succeed in leaving ensures that the birth rate will continue to fall. That is why Russian Brides is a subject which has excited the Russian Parliament, with proposals (for example) to strip women who leave of their citizenship. Bullough mentions none of this.

Instead, he pursues another story, the biography of the Russian Orthodox priest, Dmitry Dudko (1922 - 2004). I think this is just the wrong story to follow.  Though it allows a narrative to develop about despair and distrust - to which Dudko the priest responded - and to the role of both state and state church in creating such hopelessness, it does not really connect enough to the narrative about alcohol.

Father Dmitry was once a Soviet dissident but - without support from his own heavily compromised Russian Orthodox church - broke under pressure from the KGB and after the fall of Communism was known simply as a Russian nationalist and anti-semite. It's all rather unsavoury, but no more so than the Russian Orthodox church itself. (Though to be fair, it is not alone among Orthodox churches in its lack of humanity: if you ran the 20th century history of the Greek Orthodox church alongside that of the Russian Orthodox, it would be hard to know which one would come out worst).  

Bullough has nothing to say about other religious movements in Russia which have placed themselves outside the state church. I felt this was another weakness of his book.

Because Bullough writes well and knows how to interleave personal reportage and historical narrative, it's easy to go through this book in a few hours. But it's not in the same league as his first book.  

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