The events of the last 20 years or so are supposed to have changed Russia beyond recognition. That may be, though the point is arguable (which is the polite way of saying I think it’s wrong).
What’s undeniable is that Russian leaders are cut from exactly the same cloth, of the kind that used to be fashioned into KGB uniforms. Their behaviour has changed, however, and not for the better. In the past Soviet leaders used to conceal, with variable success, their nouveau riche swinishness behind the Kremlin walls. These days they don’t bother.
Nikita Khrushchev, for example, had a weakness for the national drink, downing a 7-ounce glass of it at every breakfast, and to think that unlike his subjects he could actually get orange juice. Occasionally Nikita appeared publicly in his cups, the likelihood of which indiscretion being inversely proportionate to the importance of the occasion. But one can’t recall a single instance when he was too drunk to turn up at a meeting with a foreign, especially Western, leader.
Yeltsyn, having thrown out the bathwater of proletarian internationalism, threw out the baby of elementary decency along with it. He was drunk permanently and on one occasion couldn’t get out of his presidential plane in Dublin, leaving the welcoming party stunned on the tarmac. He also created the so-called oligarchy by generously tossing billions at his cronies, in the style of Catherine the Great rewarding her lovers’ ardour with estates the size of a large British county.
Since then Russian leaders have been acting in ways that make our millionaire footballers seem like illustrations to Debrett’s Etiquette for Girls. And unlike Soviet wives who used to keep a low profile, this lot, starting with Raisa Gorbachev, try to outdo their hubby-wubbies in conspicuously tasteless consumption.
Our press, traditionally ignorant about things Russian, encourages that sort of thing by extolling the refinement of these august ladies. Those Russians who actually are refined laugh sardonically: the likes of the late Raisa couldn’t open their mouths without displaying the cultural and phonetic attainment of an average collective-farm milkmaid.
This brings us to Svetlana Medvedeva, the wife of Putin’s poodle. This woman is also hailed for her subtle refinement, to which her claim is weak to the point of being nonexistent. As if to prove this she does like to have a free hand with state funds.
Last year, for example, Svetlana spent her holiday in Italy. It was a modest affair, just her and a few close friends. Actually, about 50 of them. To obtain maximum privacy, she hired the entire five-star Grand Hotel La Pace in Tuscany’s Montecatini Terme. The hotel has 140 rooms, each costing from 4,000 to 9,000 euros a night. Lest she might be accused of penny-pinching, Mrs Medvedev paid for them all, even though she only used fewer than a half.
When some imprudent Russian journalist raised the issue, the Kremlin issued a curt statement saying that Svetlana had paid for her holiday out of her own funds. Well, one can only congratulate a woman whose small change stretches to, say, 800,000 euros a day for a fortnight, even though she neither inherited nor earned as much in her whole life. One can’t imagine Samantha Cameron or Michelle Obama getting away with something like that, but Russian journalists know better than to probe too insistently.
Anyway, a friend of mine, a tutor of English in Tel-Aviv, just rang with a funny story. One of his students is a low-level employee at the Russian embassy, and yesterday my friend went to his house to give a lesson. When he entered his student’s modest flat, he thought a pipe must have burst: the floor was one contiguous puddle.
The truth was communicated to him by a muscular, apron-clad Russian woman wielding a swab and a bucket. She was scrubbing the floor clean in the old-fashioned way of Russian peasant women who often had to share their quarters with incontinent livestock.
‘What’s the occasion?’ asked my friend and received a reply delivered through his student’s clenched teeth (the cleaning woman spoke no language other than Russian). Turned out Svetlana Medvedeva, this time in her capacity as emissary of the Russian patriarch, flew in with a retinue roughly the size of Marie-Antoinette’s, 130 or so. This not being strictly a pleasure junket, she had assumed that the embassy would provide quarters commensurate with her recently acquired tastes.
Alas, a characteristic break in communications had occurred and the danger of having to sleep rough began to loom large. However, though the Russians’ organisational skills are of less than sterling quality, their ingenuity can’t be faulted.
No five-star hotel could be hired in its entirety, so Svetlana and her immediate entourage had to contend with merely half of one floor. At the same time the embassy ordered that its staff put up the rest of the party in their own flats. Hence the feverish wielding of swabs and paint brushes: the dignitaries had to be treated royally, as it were.
I wonder how the Russians, about 20 percent of whom still live in stinking communal flats, feel about such little anecdotes. One can just hear them say, ‘If this is democracy, bring back Stalin.’ In fact, polls show that’s exactly what they do say. Dear oh dear oh dear.