Book review: The Last Man in Russia

A sign that you have read a good book is when after you finished it, you dream about it. That was what happened to me upon completing Oliver Bullough’s “The Last Man in Russia.” In my dreams, I was on the Trans-Siberian railway traversing through the vast and empty tundras past the onion-shaped domes of the Orthodox Church. With such a picturesque dream, I almost did not want to wake up from it.

I was surprised by how Bullough’s non-fiction swept me off my feet to whisk me off to the land of the tsars. By anchoring the story around Father Dmitry Dudko, Bullough narrated the religious life of an Orthodox priest while never losing sight of his wider aim of conveying Russia’s tumultuous contemporary history and the struggles of the ordinary people.

“He (Father Dmitry) realized that trust between people is what makes us happy. Any totalitarian state is based on betrayal. It needs people to inform on each other, to avoid socializing, to interact only through the state and to avoid unsanctioned meetings…

The misery that Father Dmitry heard in confession was the symptom of the state’s policy. No one trusted anyone, and that is a parlous way to live. People were living in solitary confinement in the middle of crowds, and it was killing them.”

My interest in modern Russian history was undeniably piqued by the recent escalation of tension in Ukraine, and this book proved to be very informative if you are, like myself, an outsider to Moscow politics.

Born in a village after the Bolshevik Revolution, Father Dmitry died in Moscow in 2004, having led quite an extraordinary life in my opinion. He was a survivor of some of the darkest period in Soviet history, where he served as a soldier during World War Two, spent eight years in a gulag and was arrested as a political prisoner by the KGB or the Russian secret service.

And at the heart of this novel is a genuine concern for one of Russia’s biggest social ills – alcoholism – a message that both Father Dmitry and the author put across time and time again.

“How did Russia become a country where my friend Misha considers it acceptable to drink a liter of brandy before embarking on a day’s work? And how did it become a country where no one finds that strange – a country where brandy is on sale beside fried eggs, sausage and bread at breakfast time? One man’s alcoholism is his own tragedy. A whole nation’s alcoholism is a tragedy too, but a symptom of something larger, of a collective breakdown.”

This book felt like a fresh breath to the repertoire of books I have been reading since the year started, so if you enjoy understanding about the history of foreign lands, this book will draw you in instantly without a doubt.

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4 thoughts on “Book review: The Last Man in Russia

  1. I’m with you on the dreaming thing 🙂 this review makes me want to read it, so thank you.

  2. I also loved the book. It made me think of my native Poland and mass alcoholism there. And it also illuminated in parts the situation in present-day Ukraine and its relation to Russia. I will try and read more of Bullough in the future. Here is a link to his website: http://www.oliverbullough.com/

  3. Thanks for this review. I tend to read mostly fiction, but I’m always looking for something different in non-fiction. This book sounds really interesting. And I agree, dreaming about a book is a sure sign it’s a keeper!

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