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 20th 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