From the cover of Last Man in Russia
As you might expect from the title, Oliver Bullough’s new book The Last Man in Russia: One Man’s Struggle to Save a Dying Nation is a tough story. Bullough pulls no punches in his travelogue-cum-history-cum-biography, combining doomsday tales of alcohol abuse and the diminishing birthrate with attempts to find out more about the life of Father Dmitrii Dudko (1922-2004). It is a book with a message, and it isn’t a particularly positive one.
A prominent figure in Moscow intellectual and religious circles during the 1960s and 1970s, Dudko first played the role of confessor and teacher before being broken by the KGB and recanting live on television during the Moscow Olympics in June 1980. It was a tragic event for many of his followers and sympathisers, and Bullough takes the reader through what happened sensitively and in detail. He never recovered his followers and was destined to unsuccessful attempts at recapturing them. Dudko’s move into nationalism during the 1990s through his work with the newspapers Den‘ and Zavtra completes this ‘fall’ for Bullough.
What is interesting, though, is how Bullough combines an individual rise and fall narrative with the rise and fall of Russia. As Bullough exposes Russian society’s lack of memory about Soviet crimes and the continuing problems of opposition activity, the message becomes clear: the security services are at fault for Russia’s current situation. By breaking and exiling the most dedicated, Russia shot itself in the foot.
Initially, Bullough takes the reader back to the experience of the countryside under Soviet rule. Here he offers a moving story of famine, collectivisation and the sentencing of Dudko’s father to two years in jail for failing to pay taxes in the early 1930s. But there is also the religious side of Dudko’s upbringing, which Bullough suggests is vital to understanding his later beliefs and activities: the importance of discussing religious texts and belief over blind adherence. Indeed, the need to question and think for oneself is one of the main themes of the book’s journey through dissent, alcoholism, conformity and the Soviet system of control and manipulation.
In 1947 Dudko enrolled in the first seminary in Moscow to open after the war, having previously fought before being wounded. A year later, the newly-arrived student from the countryside was arrested on a political charge (Dudko had shared his poetry with another pupil) and sentenced to ten years in the camps. In the 1960s, after his release, Dudko started serving as a priest in Moscow, and would go on to baptise many during the resurgence of interest in religion of the 1960s and 1970s.
Bullough shows how Dudko’s popularity stemmed from the possibility of real interaction on spiritual and societal matters at his gatherings. Having recently read the published version of the discussions held by Dudko with his followers and other people interested from 1973, it is clear that the possibility of free conversation is a real draw for those asking the questions. Indeed, the account of people’s experiences living with Father Dmitrii during the 1970s is fascinating: the scenes where Dudko urges Christians and Jews to live in peace are particularly memorable. Equally interesting are the interviews with people who later went on to become priests as a result of their time with Dudko, as well as accounts of Dudko’s work with people suffering from alcoholism. Bullough draws out the common ground between personal, religious, political issues well, and evaluates these experiences on their own merit. At the same time, he is keen to place the post-war development of Soviet society within a common European and American context, seeing dissidence in the Soviet Union alongside student protest and counter-culture in France and Germany.
Yet while there is keen attention to Christian-Jewish relations and Dudko’s attempt to forge common ground between different groups in the 1970s, Bullough keeps his focus tight on Dudko and his circle: he mentions Alexander Men’ on several occasions, but does not talk about Sergei Zheludkov, Il’ia Shmain, Georgii Edel’shtein, or the recently deceased Pavel Adel’geim. These priests too gained devout followings of young people during this period. The interview with Gleb Yakunin is interesting, but feels constrained by “atmospheric” details. Sometimes Bullough drifts into his own journey when more information about the wider picture or the intricacies of Dudko’s own teaching could be expanded upon. It is a highly personal book; Bullough has obviously suffered for it. But it feels like it could do with less first person asides on the temperature and the problems of getting around in the provinces.
Nevertheless, the way that the intellectual trajectory of Dudko morphs from genuine hope and pluralism in the 1970s into statism during the 1980s and 1990s is an interesting if depressing parallel to the picture of diminishing birthrate, rampant alcoholism, and creeping orthodox authoritarianism charted by Bullough. This is set in opposition to the ‘few who care, yet are forgotten.’
According to Bullough, the corrosive influence of the KGB and the plight of dissidents lies largely off the map in today’s Russia. If the dissidents’ message had been heard, then Russia would be in a different situation, and ex-KGB officers would not form a significant part of the ruling elite. (Liudmila Ulitskaia has made a similar point regarding Solzhenitsyn.) Indeed, in the final section, those who remember Soviet crimes and the protest movement of 2011-2012 are the new dissidents destined to repeat history at the hands of the Russian authorities. Essentially, then, it is a book about Russia’s (spiraling) decline. Still though, it is hard to bring together Dudko’s ‘conversion’ to that peculiar yet familiar brand of KGB-orientated orthodox statism and Russia’s demographic problem. It is not that they are not linked, merely that Bullough does not provide a solid enough case for it. While Bullough opts to use Dudko’s life to tell this story, which is admirable in its ambition and very often in its execution, the connection between the two narratives is too loose. What remains, however, is a colourful account of lives lived with purpose and at their fullest.