The Last Man in Russia

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Pomerantsev

Inside the soul of a drunk and bitter country.

Dmitry Dudko wanted to be a priest in a violently atheistic Soviet Union. When the KGB came to arrest him in 1948, they demanded he recant poems denouncing Stalin. "I won't sign anything," he told them. "I spoke the truth." He got 10 years' hard labor in the freezing mines of the far north. In the gulag he continued to pray, continued to write, continued to insist that Christ's law was higher than the Kremlin's. He was given another 10 years. When he was finally released, he began to preach in a cemetery on the outskirts of Moscow. He spoke against the state's attack on the family, chastised the Orthodox establishment for toadying to the Kremlin, denounced the KGB for destroying communities by making men report on one another, taught Jews and Russians and Tatars to huddle together in faith and hope and overcome their ethnic bitterness.

In the 1970s, in a late Soviet period defined by endless cynicism and conformism, when no one believed in anything (least of all communism) and submission to the Kremlin for the sake of submission became the essence of the system, Dudko became legendary. Thousands would come to his sermons. Foreign correspondents were so inspired by him, they smuggled Dudko's works out of the U.S.S.R., and his fame spread throughout the world. He became a beacon of anti-Soviet dissidence, a religious Solzhenitsyn, a free man in a totalitarian system. In 1980 he was arrested again. This time the KGB's approach was more subtle: "we are guilty before you, and the state is guilty before the church," they told him; they agreed that Russia needed to find faith; they hinted that they were believers just like him; they blamed all the bad bits of communism on the Jews. Wasn't it time for us Russians to stick together? They said they would give him a chance to preach to a much greater audience if only he would do one tiny, little thing for them.

After six months of nonstop interrogations Dudko appeared on state television. He seemed happy, healthy. He looked into the camera and, smiling, rejected everything he had ever stood for. He confessed that he had been a Western tool undermining the fatherland. He turned in the foreign correspondents who had smuggled his works to the West. He begged forgiveness from the Kremlin, from the church's hierarchy. Men who had gone to prison defending Dudko were now shown his confession and told there was nothing for them to believe in: if Dudko could be broken, so could anyone. The movement shattered. When he was released, Dudko was finally given his own church. His message changed. Where he had preached harmony and hope, he now preached rabid nationalism and anti-Semitism. He died lonely and bitter and mad. 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.

The 1970s and 1980s, the period when the current Russian elite matured and which is the focus of Bullough's book, are largely ignored inside Russia. Few novels and fewer films focus on the era. The most notable movie about the period is German, the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others, which focuses on the battle between dissidents and the Stasi in 1980s East Berlin and captures the sense of slow-baked fear, granite depression, and moral corruption. When The Lives of Others was released in Russia in 2007, local media acted as if the film had nothing to do with them. Whereas in the countries of Eastern Europe unbroken Soviet-era dissidents have become heroes, Russian dissidents are often ignored or censured as traitors: while Vaclav Havel became president of the Czech Republic, Russia chose a KGB man, Vladimir Putin, as its leader. …