While he was in England in 1698, Tsar Peter the Great told engineer John Perry that he had written a short phrase in his diary: "The island of England is the best and most beautiful in the world." From June 24 to 26, Vladimir Putin will have the chance to compare his impressions with those of his great countryman during his own official visit to the British Isles. The trip will be significantly more comprehensive than his flying visit to London in December 2001.
The British premier and Russian president have more in common than simply their age. There is something similar in the international statuses of Britain and Russia.
These former empires lost at different times and for different reasons their colonial possessions and are today seeking their new place in the changing world. It might seem that London views itself at Europe's ambassador at the Washington court, a kind of trans-Atlantic herald between the Old and New Worlds. It has had various degrees of success in this role. In its turn, Russia sees itself as the bridge between Europe and Asia and the West's energetic partner in the face of new global threats, be they international terrorism, the proliferation of nuclear weapons or global pollution.
At the same time, the Iraq saga tells a different story: London and Moscow do not quite see eye to eye on the future world order.
Peter Mandleson, the chief architect of New Labour and Tony Blair's closest friend, recently wrote in an article that Blair would be completely satisfied with a world unilaterally ruled by the United States. The rest of the world would be left to whisper to Washington, urging it not to lose its head or become intoxicated with power, using its military might for good causes.
Russia, as the Iraq experience showed, is resolutely against a situation when a sovereign country is bombed and then the justification for this strike is sought post factum. Moscow does not believe that the mechanisms for reflecting the collective mind of the international community, such as the United Nations, have become obsolete. Putin believes that there is nothing to replace them and, although it may seem something of a paradox, he has an ally in this thinking in Tony Blair.
Throughout the Iraq campaign, the British premier attempted to influence George Bush to acknowledge the key role of the UN in all Iraqi affairs. However, he only succeeded in doing so when Iraq had been defeated, its museums and libraries looted, and hundreds of Iraqi, American and British families had been left without their breadwinners. The whisper in Washington's ear was not so successful after all.
The differences over Iraq, however, have not harmed both sides' conviction that Russo-British relations have never been warmer. The relationship is being compared to the period in the Second World War, when British sailors risked their lives in North Sea convoys to bring Russian food and armaments.
Economic statistics are a source of joy. Last year the volume of trade between Russia and Britain jumped by 1.5%, reaching 3.5 billions pounds. As far as investment in the Russian market is concerned, then Britain is in third place, just behind Germany and Cyprus. However, this achievement is already a thing of the past. The recent decision taken by British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell to invest about $17 billion dollars in the Russian energy sector could make Britain foreign investor number 1.
It is another matter that British-Russian business partnership is in need of diversification towards hi-tech products, with the British Expert Credits Guarantee Department ensuring the best conditions. This is not the only question that could be addressed. However, this is an issue for the future; the most important thing now is that Russia has won back the trust of British businessmen.
The image of Russia and the Russians for the average man on the street in England is a more difficult problem.
The British media is obsessed with such forced subjects as "Russian money laundering in foreign banks," "the lawlessness of the Russian mafia," or "federal forces' crimes in Chechnya." And this has had an impact. A British man or woman often sees Russia as a source of an undefined threat. In the best case scenario, the English prefer to keep Russia in the back of their collective mind.
RIA Novosti distributed a questionnaire in Britain to seek some clarification on this point on the eve of Vladimir Putin's visit. In answer to a question as to how Russia is viewed in the United Kingdom, Oxford University Professor Peter Oppenheimer was inclined to believe that the majority of his countrymen were indifferent. His own substantial symbols of Russia were: shchi (cabbage soup) and kasha (a dish similar to semolina), church domes and dreadfully cold winters. At the same time, when he was asked about famous cultural figures, the professor named Gogol, Shostakovich and Akhmatova.
One conclusion among the respondents was overwhelming: Russia's popularity with the British public is ebbing, but members of the older generation, who played their part in the defeat of the Nazis, are still interested and see Russia in a positive light with obvious sympathy. They continue to view Russia in the same way they perceived the USSR, i.e. as a great power with a rich national culture and famed space pioneers, a country which is always ready to defend humanity against old and new evils without any strings attached.
It is only a shame that the older generation will not be with us for much longer. Young people only hear from time to time about Russia's noveau riche and their trips to London's jewellers, which they leave with their bags overflowing.
Time and ill-advised propaganda have served to revise history. Ask a young English person about whose side the USSR fought on in WWII and you might very well hear "I don't know" or even worse "on Hitler's side." In his comments to the historical fact that the Russians took Berlin in 1945 and thereby ended the war in Europe, one Englishman, and a public figure to boot, wrote on his questionnaire: "Rubbish. My father did that when he shot down the first Luftwaffe bomber over Dover." Both sides constantly distort history, believes Jean Turner, honorary secretary of the British Society for Co-operation in Russia and Soviet Studies. In her remarks on the RIA Novosti questionnaire, she points out that the pre-revolutionary rule of the tsars is romanticised in Russia to the detriment of the great achievements in science and social welfare of the Soviet period.
In Turner's opinion, Putin is trying to correct this situation and, undoubtedly, wants to restore the pride of the Russian nation in its country.
This is probably what the president's visit to Britain is all about. Vladimir Putin is bringing a new image of Russia. It is a country that is already firmly democratic, with an indisputable market economy, with GDP growing by 20% over the last three years, with the lowest income tax rate in Europe at 13% and financial auditing practices that come close to global accepted levels of transparency. If the state of affairs were any different, then Russian companies shares would hardly be listed on the London Stock Exchange. There are already twelve of them and the list is growing.
Weighed down by their own national problems, looking pale from their worries, the Russian president and British premier will meet in London at least to ensure that their nations do not lose their kind sentiments towards one another.
Vladimir Simonov, RIAN