The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation

Drunk young people sleep on a park bench after a heavy drinking session in Moscow. Martin Roemers/Panos

Dmitry Dudko wanted to be a priest in a violently atheistic Soviet Union. When the KGB came to arrest him in 1948, they demanded he recant poems denouncing Stalin. “I won’t sign anything,” he told them. “I spoke the truth.” He got 10 years’ hard labor in the freezing mines of the far north. In the gulag he continued to pray, continued to write, continued to insist that Christ’s law was higher than the Kremlin’s. He was given another 10 years. When he was finally released, he began to preach in a cemetery on the outskirts of Moscow. He spoke against the state’s attack on the family, chastised the Orthodox establishment for toadying to the Kremlin, denounced the KGB for destroying communities by making men report on one another, taught Jews and Russians and Tatars to huddle together in faith and hope and overcome their ethnic bitterness.

In the 1970s, in a late Soviet period defined by endless cynicism and conformism, when no one believed in anything (least of all communism) and submission to the Kremlin for the sake of submission became the essence of the system, Dudko became legendary. Thousands would come to his sermons. Foreign correspondents were so inspired by him, they smuggled Dudko’s works out of the U.S.S.R., and his fame spread throughout the world. He became a beacon of anti-Soviet dissidence, a religious Solzhenitsyn, a free man in a totalitarian system. In 1980 he was arrested again. This time the KGB’s approach was more subtle: “we are guilty before you, and the state is guilty before the church,” they told him; they agreed that Russia needed to find faith; they hinted that they were believers just like him; they blamed all the bad bits of communism on the Jews. Wasn’t it time for us Russians to stick together? They said they would give him a chance to preach to a much greater audience if only he would do one tiny, little thing for them.

After six months of nonstop interrogations Dudko appeared on state television. He seemed happy, healthy. He looked into the camera and, smiling, rejected everything he had ever stood for. He confessed that he had been a Western tool undermining the fatherland. He turned in the foreign correspondents who had smuggled his works to the West. He begged forgiveness from the Kremlin, from the church’s hierarchy. Men who had gone to prison defending Dudko were now shown his confession and told there was nothing for them to believe in: if Dudko could be broken, so could anyone. The movement shattered. When he was released, Dudko was finally given his own church. His message changed. Where he had preached harmony and hope, he now preached rabid nationalism and anti-Semitism. He died lonely and bitter and mad. In Oliver Bullough’s bleak, beautiful The Last Man in Russia, a mix of biography and reportage, Dudko’s journey from defiance to submission to self-destruction becomes the archetypal Russian story: a broken man representing a broken nation.

Pomerantsev-OM04-Russia-embed2 Russian tourists at Manege Square in Moscow. Martin Roemers/Panos

The 1970s and 1980s, the period when the current Russian elite matured and which is the focus of Bullough’s book, are largely ignored inside Russia. Few novels and fewer films focus on the era. The most notable movie about the period is German, the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others, which focuses on the battle between dissidents and the Stasi in 1980s East Berlin and captures the sense of slow-baked fear, granite depression, and moral corruption. When The Lives of Others was released in Russia in 2007, local media acted as if the film had nothing to do with them. Whereas in the countries of Eastern Europe unbroken Soviet-era dissidents have become heroes, Russian dissidents are often ignored or censured as traitors: while Václav Havel became president of the Czech Republic, Russia chose a KGB man, Vladimir Putin, as its leader. The mechanics of Putin’s rule are a 21st-century spin on how Dudko was broken in 1980: oligarchs are allowed to keep their money as long as they publicly go down on one knee to the Kremlin; journalists can have all the fun they want as long as they compose Putin hagiographies. The aim is not to simply oppress (how banal!), but to make you part of the system.

When the Kremlin pushed through the recent Dima Yakovlev bill, which banned Russian orphans from being adopted by U.S. parents, many Duma deputies and senators were privately appalled, but were so terrified, they signed anyway: “It’s a way to make us all guilty,” a Duma deputy (one of the very few who didn’t sign) told me afterward, “the old KGB trick.” Seen from this perspective, the loud Russian debates between choosing a “European” or “Oriental” path, between “patriotism” and “modernity,” are all distractions from the great drama between brokenness and self-respect that no one wants to talk about. The new generation of dissidents, such as Pussy Riot, who have taken to Moscow’s streets over the past two years invoke their 1970s predecessors: the protest movement is not just about standing up to Putin, but a way to finally deal with the unresolved conformism of the 1970s. The new dissidents have resurrected the vocabulary of their predecessors: dostojnstvo (dignity), which in the language of the dissidents means not betraying your beliefs; poryadochnost (decency), which means you don’t snitch on your friends; ne pachkatsa (not to get dirty by cooperating with the state). But the new dissidents remain a disliked minority, accused by state media of being Western stooges who are “doing it for money”: in a culture of conformism everyone has to be seen to be a cynic.

The ambition of The Last Man in Russia is to claim conformism is literally killing the country. Some estimates see the Russian population dropping by almost a quarter by 2050; life expectancy has been largely dropping in line with birthrates. Alcoholism and related diseases are a big part of the problem: the average Russian now drinks three times the volume of spirits drunk by a German and five times that of a Portuguese.

Pomerantsev-OM04-Russia-embed3 A boy jumps off an abandoned car in Surgut, known for being the oil capital of Russia. Martin Roemers/Panos

The canonical interpretation, argued by everyone from Putin to Joseph Stiglitz, is to say this catastrophe is a consequence of the 1990s, the fault of bad IMF advice and a few greedy oligarchs (i.e., the fault of foreigners and Jews), which catapulted the country into a sort of national suicide. But Bullough takes a scalpel to Soviet statistics and argues that the trend began much earlier: consumption of alcoholic drinks increased eightfold between 1940 and 1980; life expectancy has been falling since 1964. So in the same period as the Soviet Union reached socialist near utopia with full employment and universal health care—but when the state broke any impulse to freedom—its citizens began the slow slide to self-destruction. “It was gin that sank him into a stupor every night, and gin that revived him every morning,” wrote George Orwell of his hero, Winston Smith, in 1984, after he has been broken by the state’s security organs. Bullough quotes the passage, then adds: “In the Russian case: for gin, read vodka.” And as he crisscrosses Russia researching Dudko’s story, he finds a drunk, suspicious, bitter country where everyone has been broken in their own small way in their own little room 101. “The KGB agents did their business,” wrote Dudko near the end.

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