Between Stalin and Lady Muriel

Inside Stalin's Russia
December 1, 2000

When Reader Bullard went as consul general to Moscow in late 1930, he was possibly unique in the diplomatic service of the time. The son of a tally clerk in the London docks, he had a poor working-class upbringing in the East End and was educated in council schools, eventually qualifying as a teacher of Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian and Spanish. He applied for the Levant Consular Service, passed the entrance exam and was sent to Cambridge for one year to acquire Turkish, Arabic and Persian. By the time he reached the Soviet Union in 1930 he had added Russian. Before Russia, he had a colourful career in the Ottoman and post-Ottoman Empire; after Russia he went on to become an eminent diplomat in the Middle East.

He went to Soviet Russia with a positive attitude towards its declared goals. Like many other educated westerners, he believed there must be a better, more rational approach to economic management than the uncontrolled fluctuations of capitalism and its devastation of workers' lives. The planned order for which the USSR was striving, he thought, could be a more effective way to organise a national economy. He soon realised, however, that planning entailed the squeezing of every available human and material resource, industrial and agricultural. Food supply and housing were in a critical condition and only the protection of the Communist Party offered relief.

As consul general (first in Moscow then, from July 1931 to July 1934, in Leningrad where the consulate general was transferred), one of Bullard's responsibilities was to assist in the relief of "distressed British subjects" (DBS), through whom he gained much information on living conditions and the workings of the bureaucracy. It comes as a surprise to learn that there were still large numbers of such people - 144 in Leningrad alone - living all over the Soviet Union in the 1930s, holding British passports or of British origin, either stranded in Russia by the revolution or, having returned out of political conviction, now denied minimal social support.

Lady Muriel Paget had set up a charity to help the DBS, but Bullard soon came to dread her descents on the consulate. Lady Muriel, he noted, was "confident that she alone is competent to run not only the Relief Association, but also the British Empire". Full of good intentions, she believed, for example, that it would improve the morale of depressed DBS wives if she appeared in their kitchens wearing the latest Paris fashions. Bullard longed to avoid contact with this "steamroller", but at best could only attempt to steer her trampling progress on to less damaging paths.

Bullard's involvement in the relief of DBS also brought him into regular contact with the secret police, the Ogpu, who kept an eye on all foreigners. In the early 1930s, despite the fact that surveillance, false arrest, show trials, brutal interrogation, forced confession and the camps were fully evolved parts of the system, people had yet to learn to keep their mouths shut. So it was also through frank conversations with his Ogpu "minder" - who soon ended up in the Gulag - that Bullard became one of the best informed western diplomats in the Soviet Union. Knowing the inside story on, for example, the campaign against "wreckers" and the phoney trial of the British representatives of Metro-Vickers gave him proof, were it needed, that the system sustained itself by force and mendacious propaganda.

Also as consul general, he dealt with the stream of representatives of British businesses helping to build the technological infrastructure, as well as supply and maintain the equipment that was intended to raise Soviet industry to world standards. Such contacts, with their first-hand knowledge about the state of the industrial sector, were an invaluable source of the information on which Bullard based his reports to his ambassador and thence the Foreign Office. In this way, for instance, he was able to confirm that large sectors of Soviet industry were worked by slave labour.

Another steady stream of visitors were those who came to see for themselves the miracle of proletarian statehood and Communist organisation. Beatrice and Sidney Webb, after travelling widely and conducting surveys of what they believed were typical sites but were in fact show-places, stuck to the belief that the economy was a success and that the calamitous situation in the Ukraine was due to "bad management". George Bernard Shaw was another VIP whose enthusiastic support for all things Soviet exasperated Bullard. Shaw, for example, accepted the findings of a sabotage trial "because the defendants had confessed". After giving a particularly effusive pro-regime speech at a party in his honour, however, Shaw was heard to say he was sorry he had to speak as he did.

A theme to which Bullard reverts throughout his diary is that of the prevalence of Jews at the top of most fields - politics, the foreign ministry, the economy, journalism, music, science and medicine, the secret police - and he contrasts what he perceives as Jewish ability with Russian incompetence. In terms almost identical to sentiments expressed by Lenin only a dozen years earlier, Bullard wrote at the end of 1932: "It is probable that only the high proportion of non-Russians, particularly of Jews, in posts requiring organising ability keeps the complicated machine of administration moving." Western awareness of the disproportionate number of Jews in the Soviet hierarchy dated back to the revolution itself, but Bullard's early years in the East End, with its large population of Russian Jews, would have rung bells when he saw how the Jews now seemed so favoured, where once they had been so disadvantaged. Like much else, the position of the Jews would change for the worse following his departure in mid-1934.

Bullard began keeping a diary as soon as he arrived in Russia. Edited by his diplomat son Julian and daughter-in-law Margaret, the diary is a rich source of detail, political analysis and level-headed comment. The posthumous publication of Bullard's writings, in this and other volumes, is a laudable enterprise and his editors and publisher should be encouraged to extend their work of discovery.

Harold Shukman is emeritus fellow, St Antony's College, Oxford.

Inside Stalin's Russia: The Diaries of Reader Bullard, 1930-34

Editor - Julian and Margaret Bullard
ISBN - 0 953 22131 8
Publisher - Day Books
Price - 19.50
Pages - 281

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