Russia’s Poisoned Hinterland

The Last Man in Russia by Oliver Bullough charts the unsavoury history of alcoholism, violence, abortions and nihilism in the former USSR. For all this, it is beautifully written

Books Russia
Drinking themselves to death: Russia's alcoholism is a long-term consequence of collectivisation, the Gulag and the KGB

Driving through Russia is like travelling through a country with plague. Only hours from Moscow, in the ancient heartland, the peasant villages are dying — scattered, decaying, wooden shacks well sunk into the earth. Only a handful of moonshine drinkers and decrepit pensioners are still there. Their fields are fallow, the countryside flat and monotonous, a world of jagged forests pierced by abandoned churches. These are filled with trash, they smell of urine and their alcoves are littered with hypodermic needles. 

The Russian countryside is still, almost lifeless. The only sound comes from the birds. Occasionally, by the roadside, old women stand waving mushrooms and berries at passing cars. There is no other way to make money. Bruised men, shaking after days on the bottle, stumble through the exhausted hamlets. Sometimes they shout incomprehensibly. This deep Russia is redolent of Europe after the Black Death, a place where alcoholics try and force you to drink white spirit with them, where grandmothers, all cataracts and threadbare clothes, grab you to lament that it was not like this “before”.

The Last Man In Russia is a journey into a dying empire, which has lost five million people since 1991. This is an atmospheric and moving book. It makes painfully clear that in a country that hates to talk about the Gulag and has almost forgotten the terrors of collectivisation, this rural wasteland, some of the richest farmland on earth, is still the wreckage of Stalinism. 

Oliver Bullough writes beautifully. He has the eye of a photographer to bring the obscure details of Russian life to the page, conjuring up what it is really like to be there; but also the ambition of a historian to explain how Russian demography turned so apocalyptic.

His aim is to unravel why, in the 1960s, as the Soviet Union seemed about to beat the Americans to the Moon, its social indicators suddenly started to behave as if the country was succumbing to disease. Male life expectancy began to fall. The birth rate collapsed. Binge drinking skyrocketed, alcohol consumption climbed eightfold between 1940 and 1980. Bullough claims alcohol sales were so enormous that government revenues from them surpassed the Soviet defence budget in the early 1970s. 

As if covering up an epidemic, the authorities stopped publishing life expectancy figures in 1972. A few years later infant mortality dropped off the data too. The USSR was becoming violent. The crime rate soared, hitting eight times the Western European average — and these are only the official statistics. As the number of abortions, murders and alcohol-disfigured births (affecting as many as one eighth of the total in certain regions) increased, Brezhnev’s authorities took refuge in denial, secrecy and shame. 

But on the drab edge of Moscow, a strange and charismatic Orthodox priest was slowly gathering ever more people into his semi-underground church. Railing against the wave of alcoholism, abortions and murders — which he blamed on “atheism” and the extinguishing of trust among normal Russians by the Gulag and the KGB — was Father Dmitry Dudko. As this multifaceted social plague, which Sovietologists later dubbed the “demographic crisis”, was breaking out, Dudko was the only man in Russia denouncing it. 

Bullough travelled across Russia, seeking out the story of Father Dudko from his rotting native village to the slave camps he toiled in during the Gulag, creating a vivid travelogue out of Soviet sociological decay — something previously only explored in statistics or graph-heavy academic books.

It is a triumph of storytelling. The priest becomes a metaphor for a broken Russia, from his childhood during Stalin’s terror famines practising the faith at night in the wheatfields to the moment he is hauled in by the political police for his sermons. The authorities could not tolerate his railing against vodka or his cultish flock. These were the years when the KGB chief Yuri Andropov — whom Vladimir Putin cites as an inspiration — was torturing dissidents by sending them to mental asylums, where they were injected with fevers and deliriums worse than anything out of 1984. The whole underground lived in fear of this treatment. 

When they grabbed Dudko, who had already spent a decade as a slave in Arctic Komi, something in his head snapped. Like Orwell’s torturers in Room 101, the experts of the Lubyanka prison found the weakest part of his mind and laid out a paranoid tunnel for him to crawl through out of his faith and into their hands. It was anti-Semitism. The Jews, the interrogators whispered, had always been the enemies of Russia, the plotters with Lenin and the devils that gave the orders for the camps. Perhaps terrified of the needles, or of another decade in the Gulag, he betrayed his friends, denouncing his movement on Soviet TV as Western spies, frauds and saboteurs. 

He was set free, but after his betrayal he found his church empty. Instead of asking for forgiveness for his weakness, he turned to the KGB’s agents for solace, so effectively had they done their job. They comforted him, stroking his wounds: they were all Russian patriots after all. Bitter and demented, Dudko was by the 1990s lamenting the fall of the USSR and urging the expulsion of Russia’s Muslim population. Like Orwell’s Winston Smith, the broken priest even lamented that Big Brother was gone — he missed the KGB. 

By then, demographic rot had turned into collapse. But was the moral decline of the nation really bound up with the alcoholism that set in under Brezhnev, resulting in the population decline under Yeltsin and Putin? Here Bullough treads on weaker ground. Russia has a soul, but it also has an economy. Whether the collapse in births and life expectancy in the 1990s was more a consequence of a botched transition to capitalism is not fully addressed. 

The Last Man in Russia lays the stress on belief. Bullough argues that Russia’s epidemic of alcoholism, violence, abortions and nihilism is a consequence of collectivisation, the Gulag and the KGB — that sickened by Stalinism, the population gave up on hope from the 1960s to the 1980s and turned to the bottle. “It was as if the country had gone on one giant zapoi,” the Russian word for a days-long binge. This seems a bit of a generalisation — but seen from the perspective of Father Dudko, it was also true.