The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation

Overview

Russia is dying from within. Oligarchs and oil barons may still dominate international news coverage, but their prosperity masks a deep-rooted demographic tragedy. Faced with staggering population decline—and near-certain economic collapse—driven by toxic levels of alcohol abuse, Russia is also battling a deeper sickness: a spiritual one, born out of the country’s long totalitarian experiment.

In The Last Man in Russia, award-winning journalist Oliver Bullough uses the tale of a...

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The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation

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Overview

Russia is dying from within. Oligarchs and oil barons may still dominate international news coverage, but their prosperity masks a deep-rooted demographic tragedy. Faced with staggering population decline—and near-certain economic collapse—driven by toxic levels of alcohol abuse, Russia is also battling a deeper sickness: a spiritual one, born out of the country’s long totalitarian experiment.

In The Last Man in Russia, award-winning journalist Oliver Bullough uses the tale of a lone priest to give life to this national crisis. Father Dmitry Dudko, a dissident Orthodox Christian, was thrown into a Stalinist labor camp for writing poetry. Undaunted, on his release in the mid-1950s he began to preach to congregations across Russia with little concern for his own safety. At a time when the Soviet government denied its subjects the prospect of advancement, and turned friend against friend and brother against brother, Dudko urged his followers to cling to hope. He maintained a circle of sacred trust at the heart of one of history’s most deceitful systems. But as Bullough reveals, this courageous group of believers was eventually shattered by a terrible act of betrayal—one that exposes the full extent of the Communist tragedy. Still, Dudko’s dream endures. Although most Russians have forgotten the man himself, the embers of hope that survived the darkness are once more beginning to burn.

Leading readers from a churchyard in Moscow to the snow-blanketed ghost towns of rural Russia, and from the forgotten graves of Stalin’s victims to a rock festival in an old gulag camp, The Last Man in Russia is at once a travelogue, a sociological study, a biography, and a cri de coeur for a dying nation—one that, Bullough shows, might yet be saved.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Ellen Barry
Bullough is a wonderful companion as he traces the course of Father Dudko's life, visiting the miserable settlements and prisons he left behind…Bullough freezes, contracts "mosquito fever," hallucinates, and drinks shots of vodka with the people he meets along the way. By the end of the book, you, too, will want to drink shots of vodka with him…These are the chronicles of a writer who truly knows Russia, and who is not beyond having his heart broken. Amid the reams of writing coming from experts in the offices of distant research organizations, there are too few accounts like Bullough's, which convey the deep stories in the lives of Russians.
Publishers Weekly
In this his latest work, British journalist Bullough attempts to shed new light on the present-day Russia that has made the once proud country a “dying nation.” Bullough surmises that by “assaulting religion and imprisoning priests,” communism destroyed Russia’s spiritual heart and its people’s faith, thereby doing damage that has not and may never be repaired. Bullough traces “the life and death” of Russia by following the life of Father Dmitry, a dissident Russian priest who was first a rebel and a later a KGB pawn. Pursuing Father Dmitry’s story takes Bullough on a crisscross journey of modern day Russia, affording glimpses into the lives of Russians, which is rich with vodka but little else, least of all hope. By incorporating facts (“Taxes earned from alcohol were greater than the defense budget”) and statistics (“By 1991, the average Russian woman had had 3.4 abortions over the course of her life”) into his retelling of Father Dmitry’s life, Bullough creates a historical narrative that is both procedural and personal. While most of what Bullough finds in the past and the present shows why one Russian priest told him, “I look at the future with pessimism,” the book does end with a glimmer of hope, which is a fitting tribute to Father Dmitry and to Bullough’s ability to find and illuminate a story worth telling. Karolina Sutton, Curtis Brown Ltd. (May)
From the Publisher
New York Times Book Review
“Bullough is a wonderful companion as he traces the course of Father Dudko’s life, visiting the miserable settlements and prisons he left behind…. By the end of the book, you, too, will want to drink shots of vodka with him…. These are the chronicles of a writer who truly knows Russia, and who is not beyond having his heart broken. Amid the reams of writing coming from experts in the offices of distant research organizations, there are too few accounts like Bullough’s, which convey the deep stories in the lives of Russians…. He has unearthed a story of remarkable relevance for today: about the man who walked out of Lefortovo Prison with his hatred of a disintegrating system transformed into a hatred of us.”

