The Last Man in Russia by Oliver Bullough

304pp, Allen Lane, £20  

The popular image of the inebriated Russian is far from a modern phenomenon. As Oliver Bullough tells us in his impressive, if flawed, The Last Man in Russia, as far back as the tenth century King Vladimir was rejecting Islam because ‘drinking is the joy of Russians. We cannot exist without that pleasure.’

But the twentieth century saw a rapid and damaging increase in the country’s obsession with the bottle. Between 1940 and 1980, alcohol consumption increased eightfold. Earlier this year, The Lancet reported that 25% of Russian men die before they are 55, with most of those deaths down to alcohol, particularly vodka. This fact points to another: Russia’s population has been declining since the 1960s. As Bullough says, ‘The world has, every day, fewer Russians’. For him, this is ‘the single most important fact in modern Russian history’.

Bullough uses these related concerns of increased alcohol consumption and a declining population as entry points into a wider exploration of what he calls theunderlying malaise’ in the country.

Bullough has a third – and the most dominant – angle for his study: the life of priest Father Dmitry Dudko (1922-2004). For Bullough, Father Dmitry’s life – which took in the Nazi occupation, the Gulag and communism’s collapse – is  a microcosm of a nation. So what we have ‘is not a biography of Father Dmitry, nor is it a history of the Russians’ twentieth century. Instead, it is something in between.’

Bullough, who grew up in mid-Wales, sets out to follow Dmitry’s footsteps, visiting the places he visited and meeting the people he met. This takes Bullough to, amongst other places, the great forests of western Russia, the northern tundra, and Moscow.

Oliver BulloughBullough proves an entertaining guide. In lucid prose, he details his own joys and travails as he tries to sleep on sleeper trains, gets drunk with co-passengers, encounters grumpy hotel staff and generally wanders around looking for help. ‘My normal approach is to turn up, look inquisitive and hope someone takes pity on me’, he happily admits. As well as being funny, these passages are often illuminating. Bullough – who lived in Russia for seven years as a reporter for Reuters – has a sharp eye and smart word for the small details and rhythms of everyday Russian life. In particular, he gives vivid descriptions of his trips to the isolated  and snow-covered towns of rural Russia, where Putin’s Moscow seems a world away. A trip to a place Bullough wrongly visits (as it sounds like a town he intended to go to) is given over four pages, but these are some of the book’s best pages, which is testament to the author’s style and insight.

Awkwardly, in his wanderings, the author himself often seems a more useful protagonist for the book than Father Dmitry. The reader is unlikely to feel anywhere near as interested in, or in awe of, the priest as the author is. That is not to say there is not a lot to Father Dmitry’s life, for there is. He lived under the Nazi occupation. He was arrested in the late 1940s for writing what was seen as a subversive poem. He served over eight years in prison before being released following Stalin’s death. The KGB would watch over and exert pressure on him over the next decades as he took forward God’s word in his aim of saving  his parishioners from themselves (alcohol and abortion were two of the ‘ills’ be had in his sights). He would then be imprisoned again, being seen as one of Russia’s more active dissidents. In 1980, after who knows what unspeakable torture, he appeared on Soviet television to renounce his activities and pledge allegiance to the state. Quite a life, no doubt, but, at times, Bullough gets a little bogged down in it. And it proves too much of a stretch to use the priest’s life as a conceit to lay bare the heart of Russia.

In particular, Bullough’s grand narrative fails to fully expose the country’s ‘deep spiritual sickness’, ‘underlying malaise’, ‘shrivelling from within’ and general all-round booze-soaked ‘misery’, as it claims it will. Bullough’s central contention is this: ‘His (Dmitry’s) fate parallels the fate of his whole nation. Through the twentieth century, the government in Moscow taught the Russians that hope and trust are dangerous, inimical and treacherous. That is the root of the social breakdown that has caused the epidemic of alcoholism, the collapsing birth rate, the crime and the misery.’ That is a big old statement with some big jumps being taken. Bullough’s point as to successive Governments’ motives seems a fair one to make, but to then suggest that they were successful in their heinous aims of controlling the population’s minds (and the social ills are a direct symptom of that) is to give them too much credit.

In fact, at the centre of Bullough’s book is a strange contradiction: his pronouncements suggest the country’s soul was lost after decades of KGB-led terror, with the population sinking into utter despair,  but he, himself, seems entirely enraptured by generations of its people, their culture, their generosity, their stories, their vitality. He likes their drinking too.  Bullough’s bleak central argument fails to give due credit to the everyday spirit of Russia’s people – a people whose essential nature was, and is, not controlled by the unspeakable actions of Putin and his predecessors. An excellent, but too brief, final chapter, ‘Spring?’, details the protests that marked Putin’s return to the Presidency, and it charts the activities of Pussy Riot. This is framed as suggesting there is now at last a few glimmers of hope, but one suspects that hope – that spirit – was there all along, even if hidden.

Related, Bullough struggles  in his attempt to draw a direct line between the population being devoid of hope and it turning destructively to alcohol. In fact, while The Last Man in Russia’s striking  front cover, blurb and superb introduction suggest it is going to be a book about the country’s drinking habits (and what a great book that would have been), little time is given to this topic after the opening pages (which include a neat tale from a hiking/drinking trip Oliver took with his brother, the novelist Tom, in the wilds near Siberia). The demographic and alcohol statistics end up simply being the dubious ‘proof’ of Bullough’s dubious – objectionable – narrative of generations of a defeated people. Well, the booze stories  provide wonderful – often heart-warming – anecdotes, too.

This is an entertaining, informative and very well-written book. It is to be read as a travelogue or as a contentious  primer on the second half of Russia’s twentieth century. But its qualities lie in its tales and details, not in its central theses.

Last word goes to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, who Bullough quotes as saying about her imprisonment: ‘Katya, Masha and I are in jail  but I don’t consider that we’ve been defeated, just as the dissidents weren’t defeated. When they disappeared into psychiatric hospitals and prisons, they passed judgement on the country.’

Note: This review is based on the hardback version of the book, released April 2013. The paperback version was released last month, February 2014.