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Face to face with Vladimir Putin

TH MARSHALL, one of the founders of modern economics and one of the most brilliant analysts of local economics, claimed that ‘there was something in the air’ in the English city of Sheffield which made her gifted for the manufacture of steel. I think it is also true that there is “something in the air” in Russia, which makes it good for spreading anxiety and grobulation. Bagehot has visited Russia several times over the years – under Communism and Putinism – but has never had a normal day there. Everything that happens is tinged with a kind of sinister strangeness.

My first visit was in 1981, while still under Soviet rule, on a college trip led by Derek Parfit. It was a formula of strangeness in its own right. Parfit was one of England’s greatest eccentrics as well as one of its greatest philosophers. We were a group of young Oxford scholars, eager to discover “the really existing socialism”. Parfit traveled to Leningrad every year to photograph the city under the snow, and he approached his task with obsessive concentration. Carrying a large amount of photographic equipment wherever he went – several cameras, a tripod, rolls of film – he wore a large leather cape to protect his equipment from snow and ice. He spent most of his time standing on the frozen Neva River in the middle of the city (pictured), walking away regardless of whether an icebreaker was bearing down on him

The Leningrad hotel where we stayed offered other quirks. Our traveling companions were almost as strange as we were. There were several members of the Sheffield Communist Party who interpreted everything around them, from the absence of plugs in the bathtub to undrinkable coffee, as proof that communism worked perfectly. There were several ladies from the Tunbridge Wells Conservative Association who had signed up for a great adventure. Then there were dozens of Finnish visitors who got drunk every night and passed out in the hotel hallways. There were also quite a few pretty young women chatting with us at the bar. (Before I left for Moscow, a high-ranking diplomat and a Russian hand advised me that the best way to escape a honey trap was to wear a pillowcase over your head, with slits for the holes for the eyes – “always have a pair of scissors” was his farewell advice.) And then there were the onlookers in badly cut suits who dropped in next to us as soon as they could and, without too much subtlety , wanted to know what we were doing.

Parfit was away most of the time to fight with the icebreakers. But each time he appeared, he did his best to engage everyone around him, from his Oxford inner circle to Sheffield communists to prying Russians, in a free-flowing seminar on the philosophy of identity. personal. The men in bad suits joined us for dinner and tried to engage us in a philosophical discussion but got more than they bargained for when, asked to report on himself, Parfit launched into a long dissertation on personal identity, future selves, teletransporters and glass tunnels. We left Leningrad convinced that, whatever its economic merits, the Soviet Union would not survive many more visits from Parfit.

The next time I visited Russia was only in 2005. Communism had long since fallen, Leningrad had been renamed, and I was a guest at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, which billed itself as the Russian version of Davos. Things got off to a bad start. My taxi driver smelled of vodka and chose the most circuitous route possible from the airport. When I finally arrived at my hotel, I was told that they had no record of my reservation and, it was St. Petersburg Economic Forum week, that there were no rooms available. in the city. I angrily showed the girl on the desk my voucher. She sneered, pointing out that I had been booked into the Park Hotel in St Petersburg, Florida. I walked away in embarrassment.

The travel company eventually rectified their mistake and I was provided with a rather plush suite at the top of the hotel, which I suspected, from its smoldering hostility, normally housed the manager. The city turned out to be a shopper’s paradise compared to 1981: the stores were full of stuff, the people, at least in the downtown area, were well dressed, and there were Carl’s Junior burger joints in all the other streets. But something sinister hung in the air nonetheless. An attractive stranger nodded to me on the street and greeted me by name. Another pretty woman I met at the conference offered to work together in London. A panel I was chairing almost didn’t happen because a senior banker and a senior politician almost came to blows over who should speak first (the politician won).

On my third trip to Russia in 2011, I was in Moscow to observe the progress of capitalism. I was fascinated to visit a business school that offered a course on how to join the mainstream economy, that is, how to go from a gangster to a legitimate businessman. I was even more fascinated to visit the head of Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin, in the biggest office I have seen in my life. Mr. Yakunin was the perfect host. He offered me “the best vodka”. He showed me the huge selection of phones on his desk – color coded for different parts of the Kremlin – before holding up a cell phone and saying, “This is for Vladimir.” He let me play with his electronic card of the Russian railway system. He showed me his collection of chess sets. He explained to me that Russia had not invested much in high-speed trains out of deference to its neighbors, the Finns: Russia has many Finnish visitors, he explained to me, but the Finns are by nature timorous and he didn’t want to frighten them by putting them on trains that were too fast. He explained that the West was doomed to insignificance by its addiction to market fundamentalism which contrasted miserably with Russia’s realism. As I was leaving, he gave me a hug and explained that while he personally didn’t mind, his 1 million employees loved the company so much that if my praise was snuffed out, they might swear. ‘offend and visit The Economist‘s desks to set me straight.

On my fourth trip in 2012, I was back in St. Petersburg for another Economic Forum meeting. I had agreed to chair several sessions, so the organizers sent a car – a brand new black Mercedes – to pick me up from the airport and drop me off at my hotel. The driver explained to me that he was at my disposal throughout the conference. Ravi I asked him if I could have his card to be able to call him. He immediately froze, then made a long choppy phone call. When he finally hung up, he turned to me and told me that everything was decided and that I could indeed have his car. I briefly contemplated the joys of going with the flow and returning to England in a brand new Mercedes, but then explained that all I wanted was a flimsy piece of paper worth one fraction of a penny rather than a car worth around $200,000.

The highlight of the last day of the Forum was a speech by Vladimir Putin himself. I arrived early for the event and planted myself near the front of the auditorium. Eventually, the masters of the universe came in and took their places around me: Henry Kissinger, Lloyd Blankfein, dozens of oligarchs. I looked up to see that I was sitting in an area marked “A”. I then studied my badge and saw that I was supposed to be in the “Q” zone. But after waiting so long, I decided to stay where I was – and, moreover, there were still places in front of me that were vacant. After another half hour, Mr. Putin himself and a few minions made their grand entrance and dropped into the empty seats. At first, I was glad to have a side view of the back of Mr. Putin’s surprisingly pink and plump neck. Then panic took hold of me. All the people around me belonged to the Russian or world elite. My badge clearly indicated that I was a “Q” level person. What if Mr. Putin’s security guards noticed I was an impostor and decided I was there to kill the boss? Will they drag me out and subject me to days of beatings? Or would a single punch to the head do the trick? The more I thought, the more I sweated. And the more I sweated, the more I looked like a desperate assassin. I have never been so happy to leave a conference in my life.

Source: Economist

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