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