Let Our Fame Be Great and The Last Man in Russia: review

On the surface, Sochi and Vorkuta have little in common except lying within Russia’s borders. Sochi is a Black Sea holiday resort, currently receiving billions of roubles in investment before the Winter Olympics is held there next year. Vorkuta is a crumbling Arctic mining town, where fewer and fewer people each year brave its ferocious winters. Yet they share a tainted past: one hundred years apart, they were sites of the breaking of entire peoples. The site of the Games is where the Circassians, one of the many peoples of the Caucasus, made their last stand against a genocidal Russian conquest; the Olympics are being held there exactly 150 years on. Vorkuta was one of the most notorious islands of the Gulag archipelago, part of a system that created the stultifying fear that maintained Soviet power. The British author and journalist, Oliver Bullough, has now written two books, one featuring each of these places. Although seemingly quite different, there is a connection. The first, Let Our Fame Be Great, details the resistance by the people of the Caucasus to colonisation, up to this day; the second, The Last Man in Russia, was published earlier this year, and combines a history of the post-war Soviet dissidents with an analysis of Russia’s demographic crisis and rampant alcoholism.

Both books combine conventional history with travel, as befits Bullough’s professional experience as a journalist. One of the finest parts of Let Our Fame Be Great is when Bullough recounts his experience as a reporter at the school siege in Beslan, where the smell of death “felt like cheese or sickness in my throat”. It brings the immediacy of the plight of the Caucasus to light, and the author uses testimony to introduce charming moments of bathos as well, describing mundane train journeys and mistaken identities. Let Our Fame Be Great narrates the series of invasions, exterminations and deportations faced by the peoples of the mountains, starting with the Circassians in the mid-nineteenth century, through to Stalin’s expulsions of allegedly traitorous groups such as the Chechens, up to the post-Soviet offensives and continued tit-for-tat insurgency and response. To the people of the Caucasus, each successive incursion by the Russians seems to an extension of the last. By contrast, Russian policy seems to take no account of history or grievances that may be reopened. For example, the Russians destroyed the village of Aldy in Chechnya in the 1780s, believing that a leading Chechen, Sheikh Mansur was hiding there. In February 2000, Aldy, now a suburb of Grozny, was the site of one of the worst massacres of civilians during the entire Second Chechen War. For the Chechens, it was a continuation of their centuries-old fight to be free from the Russian state. To the Russian state, they were just another bunch of terrorists.

This failure to remember comes up in The Last Man in Russia as well. The modern Russian government does little to commemorate the crimes of its Soviet predecessor. It is those who exposed the horrors of the Soviet system, people like Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and Medvedev who Bullough looks at, especially their ability to inspire hope in a new future. One of the most optimistic and successful was the priest Father Dmitry Dudko. The hope that men like Father Dmitry inspired was one of the things that the Gulag so successfully crushed, and this national hopelessness was reflected in rising alcohol consumption, falling birth rates and a decrease in life expectancy. Bullough weaves the two strands, linked by the idea of hope and its absence, together cleverly. Around two-thirds of the way through, a paragraph seems to knit the ideas superbly:

“Father Dmitry thought he had been serving his nation by spreading trust, and fighting abortion and despair, but, in doing so, he was defying the state. And that was not allowed. That was why he had to be crushed. His fate parallels the fate of his whole nation. Through the twentieth century, the government in Moscow taught the Russians that hope and trust were 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”.

Father Dmitry fought bravely against this dying of the light, until he was broken by a spell in the hands of the KGB. He emerged from prison to repent for his crimes against the state and lived out his years a changed man, convinced of Jewish plots to destroy the Russian state and orthodoxy. Similarities can be seen with the Chechen leader of the nineteenth century, Imam Shamil, who surrendered to the Russians and ended up living in relative comfort in central Russia, aware he was a captive in a gilded cage.

The demographic decline that has accompanied the loss of hope is visible in Chechnya in a slightly different form. Here it is an exodus, thousands of Chechens fleeing the violence and instability of their homeland to form a diaspora across Europe. The Russians, meanwhile, have begun, as a nation, to drink themselves inexorably to death. The recent protests have offered some hope, that vital ingredient needed for recovery. But the Russian state is ultimately the catalyst for the tragedies, a process begun with Tsarist colonisation and continued by Soviet repression. The post-Soviet government must act soon to prevent another people from being swallowed.

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