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Book Review

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The Last Man in Russia

By Oliver Bullough (Basic, $27.99, May 2013)

It takes a bit of effort not to be depressed by a book that announces, on page five, that “The Russian state is shriveling from within.”

This is Bullough’s cogent, seven-word diagnosis. The book is his quest to find out how this came to be, how Russia became a “stubbornly dishonest” society, plagued by alcoholism, tobacco, low birth rates and a general moral ambivalence.

Indeed, it is Bullough’s premise that 70 years of Soviet oppression sapped its people’s will to live by taking away from them the thing we humans need most: the ability to trust our friends and neighbors. “If you deny people hope and trust and friendship, then they sicken with despair,” he writes. “They drink themselves to death, and they stop having children.”

Despair, that about sums up how one feels after the first few chapters. But we trudge on, curious, hopeful. Where Bullough takes us is on a trip across much of the expanse of Russia. He is tracking the life of Father Dmitry Dudko, a dissident Orthodox priest who, Bullough argues, is a stand in for the Russian nation, for a people relentlessly crushed by the oppression of Communism. Dudko is Russia in microcosm: his rise as a singular voice, his arrest, his defiance, his surrender. All these are important mirrors of the age in which he lived – in particular of the under-analyzed 1960s and 1970s.

Dudko’s story is indeed a fascinating one and worthy of the space and time that Bullough gives it. And the manner of his telling – as much a modern travelogue far off beaten Russian paths as a biography – is both unusual and engaging. For in understanding Dudko, we better understand all that Russians have been through; it is hard to fall into generalizations and platitudes when focusing on the micro level. There is just this man and his life, and the nation he loved. Thankfully, the book ends on a high note (no spoiler alert here; you will need this knowledge to push through the harder parts), with the nascent hope that filled 2011’s winter demonstrations.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Mar/Apr 2013