A D Miller
The Shrinking Drinkers
The Last Man in Russia and the Struggle to Save a Dying Nation
By Oliver Bullough (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 284pp £20)
In House of Meetings, a novel of the Gulag that takes a percipient interest in Slavic demography, Martin Amis calls the phenomenon the 'Russian cross': the steep downward lurch of the country's birth rate, intersecting with an upward leap in the death rate, which together have caused a population shrinkage more suggestive of war or plague than of a developed nation largely at peace. Beneath that headline population decline, driven in the main by a collapse in the life expectancy of Russian men in the last decades of the twentieth century, is a second tier of astounding statistics. Abortion is rampant; violent death - murder, suicide, all manner of accidents, especially on the roads - abounds. Western demographers have been baffled by Russia's wild departure from the general pattern of lengthening life expectancy and low but stable birth rates. This predicament is the subject of The Last Man in Russia, Oliver Bullough's eccentric but beguiling second book. His approach to it is impressively indirect.
Bullough points out that, though the trend accelerated amid the confusion of the 1990s, the demographic crash began in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union was supposedly at its technological peak. He explores it through the person of Father Dmitry Dudko, a Russian priest who became an influential, dissident preacher in that period. By then Dudko, born in western Russia in 1922, had already survived the violence and famine of collectivisation, the Nazi occupation, wartime conscription and eight years in Arctic labour camps, punishment for a poem he wrote as a seminarian: an unspeakable - but also ordinary - 20th-century Russian life. Harassed by the KGB, Dudko was repeatedly removed from his parishes by the utterly compromised Orthodox hierarchy, suffered what was probably an assassination attempt and was finally rearrested. The book thus becomes a kind of double quest: an attempt to fathom the causes of Russia's self-destruction and a bid to reconstruct and interpret Dudko's life. It is an ambitious gambit.
Does it work? Intermittently. As well as salving his parishioners' agonies, Dudko recorded them: his notebooks are full of 'the squalid crimes they committed and the procession of horrors that filled horrible lives'. His efforts to save these 'casualties of the Soviet experiment' form an organic link between the two themes. At other times, when Bullough is following Dudko's acolytes or peers, he seems to stray too far from his original topic. For those who keep faith with him, however, the method is redeemed by the end of Dudko's story. The tale is relatively little known, and the denouement will surprise, even shock, many readers, so it would be wrong to disclose it. Suffice it to say that, in its own way, it is heartbreaking, and that Dudko ultimately stands in more complex relation to the demographic issue than he at first seems to. He becomes as much an example of self-destruction as its amanuensis. Readers who find the central conceit unconvincing will nonetheless appreciate the book as travelogue. Bullough's dual mission takes him to assorted places of imprisonment or exile, dying towns and villages that he describes in a loose, unflashy but evocative style. He does a nice line in mordant comedy (obtuse bureaucracy, questionable taste) and has a fine eye for telling, classically Russian scenes and moments: a fat 'businessman' enjoying a barbecue beside a lake in a ruined village; dining with a bearded Orthodox priest in a smart sushi restaurant; arguments with Russian officials, in which the trick is simply to outlast them; the way ordinary Russians can switch from suspicion to warmth in an instant; the camaraderie of overnight train rides; a gentle scepticism about the efficacy of an English coat at -30°C. He is good on the Arctic cold and the desolation of Gulag towns that were never fit for human habitation but where it nevertheless clings on.
As for the demography itself, for much of the book Bullough emphasises Russians' mad boozing. 'I don't see the point of not drinking,' one man tells Dudko. This risks coming across as a simplification, since alcoholism, in Russia as elsewhere, is a symptom as much as a cause. Bullough misses out the ancient, quasi-religious Russian fatalism that, for instance, leads drivers to eschew seatbelts. But then he comes up with his own fundamental cause: the KGB, which, by destroying trust between individuals (by creating precisely the opposite kind of society from the collectivist utopia communism had promised), made life unbearable. 'No one trusted anyone,' Bullough writes, 'and that is a parlous way to live. People were living in solitary confinement in the middle of crowds, and it was killing them.'
The prescription that goes with this diagnosis - 'Russians need to trust each other again' - might sound a bit fuzzy, even borderline mystical. And yet it will ring true to anyone who has spent much time in Russia, a place where collective joy can be intense and collective achievements monumental, but which often feels desperately atomised. Whether renewal can come about through the sort of civil-society groups Bullough admires seems less clear: big, powerful institutions fractured the country and it may take high-level change to fix it. Likewise, through an accident of timing, his relatively upbeat ending - written when the protests against Putinism of a year or so ago seemed encouraging - already feels sadly dated.
Because it is a chronic problem rather than an emergency, Russia's demographic slide gets less attention than it deserves, including from the country's rulers. But, as well as being the aggregate summary of millions of private griefs, the death-spiralling figures could shape Russia's future: its economic prospects (because without healthy workers, no country can prosper); its national security (because the army is woefully short of recruits); even its territorial integrity (because of the drastic imbalance in the populations on either side of the border with China). Bullough's previous book, Let Our Fame Be Great, addressed another of Russia's central but neglected traumas: the long struggle and injustice on its wretched Caucasian rim, from where nationalism and blood have seeped across the nation. Perhaps, in his next, he will take on the most pervasive problem of all - corruption.
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A D Miller is the author of Snowdrops (Atlantic), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.