Oliver Bullough: “There will now be much fewer Russians than we used to have in the world”
A British Russophile shares his views on the spiritual roots of the demographic tragedy affecting the Russian nation
This nation is still experiencing the “totalitarian experiment”; it’s sick; it’s title nation is dying out. This is Oliver Bullough’s latest book The Last Man in Russia and the struggle to save a dying nation published in April. This is not the work of a Russophobe gloating over the agony of a nation in decline. On the contrary, Bullough is a Western Russophile with an Oxford education who spent years living in and exploring Russia. Having worked in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Central Asia and the Caucasus, the young British writer witnessed events that would likely traumatize the average European. When the USSR announced that it was building a paradise on Earth in the 1960s, the Russian population began to drink itself to death, the book’s summary states. For a time, vodka was bringing more revenue to the state than oil. People like Oliver are surprised to see that “death by alcoholism” continues in Russia.
High death rates among Russians – mostly men of working age – resulted in a gap of 240,000 in the death to birth rate in 2010. Overall, the population of Russia shrank from 148.5 to 141.9 million between 1991 and 2010. Meanwhile, the structure of the population is changing dramatically as any growth, even if only negative, is primarily the result of immigration from non-Russian republics and higher fertility rates among non-Russian ethnic minorities.
Might China one day assume that the Russians don’t actually need their vast territories in Siberia or the Far East? What will Russia be like with, say, Muslims accounting for one tenth of its population? Will the Russians manage to stop associating themselves with the Soviet Union and its gravitation toward territory grabbing and domination and begin solving their own problems instead? Oliver Bullough’s book is an attempt to answer these questions. In his interview with The Ukrainian Week, Bullough explains some of the observations behind his insightful conclusions.
UW: Your book is called The Last Man in Russia. In one of the recent discussions in London you said that Russia is doomed. Can you elaborate on that?
I wrote a book about Chechnya and the North Caucasus which have been seen some of the bloodiest episodes in Russian colonialism. Russia and Russian government do not come out of that very well, to put it mildly. It is basically a series of continuous genocides, and no government would come out of that well. A number of my Russian friends who read the book said that they really liked it but thought it a bit unfair to single out only one episode in Russian, while ignoring the fact that unlike a lot of governments – say in the Nazi Germany or imperial Japan – the Russian one always inflicted violence and torment on its own people as much, if not more, than it did on everyone else. The rule of Russian dictatorship was very different from that in any other nations. So, they said that it was unfair to only focus on what Russia had done to non-Russians. That’s why I wanted to write a book about ethnic Russians and difficulties they faced. And the most obvious subject to write about in that sense is its demographic disaster.
Russia has a very high death rate at a very low birth rate. This is the Russian cross. There are other countries with high death rates, but they almost always have high birth rates, while countries with low birth rates have long life expectancy. Japan, for example, has a very low birth rate, but people live long there. Congo has low life expectancy but an awful lot of children.
UW: That’s what your subtitle says: the struggle to save a dying nation. Is Russia dying?
Yes, it is – the Russian nation in terms of Russian people, ethnic Russians.
There will now be much fewer Russians than we used to have in the world, both in absolute and in relative terms. Their birth rate has been so low for so long that it is effectively impossible to have enough children to bring the number of Russians back to the level that we previously saw. This will have astonishing consequences in terms of the army in Russia and Russian culture: if the only way Russia maintains its population is through massive sustained immigration, Russian culture will see a radical change.
My book is about the way the government of the Soviet Union attempted to change the Russian nation. And not just Russians – it tried to inflict the same changes on Ukrainians or the Kyrgyz, but the books focuses on the Russians and the government’s attempts to change them from a very traditional peasant civilization based on their own traditions essentially unchanged for hundreds of years into a modern proletarian civilization in just one generation. That process, which hit hard Ukraine and other nations of course, was particularly nasty for Russia because it had no foreigners to blame for it. The Georgians, for instance, can say “It’s the Russians who did that to us” – they have someone outside to blame. Ukrainians can do the same. The Russians don’t have that. The government was theirs, Russian, and that means that they have this permanent conflicted double relationship to what happened to them.
I think, it explains why Stalin is considered a great person in Russia to this day despite of what he did. It is a unique dilemma that no other European nation faces: being both the victim and the perpetrator.
UW: So, many Russians still cannot break with the Soviet communist past because it’s part of them?
