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