My Friend, Vlad

Vlad. My old mate. My path has crossed yours several times. I must be one of the few Australians who can boast this. Though I never actually got to shake hands with you or anything like that, I have come across your trail on occasion. Rather like small critters such as ants or beetles might accidentally stumble on, and become mired in, the slimy path left by a snail.

Sorry, Vlad. That wasn’t very nice, was it? Hold on a tick while I come up with a more flattering metaphor for you. Try this: rather like a small bird caught up in the wake produced on that memorable occasion which had you flying with Siberian cranes. Does that suit your ego better?

You won’t remember me, Vlad. You probably didn’t even notice me. But I certainly remember you. The events to which I refer herein took place early in the 21st century when, on more than one occasion, I visited your home city of St Petersburg, partly because I like the place – what’s not to like? – and partly because I wanted to further my studies in Russian language. I had previously studied Russian at university here in Oz and, finding its cadence and sonority rather attractive to the ear, decided to pursue it further. Strangely, the turbulent history of your country in the 20th and 21st centuries is not reflected in this gentle and mellow language.

To this end, I attended classes in Russian language in your beautiful city. Regrettably, I was never able to become fluent. But I’m proud to say I did get to read Kapitanskaya Dochka in the original Russian, with a dictionary beside me of course. Vlad, that’s a novel by Alexander Pushkin, also a one-time resident of your city. As you would know.

And in St Petersburg is where our paths crossed. Mine and yours, Vlad.

The first occasion was in August 2000 when, only three months prior, a vodka soaked but democratically elected Boris Yeltsin handed over the reins of the Presidency to you. Remember that, Vlad? It was a big moment for you.

You’d also remember that things went pear shaped almost from the get go. Soon after my arrival, one of your nuclear submarines, the Kursk, had the audacity to stay stubbornly below the surface while you were at a holiday resort in Sochi. You took your own good time getting back on deck. When you did get back, you had a perfectly valid excuse for your indifference. Something to the effect that non-experts would only get in the way of rescue efforts. In any event, none of the crew survived, and you were castigated by some ungrateful dudes for your lack of empathy with their loved ones.

It all puts me in mind of something that recently beset our own Prime Minister here in Australia when he reluctantly came back from a holiday in Hawaii because much of the country was in flames. He was reported as having said, ‘I don’t hold a hose.’ And he went on from there to deliver a masterclass in lack of empathy.

I felt really sorry for you back then, Vlad. I remember thinking, ‘Poor devil. He won’t survive this one.’ But you proved me wrong, didn’t you?

You have shown how it can be done. Perhaps there is yet some hope for our own Prime Minister.

My next visit was in the northern summer of 2003. This was a time of great celebration in St Petersburg. It was the 300th anniversary of the founding of the city. I was ready to join in the festivities in between taking some more classes in Russian. But, Vlad, I was labouring under a misconception. You never intended the festivities to be for the pleasure of the common folk. This was only ever going to be an event for you to showcase and advance your own power.

So it happened that, as I strolled along a footpath in central St Petersburg – minding my own business – enjoying the weak sunshine – a menacing motorcade of limousines with motorcycle escorts roared recklessly round a corner. My impression at this moment was that the drivers were under instructions to treat their vehicles as weapons. Had I been jaywalking, I swear I would have been roadkill. Vlad, I’m pretty sure you would have been sitting back inside one of those vehicles, your backside making its decisive impression in the soft leather upholstery. Of course, I couldn’t tell with absolute certainty that it was you, because all the occupants were behind tinted glass. But, on the balance of probabilities, I’d say it was highly likely you were there. A little jaunt like this with those dearest to your heart – your rich and powerful mates – is just the sort of caper one might expect of you.

Vlad! Vlad! A matter of mere metres separated us, Vlad. This was, unfortunately, as close as I would ever get to you. But so very close. You were dispensing shock and awe to the masses as is your wont and, at the same time, you were gathering brownie points from those that really mattered in your cloistered world.

Fast forward a day or two, Vlad, and you’ll find me presuming to take advantage of the hospitality you famously extend to those you favour, through the carefully coordinated program of events you have authorized for the festivities. In the small but beautiful backstreets of this fabulous city of Peter the Great, I came across a small string ensemble preparing to give a recital. I sat down. The conductor raised his baton and, at his behest, gentle music flowed.

