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The Last Man in Russia, By Oliver Bullough

Does this stylish and informative trip into the dark heart of Russia overdose on pessimism?x

Oliver Bullough is a former Reuters correspondent in Russia, and it shows – in the stylish writing, the attention to detail, the concern for accuracy, the elegant blend of observation and background information. It also shows, obliquely perhaps, in the evident delight he takes in leaving the straitjacket of agency reporting behind to write in his own voice. The result is an impressive and affecting depiction of the Russia of the 1960s and 1970s seen through the prism of today.

The Last Man in Russia might be compared to Colin Thubron's Among the Russians – perhaps the last travel book in English to come so close to pinning down the Russianness of Russia. Bullough has a similar appreciation of the eternal landscape, a similar feel for the shifting mores, and a similar capacity to listen to what he is told. Like Thubron, too, his Russia – the undistinguished heartland, the deserted villages, the relics of the Gulag - has an almost unrelieved bleakness.

But Bullough aspires to something more than a travelogue. He has two themes, which he interweaves, not always convincingly. The first – which provides the chronological framework of the book– is essentially a pilgrimage, tracing the footsteps of Father Dmitry Dudko, a Russian Orthodox priest who drew a cult following for his free-thinking sermons and discussion sessions where he dealt with taboo subjects, such as alcoholism, abortion and other social ills.

Dudko had served a sentence in the camps and survived with his dignity intact. As a parish priest, he became a leading figure in the dissident movement of the 1970s, before he was arrested again under savage anti-dissent laws and broken, in prison, by the KGB. His public confessions and betrayal of associates were as shocking to his one-time followers as they were destructive of Soviet dissent. His was an exceptionally valuable scalp for the Soviet authorities. He died in 2004, forsaken by all but a few close family and friends.

It is possible to divine, maybe wrongly, that Bullough really wanted to write a biography of Dudko, as the epitome of the priest who betrayed his calling. Perhaps he was advised that Dudko alone, even in his wider landscape, would not sell a book, or perhaps he eyed an even bigger theme – the fall of Dudko as a cypher for the demise of Russia itself.

But his attempts to present the priest's writings and sermons on the dire state of Russia, which he bolsters with statistics and observations about alcoholism and demography – the other theme of the book - seem laboured. Early on, it seemed as though this might be a book on Russia and the demon drink – a perfectly legitimate theme. Then Dudko takes centre-stage. In the end, the book tries to be about both, and does not wholly succeed.

Bullough comes close to conceding as much in a final chapter, where he hazards a more optimistic note following the protests that erupted during the 2011 elections that followed Vladimir Putin's decision to seek a new term as President.

Having spent most of the book arguing that Russians are fated to die out, largely because of their addiction to alcohol, he acknowledges that Russians may be starting to have more children again, and that this just might be symptomatic of new hope. They are also drinking less of the really hard stuff.

Alcohol, despair and political upheaval have taken a desperate toll. But this view all too easily feeds into propaganda that sees Russia today as in terminal decline and looks for someone to blame, as if the almost continual upheaval over the past century were not explanation enough. There is much wrong with Russia today, but a falling birth rate is not one of them, and even life expectancy has started to rise.

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