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Oliver Bullough journalist and author

05 July 2013

'I read Tintin, and wanted to be a journalist'

I co-ordinate the Caucasus reporting service of IWPR (Institute of War and Peace Reporting). It's a charity aiming to improve standards of journalism in former conflict zones. I commission articles, edit them, and mentor young journalists, with an aim of bringing them up to the best international standards.

This is only a part-time position, leaving me plenty of time to work on books and other projects.

My school history teacher was an important influence on me, and I studied history at Oxford. I used to spend my holidays travelling around the Balkans, and then just more or less carried on without the requirement to come back in Sep- tember. I went to Russia and stayed there, really, until my wife persuaded me to come home.

I worked for Reuters for more than five years, primarily in Moscow, and mainly reporting on Chechnya and the insurgency in southern Russia. I was present for most of the major atrocities of the second Chechen war, and learned a lot about the Caucasus Mountains and the people who live there as a result.

Let Our Fame be Great grew out of my experiences reporting on Chechnya. It was very frustrating to always feel I was only telling a tiny part of the story, and I wanted to put the history of the Caucasus peoples into a broader context than journalism allowed. I travelled through a dozen countries to research it, meeting the people whose stories weave through the book.

The Last Man in Russia is about an Orthodox priest called Fr Dmitry. I wanted to write about Russian alcoholism and its demographic crisis, and Fr Dmitry was a very rare figure in the Soviet Union because he spoke out publicly against this in the '70s. He argued, and I agree with him, that it reflected a loss of trust and hope, and he tried in his sermons to bring people back.

I intended to use him just as a witness; but the more I discovered about him, the more I realised his life was a perfect way of describing all his nation's troubles.

Fr Dmitry lived through every major incident in Russia's 20th century: collectivisation, famine, occupation, the Soviet Army, the gulag, the dissident movement. And he travelled all round the country, too. He vanished from public view after 1980 when he was arrested by the KGB, and was psychologically broken. He recanted his views on national television, and was never the same again.

The title of the book is taken from George Orwell's alternative title for 1984: "The Last Man in Europe". Fr Dmitry was a Russian Winston Smith.

I never met Fr Dmitry, sadly. We overlapped in Moscow, but I only found out about him later, researching an idea for the book, and reading about the few dissidents like him who wrote about the demographic crisis and alcoholism

His son, Fr Michael, a priest in the Orthodox church in Ennismore Gardens, introduced me to some of Fr Dmitry's spiritual children, scattered through Russia, and they introduced me to others. He had an amazing influence on other people.

I find the Russian Orthodox Church a very troubling institution, deeply penetrated by the state. It cannot conceive of itself outside the state. And yet, within this very corrupt institution, there are extraordinary individuals inspired by the teaching that's remained in it. Fr Dmitry wasn't the only one: Alexander Men, Gleb Yakunin - they took remarkable risks in order to preserve their nation.

On a parish level, there are many individual priests working in desperate conditions to help ordinary parishioners. This split - between a worldly hierarchy and a spiritual priesthood - has always existed in the Orthodox Church.

I went to a Quaker school, and I am not a believer; so the Orthodox faith is about as alien to my experiences as is possible within the Christian community. But I found myself very moved by the small rural churches I visited in Russia, with their chants and their candles, and their strange, fossilised Old Slavonic language. They formed islands of comradeship in very bleak circumstances, and served a crucial function for very isolated people. I have enormous respect for the priests who are prepared to serve in such conditions, and made some good friends among them.

I was moved by Fr Dmitry particularly, because he was not a hero. Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn . . . they didn't compromise; they remained unflinchingly moral; but everything he did was very human. That makes him more accessible, though, and it's a lesson for us. I think we all believe that we'd behave very well in a totalitarian regime, but I don't think many of us would. We all compromise in one way or another.

What he turned into was quite unattractive, but he had an enormous impact for good on a lot of people, and I think that's how he should be judged.

There is a problem of drinking in the West, and alcoholism, but it's a matter of degree. The heaviest binge-drinker in Cardiff on a Friday night can't physically down 35 pints of beer, but that's the equivalent of only four pints of vodka. I've seen Russians drink two pints of vodka without breaking into a sweat, and still carry on.

Rural Russia, where Fr Dmitry grew up, is dying: 20,000 villages out of 153,000 have vanished in 20 years. Most of the rest have very small populations, most of whom are pensioners. I think it's deeply sad.

There are individuals doing their bit, not getting any help from the government, who are only interested in selling oil and gas and making money and buying football clubs. The administration is amazingly corrupt, and there's no money to be made from stopping people drinking. Gorbachev did mount a campaign that saved 400,000 lives a year, which I'd reckon to be the most successful health intervention in history, but politically it was a catastrophe. It deprived the exchequer of its income, and made a lot of people angry.

Demographically, things will undoubtedly get worse in Russia. The United Nations predicts Russia will lose 32 million people between 2000 and 2050. Socially, there are definite improvements. A new generation is growing up without the pressures of constant suspicion and surveillance, and I hope they will live fuller and more trusting lives than their parents.

I have a two-year-old son, and another child due in August. They have cousins of very similar ages on both sides of the family, and four very involved grandparents; so this is a raucous place most of the time. My wife and son sharing a joke is my favourite sound.

I'm happiest when my son doesn't get up too early, and we get to wake up of our own accord. Either that, or when I'm starting on a long journey. Normally, I travel on my own. It was a lot easier before my son came along, but he's very understanding, as is my wife. I'm trying to come up with an idea for a third book which will take less time on the road. I'd like to be remembered for being a decent father.

I sometimes wanted to be an archaeologist, sometimes a vet, and sometimes a mountain-climber. And then I read Tintin, and wanted to be a journalist. My dad was a farmer, and now runs a saw mill, and my mum is a yoga teacher - two practical people who somehow produced two writers. My brother Tom is a very fine novelist, and, oddly enough, his last book is about Russia.

I speak Russian, French a bit, very bad Welsh, extraordinarily bad German. Enough of enough languages to get by. I regret not speaking better Welsh. That's where I'm from, near Hay-on-Wye. My favourite place is Hay Bluff.

Favourites: George Orwell's Essays; John Steinbeck's Cannery Row; Norman Lewis' Naples '44; Mikhail Lermontov's Hero of Our Times; Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita; Lev Tolstoy's Hadji Murad; Venedikt Yerofeyev's Moscow-Petushki; Tom Bullough's Claude Glass; Gwyn Thomas's Dark Philosophers; and Joseph Heller's Catch-22.

I love Psalm 121. My least favourite Bible passage is the cursing of the fig tree.

The last thing I got angry about was reading about a big company's tax arrangements.

I don't pray, but if I did, I'd ask for things not to change too much from how they are.

My companion in a locked church would be George Orwell. Or Herodotus would be fun. Or, failing that, Aneurin Bevan. And, if I may, I'd like to specify that the building we're locked in would be Soar-y-Mynydd in mid-Wales.

Oliver Bullough was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

The Last Man in Russia: And the struggle to save a dying nation is published by Allen Lane.

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