Hard habits to break

The Last Man in Russia: And the Struggle to Save a Dying Nation, by Oliver Bullough, Allen Lane RRP£20/Basic Books RRP$26.99, 304 pages

I had just pounded my fifth shot of vodka when I finally picked up Oliver Bullough’s book last month on a night train back to Moscow from Kirov, a provincial Russian town where I was covering the trial of blogger Alexei Navalny. After a few pages, I found it to be mysteriously prescient – the main subjects are Russia’s alcohol problem and the destruction of an anti-Kremlin dissident.

In fact, prescient was not the right word. In Woody Allen’s short story “The Kugelmass Episode”, the title character is transported into the novel Madame Bovary by a magician. And here I was, cast into the world of Bullough’s book, which I heartily recommend as an excellent read. But living it is another matter.

I looked blearily at the faces of my cabin mates, a team of electric power station workers travelling to Vladimir to repair a turbine, who had boarded in Kirov with me and had brought “refreshments”, as one of them put it.

“You don’t mind if we have a little,” said a man who introduced himself as Sergei. He grinned and made a little sign, knocking a middle finger on his neck – Russian for “let’s drink.” They broke out a massive array of vodka bottles and sausage.

It would have been exceedingly impolite and unmanly of me to decline, and my plan to finish the book remained unfulfilled until I got back to Moscow. We spent the next three hours, while they (and, um, I) got progressively drunker, discussing Russia, Vladimir Putin and Navalny.

Navalny is a blogger who has fallen into the crosshairs of the regime due to his crusade against official corruption, and is set to pay the price – up to 10 years on charges of embezzlement, for which the authorities have yet to produce any evidence.

My entire trip to Kirov was sitting right there in Bullough’s book: The Last Man in Russia is a complex interweaving of two stories: alcoholism in Russia, and the destruction of a moral crusader and opposition figure at the hands of a brutal regime.

The protagonist is Father Dmitry Dudko, a dissident Orthodox priest whose tragic story is a testament to the ruthless efficiency of the Soviet-era KGB. Born in 1922 and dying in 2004, his life tracked the birth and death of communism.

Dudko was a tireless campaigner against alcohol, calling it “the fruits of atheism”. Russia’s male mortality rate is shockingly high, and many premature deaths are alcohol-related – up to half by some estimates. Curing the national drinking problem would go a long way towards slowing population decline, a longstanding issue which is another theme of The Last Man in Russia.

So destructive was the country’s alcoholism that the Bolsheviks had wanted to stamp it out, but they subsequently found vodka to be too useful as an instrument of political control and fiscal revenue. By 1940, according to Bullough, more shops in Russia sold alcohol than sold meat and vegetables.

Dudko’s career as a dissident began under Stalin, and he became well known for his anti-alcohol and anti-corruption campaigns in the 1970s. Unlike many of his contemporaries who went to their graves in the gulags, Dudko lived long enough to see his work compromised by the Soviet regime.

Mentally destroyed by eight years of forced labour in a coal mine – his sentence for writing religious poetry – Dudko was arrested again in 1980, and his shattered psyche couldn’t face another spell of torture and imprisonment. In an effort to avoid more punishment he became a KGB informer. In a television broadcast he renounced all he had said against the government, and became a rightwing nationalist and anti-Semite.

The fate of Dudko was the handiwork of a police state dedicated to crushing free thought and was a lot more representative of the time than many hagiographies of the dissident movement would care to admit. Rather than fighting, fists clenched in determination, many dissidents compromised.

Dudko had dedicated his life to fighting political corruption and alcoholism. Yet he wound up a shell of a man, mentally tortured by his own betrayals, raving madly about Jewish conspiracies, and shunned by his former admirers.

Alcohol and betrayal are the two threads of the book that Bullough gradually winds together. Drinking is a cipher for despair in Russia – “no one drinks themselves to death just because they can,” he writes.

Bullough has quite a gift for presenting his material in simple and readable prose. Russia specialists have a habit of writing more for their colleagues than for non-specialist readers, of digressing into show-offy literary analogies that leave the average reader puzzled and unlikely to continue turning the pages.

While The Last Man in Russia is more complex than Bullough’s previous work, it is also a broader and more fulfilling read. At times the narratives of alcoholism, demographic decline and the Orthodox church seem a bit too convoluted to blend seamlessly, yet the book works in an odd way.

One doesn’t have to travel to Kirov to find the parallels with the present day. Against the backdrop of a declining nation, a regime dedicated to self-preservation and defending its own privilege continues to trample anyone who will speak out.

Charles Clover is the FT’s Moscow bureau chief

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