Encountering Vladimir Putin up close

Encountering Vladimir Putin up close

Magnificent Russia: A Land of Strangeness and Intrigue

St. Petersburg

T.H. Marshall, the esteemed economist and analyst of the economics of place, once argued that there was a mysterious quality in the air of Sheffield that made it exceptional at producing steel. It’s equally true that Russia has that enigmatic air which seems to spread anxiety and intrigue. As someone who has visited the country on various occasions, under both Soviet rule and Putin’s regime, I can attest to the fact that every experience in Russia is tinged with a peculiar and eerie strangeness.

My first journey to Russia was in 1981, during the Soviet era. It was a college trip led by a brilliant philosopher named Derek Parfit. Parfit was known for his eccentricity, and we were a group of young Oxford fellows eager to explore the realities of “actually existing socialism.” Parfit, obsessed with capturing photographs of snowy Leningrad, carried a large load of photographic equipment and wore a leather cape to protect it from the elements. Despite the impending danger of an ice-breaker on the frozen River Neva, he fearlessly snapped away.

The hotel where we stayed in Leningrad added to the peculiarities of the trip. Our fellow tourists were just as strange as we were – Sheffield Communist Party members who interpreted every inconvenience as evidence of Communism’s perfection, conservative ladies from the Tunbridge Wells Association seeking adventure, and Finnish visitors who indulged in excessive drinking and ended up passed out in the hotel corridors. Amidst the chaos, there were also attractive young women who engaged us in conversations at the bar, prompting humorous advice on escapism from a honey trap given by a seasoned diplomat. Furthermore, inquisitive men in shabby suits, clearly keeping a close eye on us, approached us with subtle attempts to uncover our intentions.

Despite Parfit’s frequent absence battling icebreakers, he always made an effort to engage everyone around him in free-flowing seminars on the philosophy of personal identity. Even the men in ill-fitting suits joined us for dinner, hoping for a political discussion but finding themselves immersed in a discourse on personal identity, future selves, teletransporters, and glass tunnels. Leaving Leningrad, we were convinced that the Soviet Union was ill-prepared for the philosophical musings of Parfit, regardless of its economic system.

My next voyage to Russia took place in 2005, long after Communism had fallen. I had the opportunity to attend the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, billed as the Russian version of Davos. However, my journey did not start smoothly. My vodka-scented taxi driver took me on a convoluted route from the airport, and upon arrival at the hotel, I discovered they had no record of my booking. As it turned out, my booking was for the Park Hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida. Eventually, the travel agency rectified the error, and I was provided with a luxurious suite atop the hotel—usually reserved for the manager, judging by his smouldering hostility.

Compared to my visit in 1981, St. Petersburg was transformed into a consumer paradise. The shops were brimming with an abundance of goods. The people, especially in the town centre, were stylishly dressed. Carl’s Junior hamburger joints dotted the city streets. However, an unsettling undertone remained. Strangers who recognized me greeted me by name, offering potential collaborations in London. A panel I chaired nearly erupted into violence as a banker and politician fiercely quarreled over the order of speaking. Despite these odd encounters, St. Petersburg exuded an air of intrigue that kept me on my toes.

During my third visit in 2011, I explored Moscow, observing the progress of capitalism. One particular stop on my journey fascinated me: a business school offering a course on transitioning from a gangster to a legitimate businessperson. Equally captivating was my visit to the head of the Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin. Yakunin welcomed me warmly, impressing me with his extensive collection of phones color-coded for various Kremlin areas. He even concluded our meeting by hugging me tightly and mentioning that while he personally didn’t mind what I wrote, his million employees loved the company so much that they might visit The Economist’s offices if they found my praises to be lacking.

Returning to St. Petersburg in 2012 for another Economic Forum, I found myself in the position of chairing several sessions. The organizers sent a brand-new black Mercedes to pick me up from the airport, with the driver insisting that I could have the car at my disposal throughout the conference. Amused and tempted by the idea of driving back to England in the luxury vehicle, I kindly asked for the driver’s card so that I could contact him during my stay. However, his reaction was alarming. After a long and agitated phone call, he informed me that I could indeed have his car. However, all I wanted was a simple piece of paper, a mere fraction of a penny’s worth, rather than a $200,000 car.

The pinnacle of the Forum was a speech delivered by none other than Vladimir Putin himself. Eager to secure a good view, I arrived early and found myself seated near prominent figures such as Henry Kissinger, Lloyd Blankfein, and a multitude of oligarchs. It wasn’t until I glanced at my badge that I realized I was sitting in an area marked “A,” though my designation was “Q.” Panic set in as I feared being exposed as an impostor or a potential threat to Putin’s safety. However, after contemplating the consequences of such a situation, I was overjoyed to leave the conference unscathed.

Russia is undoubtedly a country of bewildering strangeness, where even the most mundane experiences are enlivened with an air of intrigue. From my encounters with eccentric philosophers, philosophical discussions with men in ill-fitting suits, and the ever-present sense of unease, each visit to Russia has been an adventure. Although the country has transformed since my initial trip in 1981, shedding the cloak of Communism, the mysterious allure of Russia remains unchanged. Its blend of opulence, peculiar encounters, and a constant undertone of unease make it a fascinating and captivating destination unlike any other.