The Economist
“Bullough has a good sense of how the traumas of Russia’s past affect its present. His new book is a mixture of travelogue and biography, as he traces the life of Father Dmitry Dudko, an Orthodox priest who exemplified both resistance to Soviet rule and defeat at its hands…. He weaves the woes of past decades into his journeys to wretched villages, along with the lies and greed in the metropolis. Father Dmitry may be all but forgotten in modern Russia, but his old self would have plenty to say about it.”

Financial Times
The Last Man in Russia is a complex interweaving of two stories: alcoholism in Russia, and the destruction of a moral crusader and opposition figure at the hands of a brutal regime…. Bullough has quite a gift for presenting his material in simple and readable prose…. While The Last Man in Russia is more complex than Bullough’s previous work, it is also a broader and more fulfilling read.”

Newsweek
“In Oliver Bullough’s bleak, beautiful The Last Man in Russia, a mix of biography and reportage, Dudko’s journey from defiance to submission to self-destruction becomes the archetypal Russian story: a broken man representing a broken nation.”

Telegraph, UK
“A gritty, deeply embedded travelogue that investigates the culture of drinking, the decline of the Russian family and the experience of trying to remain a man in the Soviet system through a sleuth-like hunt for the real story behind Father Dmitry Dudko.”

Sunday Times (London)
"As he follows the locations of the priest's life, Bullough mixes his own research into Russia's modern history with stories of encounters on the road, a combination as potent as the vodka that is bringing down the nation.... Out of the story of Father Dmitry's life and the reality of a nation drowning in drink, Bullough draws an extraordinary portrait of a nation struggling to shed its past and find peace with itself.

Sunday Telegraph (London)
"Part biography, part history, Oliver Bullough's book is also an attempt to demarcate the front lines of the battle for the Russian soul.... The subject matter is rendered palatable by Bullough's brisk, lucid style and his skilful interweaving of historical context with his own rich experience of Russia. He has a talent for sketching the people he meets, often administering a welcome dose of humour, and he appreciates the absurd, in the best Russian tradition.
Bullough's questing, roving spirit is admirable.... An ambitious and wide-ranging journey into the heart of a great, sad country."

The Guardian
"More than a thesis on the economics of grain distillation, The Last Man in Russia is a contemporary history refracted through the story of one extraordinary man.... Weaving together the narrative strands...and bolstering them with solid research, [Bullough] charts the decline of the Russian nation. He is particularly good at conjuring key moments, vivid characters and credible dialogue, and at flipping between the small incident and the big picture.... Imagining is a whole lot easier with such a lively, well-written and commanding narrative to guide us."

The Christian Science Monitor
“Bullough has tracked down some of those past and present brave souls who have stood up to the monstrous pressures and violence; doing so, Bullough has renewed his own and our faith in the tradition of Russian dissidents’ remarkable integrity…. The writing is sparkling and his appreciation for the real heroism of so many Russians is enough to give us hope against hope that the people will free themselves from their increasingly corrupt and incompetent government. The unreasonable and wonderful faith that Bullough, Navalny, and the persecuted rock band Pussy Riot seem to share is that as bad as Russia is now, as locked down as it is now, it can’t stay locked. There are too many keys in circulation that will open the door to Mother Russia’s revival.”

Daily Telegraph (London)
"In this superb hybrid of travel and social analysis, The Last Man in Russia, Bullough casts a despairing eye on a nation's death through alcohol.... In pages of raw, poetic prose, Bullough travels to Father Dmitry's birthplace in western Russia and on to his prison-Gulag, 1,250 miles from Moscow. Throughout, he dilates sorrowfully on the self-denial of vodka drinkers.... The Last Man in Russia is distinguished by the excellence of its writing and its lucid, unsparing gaze.

Literary Review
"Eccentric but beguiling.... [Bullough] has a fine eye for telling, classically Russian scenes and moments."

Times Literary Supplement, UK
“A very engaging travelogue-cum-biography.”

Kirkus Reviews
“In a vivid, colorful account of his journeys, Bullough starkly chronicles the visible evidence of Russia’s despair in abandoned villages, ruined farms, shuttered factories and ubiquitous drunkenness…Part biography, part travelogue, a perceptive, sad and very personal analysis of the decline of a once-great nation.”

