Tanks rumble through farmland, the people complain, a local General gives the tank commanders a bollocking, then, chuckling, sends them on their way. The human face of Soviet Russia, in the days before everything went wrong. Well, almost.

Peter Flannery’s Burnt by the Sun — adapted from the 1994 Oscar-winning Russian screenplay and directed by Howard Davies — portrays the calm(ish) before the Stalinist paroxysms of the late 1930s: the purging of all ‘suspect’ elements of Soviet society, from the Politburo on down.

But even amid much optimistic talk of Soviet progress, ugly shadows are already stretching their fingers over the collectivised wheat fields. The play opens on an upper-middle-class (oh, all right: “bourgeois”) family sitting round a table, reading newspaper reports of show-trials and muttering querulously. The lone voice of Communist zeal in the room belongs to General Sergei Kotov (a barrel-chested, tattooed Ciarn Hinds), hero of the Russian civil war, bullishly faithful to the new order and totally blind to its incipient corruption. “Have faith,” he tells them.

Kotov’s marriage into the family, a union significantly — in the terms of the old dispensation – above his station, doesn’t sit well with his Puccini-and-patronymics in-laws. For his part, the general finds his new relatives pink-handed and morally feeble; cannot understand why their class didn’t fight to defend itself against “a bunch of semi-literate Bolsheviks”; and allows them the run of their former dacha only out of love for his young wife, Maroussia (the radiant Michelle Dockery).

But when Maroussia’s former lover, Mitia (Rory Kinnear), returns after a mysterious 12-year absence, the game is set between the veteran and the émigré: the prize, the soul of the family and, by extension, the right to take them back to their comfortable past or forward as part of a brave new Russia.

Hinds excels as the imperturbable general, as does Tim McMullan as Kirik, a drunkard artiste, crushed by the kill-joy Communist ethos. But Kinnear, once again, steals the show as the troubled Mitia (tap-dancing, singing, and playing Rachmaninov with a gas mask on!). A special mention is due also to Vicki Mortimer’s set — a neat, revolving cut-away house that enables the action to proceed, unbroken, from one room/scene to the next.

With its often-bitter prose and dark, anticipatory humour (“I’m reading yesterday’s Pravda”), Burnt by the Sun is a superb piece of drama, shedding light on an era generally viewed in unhelpfully broad terms, questioning our instinctive Western assumptions regarding the intelligentsia and the military, and asking, ultimately, if one man’s awful choices might not deserve just as much sympathy as another’s.

National Theatre, until May 21. Tickets: £10-£42.50 Tel. 0207 452 3000 (www.nationaltheatre.org.uk)