Back in the USSR: How spooky KGB agent confronted Sheffield councillor

Winston Churchill famously described Russia as a 'riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.'.

Thursday, 3rd May 2018, 11:18 am
Updated Thursday, 3rd May 2018, 11:26 am
Bob, centre, with David Blunkett and other delegates during their visit.

The world's eyes have been on the country recently following the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on UK soil.

Lord and lady mayor of Sheffield Gordon and Janet Wragg, front, with a younger David Blunkett and Bob Pullin behind them land in Donetsk.

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The incident has sparked an international diplomatic crisis with the UK Government accusing the Russian state of being behind the attack - which Vladimir Putin's Government has denied.

But if anyone can shed light on the mystery that is Russia it is Sheffield councillor Bob Pullin.

While he may seem an unlikely source, the great-grandfather-of-two actually has a connection with the country that has spanned 60 years.

His decision to learn Russian while a pupil at Firth Park Grammar School in 1954 - just a year after the death of Stalin as the Cold War started to turn frosty in earnest - sparked off a lifelong fascination with the country.

The Sheffield delegation during their 1982 visit.

Over the past seven decades he has visited the country more than 50 times as student, teacher and translator.

The 76-year-old has witnessed first hand how the country handled itself during the Cold War, the rise and fall of communism in the old Soviet Union and the emergence of Putin as leader of the modern day Russian Federation.

READ MORE: Why TWO McDonald's restaurants in Sheffield have closed their doors this monthHis first trip was as part of a British Council student exchange trip in Autumn 1962 shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis in which the United States and the Soviet Union almost fired warheads at each other - often cited as the closest we came to World War Three.

He recalls: "We sailed on the Soviet SS Baltika ship, which Russian President Nikita Khrushchev himself used, and what struck me first was how much there was a media black out. There was one newspaper on board and there was a small story which effectively said 'America was causing trouble again'.

Bob Pullin, second left, during his most recent visit in 2008.

"The media was very closely controlled, especially when it came to huge diplomatic incidents like that."

But the somewhat suspicious atmosphere did not put him off, in fact it only served to heighten his intrigue and he soon enrolled on a postgraduate research scholarship course at Moscow State University

He said: "I have always been fascinated by the difference in their society and ours. There was a lot of anti-Western literature, it was the time of the Vietnam War and I remember posters in the restaurant depicting American soldiers as murderers.

"They have a phrase in Russia called 'Forbidden Goods'. That meant certain books like George Orwell's 1984 were off limits to the majority of the population. There was concern that they would read say 1984, which is a satire on the Soviet state essentially, see the connection and protest.

The Sheffield delegation meet their Russian counterparts in 1982.

"These books were off limits to the majority of people. But the ruling elite, who were members of the Communist Party, could read them because they wanted to be able to debate effectively with people in the West."

Bob recalls how he - by accident - unsettled the state's subtle control of society during his time as a young student.

He said: "I requested to go home to the UK for Christmas and they couldn't understand it. My request was refused continually before in the end they let me go home.

"They liked order and anything which deviates from the norm was frowned upon. It was like 'this student is here for 10 months, why is he applying to go home?'"

Such was the minefield of suspicion at the time, he recalls what he believes was a run in with the KGB later in life during the 1970s.

He said: "I was asked to arrange a visit to the UK of foreign diplomats from a whole host of European countries. At the last minute there was a problem with the visas for the Russian visitors and they could not come.

Dr Alan Billings, second left, with Bob Pullin, David Blunkett and Gordon and Janet Wraggduring a meeting in Donetsk under the watchful eye of Lenin.

"Later I was invited to a conference in Warsaw, Poland, and found myself as the only Westerner in the room. This man, who I believe was from the KGB, approached and started asking me a lot of questions about why the Russians were not let in.

"I ended the conversation by inviting him to Sheffield and he gave me a card with his contact details on. After he had gone I looked at the card and there was just a name and no phone number or fax number on it. I never heard from him again."

Bob went on to teach Russian at St Peter's School in York, the University of Sheffield and became a visiting professor at Kent State University in Ohio, America.

He has also acted as translator on many official visits from the UK, including a trip to the Steel City's twin town of Donetsk in 1982.

A number of Sheffield civic leaders, including former home secretary David Blunkett and South Yorkshire's current police and crime commissioner Dr Alan Billings, joined him on the tour.

Another trip saw him lead a visit of some of the Steel City's best ice skaters around Soviet cities.

He said: "In a time of Cold War visits like this really did break new ground and served to improve city to city relations."

Bob believes the country has undergone major change from its former guise as a communist state, through the collapse of the old Soviet Union in 1991 and its re-emergence on the world stage as an independent country led by President Putin.

He said: "Since about the mid 80s onwards the main cities have become more Westernised.

"There is still oppression but whereas in the past it was only a certain number of media outlets the state controlled now young people have access to social media and it is harder to control."

Bob last visited Russia in 2008 and said that while there are 'many hurdles' to visiting Russia - chiefly having to gain a Visa - he said it is still worth a visit.

"The best way forward is to share ideas and learn from each others' differences. It is a fantastic and interesting country. Churchill probably summed it up best.

"I really would recommend people visit and see what it is like for themselves."