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My dinner with Putin

Putin expressed exasperation with the west and repeated the slights, hurts and pains of the past dec

On the evening of 11 November 2011, Vladimir Putin arrived at Le Cheval Blanc restaurant at the Novyi Vek ("New Age") equestrian centre in the smart Rublyovka district of Moscow. The occasion was a meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club and, for three hours, Putin engaged in a question-and-answer session with a small group of international experts.

The equestrian centre is a former collective farm (kolkhoz) fallen on hard times. It has been transformed into a symbol – if not of the new Russia, then of the opulent lifestyle of the "New Russians".

President Dmitry Medvedev keeps six of his pedigree horses at the centre. Inside, the atmosphere is of an English country house, with a log fire and oak beams. Putin arrived late, tanned and relaxed and not wearing a tie. He was in good spirits and confident, asserting Russia's positions on a variety of issues, from its energy supply to missile defence.

Putin expressed exasperation with the west and repeated the slights, hurts and pains of the past decade. He noted that “it is no secret" (although it came as news to most of us in the room) that not only are Russia's eastern and western oil pipeline networks being joined up but that the gas networks would also soon be connected for the first time.

He conceded that it was tough to bargain with the Chinese but, once a deal was done, they proved reliable partners, with the implication that the same did not apply to those in the west. Rehearsing Dostoevsky's cri de coeur about Russia walking as a slave in the west but as master in the east, Putin said: "We are being squeezed out of the European market, so we are turning to Asia."

On the idea of the Eurasian Union – the proposed political and economic grouping of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and other states – Putin asked why integration was encouraged elsewhere in the world but, when it was taking place in the post-Soviet space, it was denounced as Russian neo-imperialism.

It is unlikely that the Eurasian Union will be a game-changer and it may be little more than an election gimmick but it does signal a new phase in the development of relations in the region. Russia is advancing a more active integrationist agenda, distinct from the old desire to build relations with the European Union and the US. A new power, Putin implied, is rising in the east, not opposed to the west but no longer oriented to it. Russia would emerge as a European power in Asia, not a Eurasian power in Europe.

On the political front, Putin reassured us that "the screws will not be tightened" but that there would be little to stop the regime if it wished to tighten them. A system has been created in which the institutions of the state are trumped by the informal networks of power, concentrated on Putin personally.

Leningrad cowboy

Asked what new ideas he would bring to the presidency, he said: "Putin is one person and he will not divide. There are certain basic things that cannot change."

At the same time, he said that while a genuine multiparty system needed to be built in Russia, the party fragmentation of the past could not be repeated. Referring to his experience in "Leningrad" (as he called the city now known as St Petersburg) in the early democratic years after the end of the Soviet Union, he said that "even the simplest decisions could not be taken".

He insisted that he and Medvedev had not lied when, for four years, they had insisted that "we would see" about the succession. "We are not concerned . . . to preserve our personal power but to create an efficient and sustainable system," he said. Whether this system can be democratic is uncertain.

Putin's planned return to the presidency for a third term is the defining event of the era. If he wins on 4 March, as seems inevitable, his views will shape the country for at least a decade.

In truth, his "return" is a misnomer, because he never went away. This has thrown a harsh light on the political system that has developed over the past decade. Rather than elections shaping the composition of parliament and the presidency, the administrative system decides everything on behalf of the people.

Elections have become plebiscitary, ratifying decisions already made outside the electoral process. Rather than a set of independent institutions carrying political weight, the power of one man dominates. It is this infantilisation of the people that has been challenged in the protest marches provoked by the flawed parliamentary elections of 4 December 2011.

The main challenge now facing Putin is to recognise and take account of the civic spirit that has been awakened in Russia, while ensuring that the institutions of the constitutional state apply to all equally – including him.

Richard Sakwa is professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State