Yes. I sometimes imagine that it’s like if you had run a hundred miles as hard as you could, and sometime told you you’d been running in a wrong direction. There would be a part of you that would try to justify why you’d run that hundred miles. Even if you had run in a wrong direction and it hadn’t done you any good at all, you had actually run that distance. The Russians, for instance, make a very big thing out of winning WWII, although they didn’t really. They beat the Germans but that didn’t mean that they won themselves. Look at what happened to the Soviet army after the war: hundreds of thousands of people were sent off to the GULAGs because they had been captured by the Germans, although that’s not their fault. That’s not what a country does to a victorious army. There is a sort of belief there that “we did that”. I had a colleague in Moscow who said “We own Chelsea” when Roman Abramovich bought it. “You don’t own Chelsea,” I said. “It’s a man who bought the companies that used to belong to the Russian nation for almost nothing and used his vast wealth now to buy something in a foreign country.” The Russians don’t own that football club. He owns it thanks to the money that used to belong to the Russian nation. It’s this strange identification of the Russians with those who oppress them. It’s very interesting psychologically.
UW: You have stated that Russia is unique. Why do you think it’s different from, say, Great Britain? What stops the British from drinking too much or wallowing in self-pity over their lost empire? Why doesn’t the British elite dare to undertake the sort of social experiments that the Russians carried out among their population?
This is the question that goes back to the depth of historical past. I think it also goes back to Russia’s geographical nature. Britain is an island and we’ve always been a sea fare nation. That meant that we would inevitably become a trading nation and get rich in a certain way. The fact that Russia was a land empire with no strong countries to the east helped it become an empire in a different way. Being an empire for Britain, France or any other nation scars the country. That causes problems at home for the empire-making country. The British Empire has longer been gone now, so Britain has dealt with it in a way although it took it a long time – decades probably – to get used to the fact that it no longer has the presence that significant in the world. Russia as an empire fell apart relatively recently, and it did in a weird way, accidentally almost in 1991. Because of that a lot of Russians haven’t come to terms with the fact that they are no longer a world power and as significant as they used to be. Now, they are the country of the level of Britain or Germany, not the US or China. That is something that takes long to get used to. It is even more difficult – and I don’t mean to make too much of a caricature out of it – given that that was all Russia had. In Britain, for instance, we have other things to be proud of, such as having a democracy and being rich. Russia is neither very rich nor a democracy. So, being an empire was its identity. When the empire is lost, it’s obviously going to hurt. It’s difficult. Why the Russians drink an awful lot? There are other questions that accompany this one. All countries in Northern Europe always had heavy alcohol consumption – look at the Finns or the Swedes. I don’t really know the reason for that. But it’s particularly visible in Russia: the combination of oppressive political culture and drinking as part of the national culture has actually been a disaster.
UW: You mentioned Ukraine and Ukrainians in your book, mostly with respect to GULAGs. But let’s talk about the modern aspect. There’s a popular saying among Ukrainians: Russian intellectuals and liberals cease to be freedom-lovers when it comes to Ukraine. ZbigniewBrzezinski said that when Russia loses its control over Ukraine, it will no longer be an empire, but a normal nation focused on the well-being and life of its own people. Would you agree that the Ukrainian issue is that important for the future of Russia as a nation?
I don’t know. I didn’t spend a lot of time in Ukraine. I was there for the Orange Revolution, and a few times later. I think Russians struggle with Ukraine in the same way as a lot of English people struggle with Ireland. I’m from Wales so I’m looking at this as a third party. If you mention the crimes of the British Empire, a lot of English people would try to defend it in a way they would never defend its crimes in Kenya or India. I also think that part of it is that many British people feel that the Irish aren’t actually foreigners; they are British. In the same way, the Russians can’t deal with the fact that Ukrainians are not Russians. To them, Ukrainians are so evidently Russian but they are either paid to say they are not, or they are stupid. In fact, a lot of Russian politicians have this sort of an opinion that the only reason you have to disagree with them is that you’re either a traitor or stupid. This has very deep roots in their political culture. And that’s what they find frustrating about Ukraine – that Ukrainians do not seem to appreciate the fact that Russia is the best friend, the big brother, and that Ukraine should just get along with everything Russia says. The fact that Ukraine might prefer to make friends with Poland seems insane to Russians.
UW: You lived in Russia for years. Do you sense any change in that attitude over that time? Do you think the Russians’ attitude toward Ukraine is changing for the better or is it getting worse? I’ve heard, for instance, that Russia’s new opposition leader Alexei Navalny is essentially a Russian chauvinist and imperialist, especially when it comes to Ukraine.
I haven’t noticed changes for better or for worse. I think it goes up and down depending on politics in Kyiv. When Yushchenko was in power, he talked a lot about the 1932-33 Holodomor and that makes the Russians incredibly angry. They are not good in admitting that it happened in the first place, and they refuse to admit that it was genocide. When Ukrainian politicians discuss that, it makes the Russians’ very angry, I think, in terms of their political stance. At the moment, the Ukrainian government doesn’t talk about it so much. This means that the Russians can sort of stop thinking about that. But it hasn’t gone away.
