Diary of a Russian Priest; Oliver Bullough's 'Last Man in Russia'
- NYTimes Book Review published 6/7/13
Diary of a Russian Priest
Oliver Bullough’s ‘Last Man in Russi
Why do Russians consume alcohol the way they do? In many nations people drink to blot out their memories. But Russians, especially those stuck in withering villages, seem intent on drinking themselves into nonexistence, pouring spirits down their throats so systematically, and in such reliably lethal quantities, that their behavior provides a scientific definition of despair.
THE LAST MAN IN RUSSIA
The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation
By Oliver Bullough
284 pp. Basic Books. $26.99.
This is the problem Oliver Bullough sets before himself at the opening of “The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation.” I should say immediately that Bullough — the Caucasus editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and the author of the book “Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus” — does not shed much new light on Russia’s demographic woes, despite the promise in his title.
Instead he tells us a story about despair — one that unfolds gradually as the author crosses Russia trying to trace the events of a single life. His subject is the Rev. Dmitri Dudko, an anti-Soviet parish priest who electrified throngs of young intellectuals and dissidents in the 1970s by preaching about forbidden topics like Stalinist prison camps, a defiant act that he knew was certain to land him in the hands of the K.G.B.
This would make for a routine exercise in hagiography, except that after his arrest in 1980, Father Dudko broke. He emerged after six months in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison as a mouthpiece for Soviet authorities — a stunning blow to followers who had risked their own welfare to support him. He went on television to say his sermons had been dictated by Western governments intent on destroying the Soviet Union. Until his death in 2004, at the age of 82, he embraced a muscular, isolationist nationalism, not unlike the one that has emerged as a kind of state ideology in the third presidency of Vladimir V. Putin. For those who pinned their hopes to the collapse of the Soviet system, his is a dark, unsettling parable.
Bullough is a wonderful companion as he traces the course of Father Dudko’s life, visiting the miserable settlements and prisons he left behind. He evokes the biblical suffering that Father Dudko witnessed as a child, as Stalin forced peasants to give up their livestock and food stockpiles. He lingers in the prison camp where the young priest served eight years for writing poetry critical of the Communists. Bullough freezes, contracts “mosquito fever,” hallucinates, and drinks shots of vodka with the people he meets along the way. By the end of the book, you, too, will want to drink shots of vodka with him.
Every now and then, Bullough offers up an indelible and vivid flash of Russia — the furious, swearing drunk, wriggling on the sidewalk “like a turtle on a jar” as policemen and teenagers stand around mocking him; the stone-faced official, “swelling like a thundercloud,” who thaws instantly when Bullough mentions the name of a mutual acquaintance. She goes on to shower him with tea and hospitality, urging him to stay in the village and offering to find him a wife among the local damsels. (Regrettably, he was already married.)
These are the chronicles of a writer who truly knows Russia, and who is not beyond having his heart broken. Amid the reams of writing coming from experts in the offices of distant research organizations, there are too few accounts like Bullough’s, which convey the deep stories in the lives of Russians.
Bullough’s narrative ends on a bleak note, as he examines — without sympathy — the isolated, distrustful man Father Dudko became after he sided with the system. “The Last Man in Russia” could tell us more about the central mystery of how Father Dudko’s interrogator persuaded him to renounce his beliefs; it leaves the reader longing for access to the K.G.B. archives. The priest’s comments suggest that it came down to nationalism: although he hated the Soviets, he considered himself a Russian patriot, and was convinced that siding with the West against Russia amounted to the worst kind of treachery.
Father Dudko said as much in his confession: “I now understand that foreigners who interfere in our internal affairs will bring us nothing but harm.” This reasoning matters because Putin has placed it at the center of Russian politics right now: in the shuttering of foreign-funded NGOs, in the ban on adoption by Americans and in the pressure on political elites to reduce their ties with the West.
Having framed his book as a quest to understand Russia’s demographic ills, Bullough tries too hard to wrap it up neatly, suggesting that Father Dudko’s fate can explain self-destructive behavior today. Soviet repression, he writes, “taught the Russians that hope and trust are dangerous, inimical and treacherous,” which in turn has led to social breakdown — the current “epidemic of alcoholism, the collapsing birthrate, the crime and the misery.” Maybe, but it’s also true that the collapse of the Soviet economy left millions of people uncertain about how they would feed their children. And Soviet ideology, whatever he may think of it, created an awful vacuum in its wake, one that can be filled with all kinds of dangerous ideas.
But it is difficult to fault Bullough after accompanying him on this painful and illuminating journey. He has unearthed a story of remarkable relevance for today: about the man who walked out of Lefortovo Prison with his hatred of a disintegrating system transformed into a hatred of us.
Ellen Barry is the Moscow bureau chief for The Times.
A version of this review appeared in print on June 9, 2013, on page BR10 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Diary of a Russian Priest.
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