The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation

The Last Man in Russia




The Struggle to Save a Dying





Copyright © 2013 by Oliver


Published by Basic Books,

A Member of the Perseus Books


Published in 2013 in the United

Kingdom by Allen Lane,

an imprint of Penguin Books

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E-book ISBN: 978-0-465-07497-6


Introduction: We will bury you


1 They took our grandfather’s land

2 A double-dyed anti-Soviet

3 Father Dmitry was K-956

4 The generation of change

5 Reds admit ban of rebel priest

6 They behaved like free men

7 Ideological sabotage


8 It’s like a plague

9 The unworthy priest

10 The K G B did their business

11 I look at the future with


12 They don’t care any more


13 Making a new generation


Sources and Bibliography



Introduction: We will bury you

Misha, a journalist friend, rang me

around noon on 1 January 2004. I

assumed he was calling to wish me a

happy new year. For Russians, New

Year is a more important holiday

than it is in the West. Presents are

exchanged and toasts drunk for

success in the year ahead. It is

normal to call or text friends if only

to laugh with them.

Misha, however, had something

different in mind. He had, I later

discovered from his girlfriend, been

drinking – with breaks only to pass

out – solidly for two days already,

and he went on to drink for two


‘Oliver, listen, I need your help.

What is the meaning of the word

zombie hedgehog?’





heavily slurred, but still intelligible.

He said the last two words in





wanted me to translate them. I was

baffled, and asked what he meant.

There was a pause at the other end,

then he swore at something or

someone in the room with him and

hung up. I waited for him to call

back, but he never did. When I next

saw him, a week or two later, he had

no recollection of the call and I

never did find out why he had


Misha had an alcohol problem.

On a trip to Chechnya a few months

later, we got up at around five-thirty

in the morning to be sure to arrive in

Grozny with plenty of time to work.

I had arranged that the hotel would

make breakfast for us early. I was

drinking tea and waiting for my eggs

when Misha walked into the dining

room. The waitress asked him what

he would like to drink, and he

looked around at me.

‘Do you want to drink?’

I shook my head. I needed it

clear to work.

‘Give me a bottle of brandy,’ he

told the waitress. She brought it,

with a single glass, on the same tray

as his breakfast. He drank it, shot by

shot, while he ate his fried eggs,

sausage and bread. He bought

another bottle as we were leaving.

By the time we reached the Chechen

border, he had drunk that too – a

litre of brandy before nine in the

morning – and insisted we stop for


This is not one of those stories of

journalistic excess that end with the

drunkard doing his job despite being

barely coherent. (There is an

apocryphal Fleet Street photographer

who is said to have fallen off his

stepladder and still to have shot three

perfect frames before hitting the

ground.) No, Misha was by turns

abusive and sentimental as I tried to

get some kind of work out of the

day. By evening, he was comatose

and a few of us cobbled together

some material to send to Moscow

under his name.

Although this was an extreme

episode, it was not in itself unusual.

Many of my colleagues would drink

spirits when out of the office, and

managers across Russia have learned

to incorporate into their plans time

lost through drinking. The culture of

drinking is so entrenched that the

language has a multitude of words to

describe the different stages of

alcohol abuse. Z
means the kind

of multi-day bender Misha had

survived over the New Year.

is a verb meaning to

have a drink in the morning to

remove a hangover (it is a crucial

element of a
, but exists in

other contexts too).
is the

smell of alcohol from a mouth in the


This is a habit not only of the

destitute. Misha was a successful,

talented and well-paid journalist. He

and his colleagues drank in ways I




before. And,

although Russian men do drink more

than women, this is not by any

means a uniquely male problem.

Anyone travelling to work on the

Moscow metro in the morning will

see well-dressed, made-up young

women drinking beer out of cans. In

Russia, buying alcohol is easier than

buying bread. Kiosks have whole

walls of vodka, which they sell for

as little as £3 for a half-litre.

While hiking in the wilds near

Siberia’s Lake Baikal, my brother

and I met a small group of fellow

outdoor enthusiasts and we decided

to camp together for the night. They

were the first people we had seen for

a couple of days, and we brought

out a bottle of vodka we had been

saving for just such an occasion. Our

offer was met not with alacrity,

however, but with scorn. One of the

group, a professor from a university

in Novosibirsk, explained, as if

talking to a child, how real hikers

behave. Real hikers watch every

gram they carry, he said. They have

no space in their rucksacks for such






wondering whether perhaps Tom

and I should find somewhere else to

camp, when he reached behind him.

‘This is what you need,’ he said,

drawing a brown bottle out of his

rucksack. It was what the Russians

c a ll
, pure alcohol. I saw his

point. If you want to get drunk, why

waste space carrying vodka – with

its 62.5 per cent of water – when

you can carry the same volume of

alcohol and get the water from a


The evening of the day when

Misha overdid it in Chechnya, we

were cooped up on a military base. It






journalists to travel in Chechnya

without an escort (this was both for

our protection and to stop us getting

any work done), and we had to be in

the barracks long before the sun set

and the violence started. Misha was

asleep but I was not, so another

journalist and I passed the hours






Shabalkin, a colonel who acted as

spokesman for the federal forces,

and a couple of other officers.

Shabalkin brought out a two-litre

bottle of Dzhelka, a cheap but not

undrinkable brand. I had contributed

a small bottle of Green Stamp, a

brand then fashionable in Moscow.

I quickly fell behind. How much

you can drink is a sign of your

masculinity, and Russians have a

multitude of sayings to ridicule

anyone who tries to stop early or to

skip a round (‘If you won’t drink

with us today, you’ll betray your





example). Fortunately, foreigners

tend to be exempt, it being

understood that we are already

inferior. I could only watch as these

four men – three of them holding

high rank in the Russian armed

forces, and the other a successful

reporter – drained the bottles like an

ebbing tide. By the time I crept away

to bed, there were three empty

bottles on the table, and they had

started on a fourth. That is more than

six litres of vodka among five

people, one of whom was barely

drinking, on a weekday. And they

had not yet finished.

When Russians drink vodka,

they do not sip it, or mix it with

juice. They drink shot after shot,

each one followed by a quick bite of

gherkin or bread. Russian vodka

normally tastes chemical, like an

unsuccessful science experiment.

Unlike with whisky, wine or beer,

there is no effort to make the drink

itself enjoyable. It is a means to an

end, a vehicle to get you drunk. I

will drink vodka if I have to, but

rarely out of choice. When I can, I

drink beer instead, which means I

can usually remember the night’s

events the next morning.

Russians have always had a

reputation for drinking. One of the

first mentions of them in the

historical record features their king

rejecting Islam because of its

prohibition on alcohol. The average

Russian drinks three times the

volume of spirits drunk by a

German, and four times that of a

Portuguese, and that’s only the

official figures. No one has any idea

how much self-distilled moonshine

is drunk, but it must be a lot, for

every traveller in Russia has a story

about it.

I was once on an overnight train

from St Petersburg to Moscow. I had

bought the cheapest ticket, and was

one of eight passengers sitting bolt

upright in a dingy compartment as

the train crawled through a dark

forest. We had all brought beer to

drink, but the bottles were finished

now, and lay littered around our feet.

We were semi-drunk and morose,

staring ahead at the gloomy outline

of the person opposite.

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