The Russians haven’t really come to terms with what was done in their name. In the same way, a lot of British people haven’t come to terms in what was done in our name. Although that wasn’t perhaps quite as horrible. It’s the same with Chechnya. When you talk about what was done to the Chechens and the deportations in, say, 1944, even to the nicest Russian, you face total disconnect – a refusal to admit that that was a crime. I think it’s the same with Holodomor. When it comes to that, you hear in Moscow that, if it did happen, it wasn’t only Ukrainians in it, and they should have shut up about it a long time ago anyway. It’s very similar to how the Turks talk about Armenians.
UW: Isn’t this refusal to comprehend what was done in the name of Moscow and the Soviet Union a root of the Russian tragedy?
I can see it this way if you’re coming from a Ukrainian perspective. But inside Russia, what was done in terms of its foreign policy – outside of Russia – is relatively unimportant for the Russians. What was done inside Russia was much more important. My book is about the Russian nation. I focused on what was done inside the country. Of course, what it did outside of its borders was absolutely appalling. If it were a wider book covering the Soviet Union, then it would naturally focus more on the deportation of the Chechens, the Ingush and the other nations; on what was done to the nomads in Kazakhstan. But this was only about the Russians, and I wanted to try and make them the centre of their own history. That’s why I focused on alcoholism, GULAGs and repressions against the Orthodox church. Also, as the book goes on, it focuses increasingly on anti-Semitism because the Jews were foreigners living inside Russia. In a way, they become a representation of all minorities in the Soviet Union. Anti-Semitism became an increasingly serious movement in Russia in the 1980-1990s. And that’s a fairly big part of the book.
UW: Can Russia be saved as a nation? Can it ever be happy with itself?
I take a lot of heart from the protests that have been happening in Russia – not particularly because I want Russia to become a liberal democracy, although I like liberal democracies. But I think that the fact that young Russians are standing up and insisting that they be treated with dignity and respect is a very important and impressive movement. The 2011-2012 protests in Russia had very much in common with the Orange Revolution in Ukraine – when young people insisted that they be treated like citizens, not as subjects. I think that gives hope that the new generation in Russia will not tolerate the kind of abuse that other Russians had to tolerate. But it is coming so late that, whatever happens, the Russian nation will have to be a lot smaller than it is now even if it becomes politically free. This brings forth other problems. I would love to say that Russia has 20 years in which the new generation could grow up and take charge and create a more open and respectful political culture. Sadly, however, it does not have 20 years – it does not have any time at all. When Putin’s generation is move aside, they are going to face the most appalling legacy, and dealing with it will be an incredibly difficult task for them.
Russian historians now have yet another series of recommendations on how to address the issue of the 1932-33 forced famine known as the Holodomor. Russia’s Federal Archive Agency suggests that archival documents be quoted in such a way that the fact of the Holodomor targeting Ukraine is refuted.
In the roundtable “On Preventing the Falsification of History of Nations to Damage the Interests of Russia” held at the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, Deputy Director of the Russian Archive Vladimir Tarasov stated, “the Federal Archive initiated a number of media campaigns regarding the famine in the USSR. This was clearly a response to what happened in Ukraine… to neutralize what had taken place there” [he was apparently referring to the Ukrainian historical discourse of the 1932-33 Holodomor – Ed.]
“Given the Ukrainian ‘factor’, documents should be compiled in such a way that they prove the universal nature of grain collection in 1932, performed with similar methods in different crisis regions (Ukraine, North Caucasus, Lower Volga),” Viktor Kandrashyn, historian and research advisor of the three-volume compilation of archive documents, wrote in his explanatory note.
The initial title planned for the three-volume compilation was The 1932-33 Famine in the USSR. However, Russian officials apparently took the Ukrainian factor into account and altered the timeframe to avoid references to the years of 1932-33 that have become a synonym for the Ukrainian Holodomor. The compilation is now advertised as The 1929-1934 Famine in the USSR.
The motivation behind the mass murder of Ukrainian citizens through starvation, as suggested by the authors of the compilation, is as follows: Joseph Stalin did this in order to battle external enemies. “This chapter may include documents on the growing tension in international politics in 1932, particularly in the Far East and Europe. This forced Stalin to take a ‘firm stance’ in domestic policy”.
Kandrashyn also recommends selecting documents about deaths of starvation “without detailed descriptions of cannibalism. Documents should be selected in a way that shows the tragedy of all Soviet peasants, without an emphasis on Ukraine.”
Oliver Bullough studied modern history at Oxford University. After graduation in 1999, he went to Russia and lived in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for seven years. While in Russia and Kyrgyzstan, he worked as a travelling Reuters reporter. His award-winning first book, Let Our Fame Be Great, focuses on the liberation struggle and modern life in the Caucasus, and has achieved critical acclaim in the UK and US. In 2011, Oxfam, an international organization working to find solutions to poverty and related problems, awarded Oliver as a new writer. He is currently working as the Caucasus editor for the Institute of War & Peace Reporting.