But not for long.

Suddenly, a blast of piped and raucous music sounded from loudspeakers strategically placed in a nearby public square. This cacophony drowned out the delicate performance I had been enjoying. The hapless conductor hung in there for a while but, unable to compete with this obscene amount of noise, eventually chose to point his baton in its direction, and pretend to conduct along with it it. The look on his face, Vlad, was a real picture. It was a look of ironic resignation. He had seen all this before.

(A question for you here , Vlad. The specific piece of piped music that so rudely interrupted all other proceedings was, I believe, Marche Slave by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. This piece was originally intended to commemorate the intervention of Russian forces in the Serbian-Ottoman war of 1876. Was this choice deliberate on the part of your cronies and, if so, does it prophesy present day – and possible future – interventions?)

Just a few days later came the grand parade down Nevsky Prospect, highlight of the festivities celebrating the 300th birthday of the fair city. The weather was perfect for the occasion. Excitement was in the air. Masses of ordinary Russians were vying for the best vantage points.

Then – on your instructions, Vlad, I presume – the politzaya moved in, and all these starry-eyed folk – patriots to the last person – were cleared out.

Tables were set up, then the tables were laid. And then, as if from thin air, the apparatchiki – paying customers – were moved in. Soon their bums – and those of their wives, mistresses, girl friends, or whatever – were on seats. These clowns were busy feeding their faces, swilling vodka, and watching the parade through a communal alcoholic haze. Somewhere beyond them, somewhere that the ordinary folk and I couldn’t see, that parade was happening.

Thank you from me, Vlad, for a most illuminating spectacle.

Vlad, you knew what you were doing, didn’t you? Two decades later, this sort of caper now sees you in the best of stead. The general public may be fickle but, as the situation stands today, the same apparatchiki you cultivated back then, and who now occupy positions of power at your decree, would swear black was white if you told them it was so. You have them by the short and curlies, Vlad. Isn’t this the very definition of leadership?

Fast forward a few years, and I am in St Petersburg once more for language lessons. On the weekend, I take a train to a region just beyond the outskirts, to visit one of the sumptuous palaces built back in Tsarist days. The train is full of ordinary Russians with, I presume, a recreational purpose in mind. Just like me.

We pass a station on the way. Its platform is filled with Roma – men, women, and children distinguishable as Roma by their colourful costumes – carrying with them what looks like it could be all their worldly possessions. When I say the platform is filled, I mean there isn’t room to put a toothpick down. All the Russian passengers clutch instinctively at their wallets and their faces all drop. I can read the question in their mind: ‘The train’s not planning to stop here, is it?’

Roma – gypsies – have the capacity to put the fear of God into ordinary Russians. And, on this ill-fated platform, it is not just a handful of Roma. What we see here is a massive horde of their ilk. Many a time, when Roma are on the prowl, ordinary Russians, like those on this train, have seen their wallets and watches disappear before their eyes as if by magic.

To the immense relief of all on board, the train doesn’t stop at this station. But the incident sets me wondering. What are all those Roma doing crowded into the one small space, looking for all the world like they are about to be victims of a final solution? Are they being herded? Could there be guards set at the station’s exit to prevent them fleeing? All things considered, Vlad, what I’m witnessing has a bad smell and, though I can’t for the life of me figure out why, something about this stench puts me in mind of you.

But, Vlad, one thing that can be said in your favour is you don’t discriminate. Not against Roma. Not against Jews. Not against gays. Not even against Pussy Riot. Not even against those pesky Ukrainians. When it comes to the crunch, Vlad, they are all much of a muchness to you.

The focus of your contempt, Vlad, is ordinary people in general. They are in your way and, as such, are expendable trash, beneath your dignity to even acknowledge.


One of my subscribers pointed out to me an error I had made in my last newsletter ‘SMALL BEER’. I am grateful to him for this. I quoted the saturation oxygen content of water as being very small, i.e. in the vicinity of 0.00001%. The figure should be 0.001%, still very small. Apparently, I had neglected to multiply by 100 when calculating the percentage. The error makes no difference to the essence of the argument I was making, which was that fish can survive in an environment with a very low oxygen content. This assertion would not hold with my original figure, but would with the revised figure.