Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Inside Stalin’s Russia

Sir Reader Bullard, a British career diplomat whose final posting was as Ambassador in Tehran, died 40 years ago today. He served as Consul-General in Moscow and Leningrad in the 1930s, quietly observing, and recording in his diary, Stalin’s regime become increasingly more repressive. He published an autobiography in his lifetime, but the diary of his Russia period remained unpublished until edited by his son, Julian, and brought out by Day Books in 2000.

Bullard was born in 1885 in London, the son of a tally clerk. After grammar school, a brief period as a pupil teacher and two years at Queen’s College, Cambridge, he joined the Levant consular service of the Foreign Office in 1906. He started his career in Constantinople, first in the consulate-general and then in the embassy as a student interpreter. Subsequently, he was stationed at Basra, Mesopotamia, and later accompanied Sir Percy Fox on two missions to Tehran. After time in Britain, he returned to Iraq in May 1920 as military governor of Baghdad, with the rank of major.

Bullard spent two years back in London with the new Middle East department of the Colonial Office, set up by the colonial secretary, Winston Churchill. He married Miriam Smith in 1921, with whom he had five children. He went on to serve as Consul in Jeddah (1923-25), Athens, (1925-28), and Addis Ababa (1928). He was then appointed Consul-General in Moscow (1930), and in Leningrad (1931-34). After the Soviet Union, Bullard also took postings in Rabat and, eventually, as Ambassador in Tehran from 1939 to 1946. He was knighted in 1936.

After retiring from the diplomatic service, Bullard became Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in Oxford, and a member of the governing body of School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He wrote Britain and the Middle East (Hutchinson, 1951) and his autobiography The Camels Must Go (Faber, 1961). E. C. Hodgkin (ODNB, log-in required) gives this assessment of the man: ‘But it was for his personality that Bullard was chiefly remembered. He was a humble man. Short and stocky, with a craggy face and deep set eyes, he gave an immediate impression of rock-like solidity. A tireless worker, deeply conscious of his country’s past and of the highest standards she had the right to demand from her servants, he was no less conscientious in his attention to detail.’ He died on 24 May 1976. A little further information is available from Wikipedia or St Anthony’s College website.

While in Russia, Bullard kept a fairly detailed diary of his day-to-day doings. These were edited by his son and daughter-in-law, Julian and Margaret Bullard, and published by Day Books in 2000: Inside Stalin’s Russia: The Diaries of Reader Bullard 1930-934. The publisher says the diaries ‘paint an unforgettable picture of Russia, its politics and people, in the critical years when Stalin was tightening his grip on power.’ In a foreword, Douglas Hurd (Foreign Secretary 1989-1995) observes that Bullard’s ‘laid-back style is particularly suited to the business of exploring and experiencing the Soviet system. Bullard did not come to Moscow with any prejudice against that system, if anything the reverse; but his natural shrewdness prevented him from being deceived. There are no denunciations of the cruelty which he began to find around him, just the straightforward record of the facts.’ A review of the book can be found at The Guardian.

Here are several extracts.

21 December 1930
‘The bag brought a pair of new skates which I have had screwed on to a pair of old boots. I went on the ice for the first time since 1914 (at Erzerum). I only fell over twice, but I can’t recover the one simple trick I had learned - the outside edge on the right foot.

The Chef de Protocol of the Diplomatic Corps is one Florinsky. It is said that his father was shot by the Reds and he never raised a finger. Asked how he could work with Bolsheviks after this, Florinsky is said to have asked if one’s father was run over by a tram should one cease to ride on trams?

A few evenings ago I went up to talk to Pott, and thinking that I might overlap his dessert I put a slab of chocolate (with almonds and raisins) into my pocket. I found Walker there and two Russian ballet- dancers. Pott and Walker danced with them to the sound of a gramophone, but I’m not sure that I wasn’t the feature of the evening, for I produced my chocolate, and the girls fell on it like dogs on a bone.

Last night Walker gave a party and invited the two ballet girls. The two girls greeted me with cries of ‘the chocolate grandpa!’ so if I had had any illusions about my value to the party they would have been dispelled.’

13 September 1932
‘Our messenger brought me a handbill which had been distributed to all the flats in his building. It orders each resident to collect six bottles, half a kilo of rags, half a kilo of bones, half a kilo of paper, three-quarters of a kilo of rubber, six kilos of old iron and one kilo of non-ferrous metal (brass, copper, etc.) and to hand them in. Quite impossible. Any scraps of old iron have been given in long ago. Paper is so short that the co-operatives give theirs customers fresh fish without paper. As for rubber - for a long time it has been impossible to buy a pair of galoshes unless you hand in an old pair.’

27 October 1932
‘The three maids report that all their clothes are falling to pieces and have put in an enormous list of things they want - at least enormous for this place where material is so short. There is not a yard of any material to be had.

Soermus, the Soviet violinist who visits England and combines his concerts with propaganda, is in some difficulty with his passport. Under the latest regulations, when a Soviet citizen returns from abroad his passport is taken from him, and if he wants to go abroad again he must apply for a new passport, and before it is granted he has to pass first a chistka, or purge, to find out exactly where the applicant has been and what he has done, and then an examination by a trio of communists. Mrs Soermus says her husband lives with his head in a musical cloud and notices nothing.

Woodhead has returned from another visit to the paper-mill. Two OGPU men who travelled part of the way with him had chickens and all sorts of things in their luggage. ‘The new bourgeoisie!’ one of them said to Woodhead. The mill, which ought to have begun operating two years ago, began in September and is making five tons of paper a day instead of forty-five tons. Woodhead attended an eight-hour meeting of about thirty men, only two of whom were engineers, the others were ‘Red’ directors, workmen etc. Woodhead refused to take any part in the discussion, which he described as worthless. To engage in the discussion would have been to admit that all these untrained people had a right to give an opinion on highly technical questions.’

The Diary Junction

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