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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.  

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Review: Emil Draitser, Agent Dmitri - The Secret History of Russia's Most Daring Spy

I like Spy books but the first half of this one left me uneasy. I took me some time to work out why but I think the problem is this. We have two unreliable narrators: Agent Dmitri and his biographer, Emil Draitser.

Dmitri Bystrolyotov (1901 - 1975) wrote prolifically about his 1920s and 1930s career as a Soviet undercover agent working across Europe and even in Africa. But he wrote in the Soviet Union (mostly) in the 1960s and hoped to see at least some of his work published there. As a result, he tries not to give away too many secrets and also to depict his career in politically correct (and 1960s Soviet prudish) terms. But Spying, Political Correctness and Prudishness simply don't go together and Dmitri ends up as an unreliable narrator of his own life. 

Emil Draitser has had access to all Dmitri's manuscripts and tries to correct their unreliability using other sources, interpretations, decodings and more candid parts of Bystrolytov's writings. But he adds in his own rather simplistic psychoanalytic interpretations and it may be these which made me think that Draitser is also an unreliable narrator. The publishing history of this book is also rather odd: it was first published by an American academic publisher (the reputable Northwestern University Press) but with a lurid title Russia's Romeo Spy. There is a dead website with the same title. In the UK it has been published by the reputable academically-oriented publisher, Duckworth, but with the down-market cover shown above. Clearly, we are also dealing with unreliable publishers who can't make up their minds what kind of book they are publishing.

The book only comes together in the second half which takes us through Dmitri's arrest in 1937, his interrogation under torture, his imprisonment in the Gulag (1938 - 1954), his rehabilitation in 1956 and his later life. Here the narrative is more assured - and often harrowing. Dmitri experienced the worst the Gulag could offer - Norilsk, war time hunger rations, false hopes of early release - and almost certainly owed his survival not only to his previous career as a spy but his medical qualifications, which allowed him to function for much of his Gulag sentence as a Camp medical assistant or doctor.

I think a better book could be written. Draitser argues that recent KGB / FSB authorised biographies of Dmitri - which (for example) fail to mention the torture -  are not in this category - and about that, I am sure he is right.


One small detail aroused my interest. In the 1930s Dmitri was sent on a mission to French colonial Africa with a brief to check out French claims that, in the event of a European war, they could raise large forces of troops / mercenaries from among their black African colonial subjects. Dmitri's assessment was negative. But  it was the case (this is not mentioned in the book) that later on Free French Forces did include troops recruited from the African colonies - and they are on record as behaving badly (rape, looting) in at least two instances: in Syria where they were used to suppress Nationalist uprisings against French rule and in the liberation of Germany. And it occurs to me that if you want to understand why post-colonial armies and militias in former French Africa behave badly, then you may have to go back to this earlier period when black troops were first deployed by their colonial masters.