The Last Man in Russia and the Struggle to Save a Dying Nation
Oliver BulloughAllen Lane, €23.50
Review: Neil Robinson
One of Vladimir Putin’s first acts on retaking the Russian presidency was to issue a decree on Russian life expectancy. The government, Putin ordered, should raise Russian life expectancy from 68 years to 74 by 2018.
Life expectancy in Russia has plummeted since its peak in the 1960s. Women live appreciably longer than men. Their life expectancy is already 74 years. Male life expectancy is about 62.
Achieving a change in life expectancy overall really means getting Russian men to live longer. Russian men can expect to die earlier than men in most of the developing world. A politician like Putin who wants to make Russia a great state again cannot tolerate the fact that Russian men would be better off being born in Peru, Tunisia, or Vietnam. If prolonging the life of your citizens is the mark of a great state, Russia is in the minor leagues.
Projections by the UN show Russia’s population falling from 149 to around 111 million by 2050 and Russia will have to import ever-larger numbers of workers to keep its economy going. Immigration has led to racial tensions across Russia already. In some areas, particularly the Far East, immigration raises fears of ethnic Russians being outnumbered, and many Russian politicians fear that this will lead to the country falling apart.
But without these immigrants Russia’s population will be spread too thin across its vast territory. This will hinder economic growth since there are already not enough people in certain parts of Russia to make modern economic activity viable.
Oliver Bullough’s book looks at these problems through the life of Fr Dmitri Dudko, a dissident priest in the 1960s and 1970s who became an ideologue of extreme Russian nationalism in the 1980s. The book is part biography, part travelogue and part reflection on the state of Russia as Bullough traces the course of Dudko’s life across Russia.
Bullough describes vividly the contemporary decay of the Russian countryside and the sense of hopelessness that ruins many Russian lives as he follows Dudko’s progress from village to city, through the Soviet north, and back to central Russia.
For Dudko, Russia’s despair was caused by the destruction of traditional Russian spiritual life. This loss left a vacuum into which Russians pour vodka, with inevitable negative results for their health.
Dudko was born into a religious peasant family in 1922. Stalinism destroyed village life in the 1930s but Dudko’s family maintained their traditional Orthodox faith. After being invalided out of the Soviet army in 1944, Dudko took advantage of Stalin’s wartime relaxation of religious repression to go to Moscow to train as an Orthodox priest.
He was soon in trouble for stepping beyond the bounds set by Stalin for the religious. He was arrested in 1948 and returned to his vocation upon his release, in 1956, after eight years in the coalmines of Vorkuta.
Dudko wrote prolifically and circulated his criticisms of the Soviet system in the underground press. In all of his parishes Dudko tried to build communities that could “live in truth”. Dudko was outspoken about the social ills he thought were caused by the decline of spiritual life under communism, and which he saw as destroying the country he loved.
The main social ill that Dudko focussed on was alcoholism. Russians have never been shy of drinking, but in the late Soviet period alcoholism reached pandemic proportions. Alcohol consumption rose eight-fold between 1940 and 1980.
Working with members of his congregation Dudko had some successes turning back the tide of alcohol drowning Russia. Bullough describes a caring and much loved pastor who did his best for the communities he served. The success of his ministry and his dissent could not be left unchallenged by the Soviet state. KGB crackdowns in the 1970s led to him being harassed and finally arrested in 1980.
In detention Dudko’s spirit broke: he condemned other dissidents and recanted. Clever interrogators played on the nationalism that has always been a part of the Orthodox church’s culture. They convinced Dudko that the real threat to the future of the Russian people was the machinations of “foreigners”, and especially Jews.
Once Dudko adopted this nationalist worldview he was no longer a threat to the Soviet system. Instead, he became part of the system of divide and rule by which the KGB sought to neutralise the Soviet system’s opponents. Dudko was released and sent back to work. His claws had been drawn by his confession. He was cut off from other dissidents and dependent on the authorities.
Although he repented his confession after his release, he continued to promote an extreme Russian nationalism up to his death in 2004. He gained some prominence in the nationalist movement, even serving as the “spiritual advisor” to a leading anti-Semitic newspaper.
Despite his rhetoric on the threat of ‘cultural genocide’ and criticism of post-communist reform he was no longer a danger to Russia’s rulers and no longer had a significant part in the solution of Russia’s problems.
Extreme Russian nationalism is violent and brutal and no solution for anything. Its analysis of Russia’s problems is a misguided and misleading search for scapegoats. Russia’s declining population is not just down to the demon drink. It reflects long-term population trends that were exacerbated by the violent changes of the Soviet years. The idea that the Russian race is under attack from outside forces engaged in cultural genocide is nonsense. Russia has always been a crossroads between Europe and Asia, and between the north and the south.
What does it mean to be Russian anyway? Russia has two words for ‘Russian’ to reflect its multiethnic make-up. Nearly a quarter of its population are rossiiskii (Russian citizens, but not ethnic Russians) rather than russkii (ethnic Russians). This has been the case for centuries.
Exchange between ethnic groups has been a vital part of Russian history. Russia’s Shakespeare, Alexander Pushkin, was descended from an Ethiopian slave. Boris Akunin, the most widely read contemporary Russian author, is of Georgian descent and completely Russian. A list of Russian historical and cultural figures with ‘foreign’ ancestors would read like a Who’s Who of Russia: it would include Dostoevsky, Glinka, Levitan, Babel, Shostakovich, and Akhmatova, among many others.
Russia will not solve its demographic crisis by presidential decree or by declaiming foreign plots. Bullough rightly argues that Dudko’s turn to extreme nationalism meant he forewent any chance of developing a spiritual renewal of Russia. Putin’s nationalism, although much less extreme, is not an answer either.
Russia, like other countries with demographic problems has to learn to live with immigration and the evolution of its culture. This is not betrayal or genocide, as Russian nationalists would have it. How can you betray or kill something that is a product of evolution by seeing it evolve further? Only by accepting this will Russians learn to live with the changes that will have to come if they are to insure their country’s future.
They may even find that with their long experience as a multi-ethnic country they have something to teach the rest of the world.
*Neil Robinson is professor of politics and director of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge in Society at the University of Limerick
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