Publishers Weekly
"Pursuing Father Dmitry’s story takes Bullough on a crisscross journey of modern day Russia, affording glimpses into the lives of Russians, which is rich with vodka but little else, least of all hope.... While most of what Bullough finds in the past and the present shows why one Russian priest told him, “I look at the future with pessimism,” the book does end with a glimmer of hope, which is a fitting tribute to Father Dmitry and to Bullough’s ability to find and illuminate a story worth telling."

Library Journal
“A compelling read, Bullough’s book is a must for anyone interested in the sociological, psychological, or personal effects of faith and political change on a nation struggling to find its identity and sustain hope.”

Russian Life Magazine
“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…the book ends on a high note, with the nascent hope that filled 2011's winter demonstrations.”

Booklist
"An inquisitive traveler, Bullough conveys a vividly descriptive impression of contemporary Russia."

Andrew Meier, author of The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service
“Few in the West dare take note of ‘the Russian cross’: the birth and death rates that head in opposite directions and forecast a grim future for the world’s largest country. But Oliver Bullough travels Russia with eyes wide open. The Last Man in Russia is an archeological dig in search of a moral compass. Tracing the life of a single priest—from believer to dissident to apologist for the state and even Stalin—he lays bare the troubles haunting the ‘new Russia.’”

Library Journal
Bullough (Caucasus editor, Inst. of War and Peace Reporting; Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus) presents an impassioned study of today's Russia that combines travel writing, biography, and social commentary. Alarmed by his observations of marked alcohol dependency and declining populations, Bullough concludes that a people oppressed and alienated by its government will revert to negative and destructive habits simply to get through a day. He notes that there is hope, as a new generation embraces initiatives that blend traditional Russian and modern technological cultures and is devoted to challenging the current authorities and unmasking dark truths about Russia's past. Relying on personal interviews, primary documents, government documents, and other, secondary literature, Bullough writes engagingly. His argument develops slowly, threading in and out of personal asides and biographical passages. While supporting his discussion with government and other census data, he frequently highlights the myriad oppressive tactics levied by former Communist and post-Communist governments. Yet often his personal vignettes are the most powerful passages here. VERDICT A compelling read, Bullough's book is a must for anyone interested in the sociological, psychological, or personal effects of faith and political change on a nation struggling to find its identity and sustain hope.—Elizabeth Zeitz, Otterbein Univ. Lib., Westerville, OH
Kirkus Reviews
An exploration of Russia's demographic decline through the life of a dissident priest. "The Russian nation is shriveling away from within," writes Bullough (Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus, 2010), the Caucasus editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. More Russians are dying than are being born, and they are dying young, often from the results of chronic alcohol abuse. Bullough set out to understand why, examining the life of the nation through the life of a single man, Dmitry Dudko (1922–2004), a Russian Orthodox priest. Sent to the gulag for writing anti-Stalin poems, Dudko was rehabilitated under Khrushchev but became a notorious dissident by preaching hope and trust to people denied both by the Soviet state. Arrested again under Brezhnev, he was broken by the KGB, recanted his opposition to the state and ended up churning out anti-Semitic propaganda. "His fate parallels the fate of his whole nation," writes Bullough. "Through the twentieth century, the government in Moscow taught the Russians that hope and trust are dangerous, inimical and treacherous. That is the root of the social breakdown that has caused the epidemic of alcoholism, the collapsing birth rate, the crime and the misery." The author attempts to enrich his conception of the connection between Dudko's history and Russia's lamentable condition by undertaking a pilgrimage to sites significant in his subject's life: his seminary, the camp where he was imprisoned, the churches where he preached, his homes and his grave. In a vivid, colorful account of his journeys, Bullough starkly chronicles the visible evidence of Russia's despair in abandoned villages, ruined farms, shuttered factories and ubiquitous drunkenness. Though the author sees some hope in the new generation's resistance to Putin's electoral frauds, his optimism sounds like whistling past the graveyard of a dying society. Part biography, part travelogue, a perceptive, sad and very personal analysis of the decline of a once-great nation.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465074983
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 4/30/2013
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 296
  • Sales rank: 383,572
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Oliver Bullough is Caucasus editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and author of Let Our Fame Be Great, which won the Overseas Press Club Cornelius Ryan Award. He lives in London.

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