This morning I woke up with a start and immediately reached for the Blackberry on my bedside table. This is an incredibly bad habit, which I must rid myself of. Among the messages that had come in overnight was this comment posted on the blog by WCM, who makes "no apologies" for his rudeness. He suggests that I am not doing my job properly because I am writing about trivia and neglecting important issues like developments on the Turkish-Kurdish border, developments in Pakistan, the world of private equity etc…
WCM is not alone in his concerns. When I mentioned to my colleague Lucy Kellaway that I was planning to write about celebrities this week, she looked slightly concerned and said – "Isn’t that a bit moronic?" However, since her previous column had been devoted to seeing how many swear-words she could get into the FT in one go, I did not feel Lucy was in a position to preach. (I recommend the podcast incidentally).
However, the issue raised by WCM and LK is a valid one. My answer is that the question I ask when choosing a topic for my column (or indeed for the blog) is not – what is the most important thing going on in the world? It is – do I have anything original to say about this?
Here is a selection of recent newspaper headlines: "Redford slams Bush over Iraq"; "Bono takes IMF to task over Liberia"; "Jolie blasts US military spending"; "Clooney’s foreign policy – sexiest man has a plan to save Darfur". Read more
Nicolas Sarkozy is shaping up well as the politician who provides best value on YouTube. In an earlier entry, I posted the video of Sarko’s giggly press conference at an EU summit. Now the French president has surpassed himself by walking out of an interview with CBS’s "60 Minutes" programme, because the interviewer asked him about his divorce.
Well done, indeed. This interesting footage, got me thinking about a hit parade of political moments on YouTube. I think Sarko’s walk-out goes straight to the top.
I will stop banging on about Russia soon. But as well as the Kremlin meeting I recorded in the blog earlier in the week, I had lots of other meetings, kindly organised by the Heinrich Boll Stiftung, a German foundation.
Among the people we met was Yury Schmidt, the lawyer for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned former boss of Yukos. Schmidt is still doing his best by his client. But since he – like most people I spoke to – assume the legal process around Yukos is entirely politicised, it is difficult to hold out much hope. Much of what Schmidt had to say was convincing, even moving. But some of it seemed a little too ingenious. He argued that many of Khodorkovsky’s alleged crimes were committed in a period when the Soviet legal system had collapsed, but new laws had not yet been passed. I asked, "So you are saying since there were no laws, it was imposssible to break the law?" He replied, "Exactly."
I’m struggling a bit today. By Wednesday afternoon, I like to have a vague idea of what my column next week will be about. But I’m feeling uninspired. Of course, it is quite likely that there will be a rush of news later this week, which will provide an obvious topic. Last week, for example, by the weekend there were three good subjects – Benazir’s bloody return to Pakistan, the Polish elections, the signature of the new EU treaty. In the end, I ignored them all. But, if required, I’m sure I could have worked anyone of them up into a column of the required standard (β++∕∂-?).
At the moment, I am reduced to reading over my dog-eared list of “ideas for future columns”. The one I feel most like reviving at the moment is the article on what’s wrong with Bono. This got quite a big reaction when I first suggested it on the blog a few weeks ago – so there is an archive of stuff for me to work through. Also, I’ve just been forwarded a new article on celebrities in global politics, which looks promising. But I have had another idea, which at least has the merit of being new – the potential impact of $100 oil on global politics.
Last Friday I met Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, and so had a chance to put to him some of the criticisms of the Putin government, listed in my post "Fulminating against Russia." I will give an account of his views on missile defence et al, lower down.
However, I have found that most people I have spoken to about the meeting are far more interested in the question of what the Kremlin is actually like inside, than in what its representatives have to say to the world. The answer is that it is surprisingly dingy. Admittedly, it is also huge – and I only went into the first building that faces onto Red Square. However this is where, I am told, President Putin himself works. The corridors are long, sparse and lit by low wattage light bulbs. The lifts are elderly. And the security seems relatively lax, certainly compared to Downing Street or the White House. Peskov’s office has a great view over St Basil’s cathedral. But it is hardly opulent. There is a workaday conference table and a couple of beaten-up old sofas. I do not mean this as a criticism. Given that Mr Putin’s circle are regularly accused of enriching themselves, it is quite interesting that their working surroundings are not particularly flashy.
Dmitry Peskov, official spokesman for the Russian president, likes a joke. Visitors to his Kremlin office last week noticed that the screensaver on his computer is a series of revolving quotes from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Big Brother is watching you”, “war is peace”, “freedom is slavery”, “ignorance is strength”.
Since Mr Peskov works from the same building from which Stalin operated – and now speaks for Vladimir Putin, who is often accused of establishing a new Russian autocracy – this is all rather daring. Or tasteless. Possibly both.
Mr Peskov speaks with the relaxed good humour – and even the accent – of an American spin-doctor. But listening to some of what he had to say, I experienced a strong sense of déjà vu – and it was not the US that was brought to mind. It was China.
I keep being told that there is no such thing as the rule of law here in Russia. And now I know it’s true. That was never a penalty.
For those of you who have not been following events in Moscow, I refer to the Russia-England football match, and the unjustly awarded spot kick that turned the game. This evening I had decided to give maximum space to my inner moron – and so quietly excused myself from a dinner with Russian NGOs, in favour of watching the match on television. All England needed was a draw – and with just 20 minutes to go, we were winning. Wayne Rooney – that epitome of all that is finest in English manhood – had put England ahead. But then came the imaginary penalty, awarded against poor, bewildered Rooney. Then another Russian goal (fluke) – and we had lost.
I will be in Moscow later this week which should be fascinating since I haven’t been for a couple of years. For reasons too tedious to go into, I won’t be able to do the blog from Russia. So, after this post, there will be a short period of silence.
In preparation for the trip, however, I’ve been talking to lots of people. The single most memorable conversation I have had about Russia was with a "senior administration official" in Washington,a few weeks ago. The man in question is not generally regarded as a hardliner or a hawk. But his view of developments in Russia was extraordinary bleak. Here are the edited highlights: