Under the Soviet skin

Inside Stalin's Russia: the diaries of Reader Bullard 1930-1934

Edited by Julian and Margaret Bull

Reader Bullard's diaries have emerged at a time when clues to Russia's turbulent present are being sought in its past harder than ever. In the wake of August's improbable chain of disasters, commentators have scrambled to wring an easy metaphor from the Kursk tragedy or the Ostankino TV tower blaze. For Yury Buida, a writer I know in Moscow, Russia's trials are the "mines placed by Stalin", revenge for the sins of the past.

The authorities' response to the crises - if not, significantly, that of the print media - has certainly echoed the Soviet past: disinformation, xenophobia and the eager search for scapegoats. In particular, after the evidence was hastily cleared at the site of the Pushkin Square bombing - and indeed, ever since last year's apartment bombings - Caucasians have been the subject of what is, in effect, a witch-hunt in Moscow. (For example, at the end of every shift, police are required to report the number of Chechens they have arrested.)

Amid the turbulence of his own time in Stalin's Russia, Bullard understood with rare clarity how people can be poisoned by a regime founded on what he calls "dishonesty and greed". These themes have since been covered in greater detail in the histories and memoirs, but Bullard's diaries benefit from an uncommon perspective. Here is a formidable intellect, free of the Soviet citizen's ideological baggage (and, likewise, the often extravagant illusions of western sympathisers), grappling with the socialist experiment as it actually unfolded.

From his outpost as consul general in Leningrad during the lean years of famine and hurtling industrial expansion - when, as Trotsky wrote, the character of the Soviet Union was not yet decided - Bullard recorded a portrait of the time that pierced the numerous smokescreens of Soviet reality. The account is given authority by Bullard's own stance: of proletarian origin himself, he wished the Soviet Union well. But his observations quickly diluted his optimism. Sidney Webb and his ilk may have posted fulsome reports, after epic state-sponsored tours of the empire, in which they exalted an idealised land of "absolutely no unemployment", but Bullard needed simply to take a look at the fields on a day trip to Peterhof to note: "It was a pity that when they abolished unemployment the Bolsheviks should also have abolished vegetables."

Bullard was precociously aware of the diabolic sleight of hand that blurred the line between objective and perceived reality in the Soviet Union. The treatment of the rank and file was, for him, the test of the justice of the regime. He describes how the factory worker was tricked, his pay siphoned off into "loans" to the government, his "free days" eaten up by additional duties to the state. Behind it all, Bullard saw clearly the regime's ugly, throbbing heart: the "band of ruthless people who have no use for idealism or humanity as we understand it" that went under the name of the OGPU, and later, the KGB. Without it, Bullard correctly posits, the great experiment "could not have lasted a year".

One of the highlights of the diaries is the glimpsed portrait of Pyotr Kulagin, a high-ranking OGPU man in Leningrad, who sang anti-patriotic songs behind closed doors. He hated the methods of his colleagues, and met with the inevitable fate.

The limitation of Bullard's diaries is that there are too few Kulagins - or, at any rate, too few ordinary Russians. Bullard lived and learnt largely among foreigners: embassy staff, journalists, relief workers, disillusioned souls hungry for repatriation who turned to the consulate. Much of the wide-ranging survey of the Soviet empire that emerges is the result of other people's reports. But even if the view is not from "inside Stalin's Russia" after all, it does get under the Soviet skin. His entries can skip in three paragraphs from the theatre to the church to the OGPU. Every aspect of the experiment interested him, from the plight of the intellectual to the prominence of Jews in the elite, a recurring motif.

The editors hasten to disavow Bullard's anti-Semitism, but unnecessarily. His point ties in with one of the historical cruxes of the period, the ascendancy of social and ethnic minorities in positions of authority - or what Bullard sees as the "incapacity" of Russians to run their own country. Here, as often, his observations return us to the present day. For what can explain President Putin's enormous and (now clearly) resilient appeal to voters, if not the fact that he successfully projects an image of being both Russian to the core and - in stark contrast to his predecessor - sober and capable?

Oliver Ready is literary editor of the Moscow Times

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why Brown should hold his nerve

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis