A year or two ago, Mr Putin’s press office allowed it to be known that Russia’s dictator was such a busy man that he did not have as much time as he would like for family life. His evenings, like his days, were taken up with affairs of state. However, the story continued, he liked to get home before bedtime, so that he could share an hour of quality time with Mme Putina consuming yoghurt together.
It was clear that a picture of wholesome domesticity was being advanced for our admiration, at once reassuringly human and at the same time gently scotching the scurrilous rumours, with which the Russian blogosphere was then awash, that Russia’s iron man tended to spend his leisure moments in the arms of someone other than Mme Putina.
Of course we in the West were glad to have that reassurance, on both fronts. But one detail nagged: the yoghurt. One imagined the two of them sitting by an immense open fire in ancient quarters of the Kremlin in which Tsars and Commissars had both in their different eras found solace from the cares of office. Maybe body-parts still adorned the recesses of the great chimney. In one’s mind’s eye Mme Putina would don in anticipation the industrial-scale gloves that she wears to eat – if her behaviour at the state banquet to which our Queen treated them is anything to go by.
One could see the Once and Future President proffering two little plastic tubs, with attached break-off-and-use spoons. Strawberry, or fruits of the forest, maya lubimaya, he might be asking.
One imagined his cold little eyes fastening on the fruits-of-the-forest yoghurt and that whatever she said he would always get his first choice.
Of course it was a mistake, a failure of translation. The press office should have known better. It was not yoghurt as we know it that they had last thing at night, but kefir, a delicious and particularly Russian fermented drink.
It is made with milk and kefir grains. These grains, which have the consistency of thoroughly boiled cauliflower, cause the milk to ferment. Apparently, they start life as the intestinal flora of a sheep, but I suppose that – as with the yoghurt cultures or bread yeasts that form the alternative currency of Stoke Newington and other places where lovers of the organic gather – one overlooks the funky origins.
The milk and the kefir grains were traditionally combined in a bag formed by the skin of a sheep, probably that from whose intestines the flora had earlier been removed. The bag would be thumped by passers-by to encourage fermentation. Since the huge strides made by Russia in the last century to become a major industrial nation, they probably have machines now to do the thumping.
Equally delicious fermented milk drinks can be found in Turkey and India: ayran and lassi. So far as I know, ayran and lassi do not involve the intestinal flora of a sheep, but all three, kefir, ayran and lassi, have these things in common.
They are probiotic, which I think means that they are good for your guts.
They are extremely tasty, to the point of being addictive.
Finally, they give you extraordinary and benign dreams.
All three are good reasons for regular consumption of the stuff, but the last will change your life. Other foods aid dreaming, notoriously cheese, but they do so by being indigestible, which is unpleasant by itself and tends to give your dreams an irritable quality. A kefir dream is generous and warm. Your favourite characters appear, and they are on your side. The other night I was organising a new television quiz show. Boris Johnson was helping me. Every time I had a new notion he would say, Golly, what a good idea.
I hurry to turn off the light these days. Unqualified approval is hard to come by, and approval from Boris in a dream is a lot better than no approval at all.
And that drags us back to the question of Mr Putin’s dreams. There is nothing to be gained by asking, and his press office no longer returns my calls. They did volunteer that his dreams were Russian dreams, but they would not elaborate.
What, to put it in a nutshell, would constitute a benign and generous dream for him? Benignity and generosity are not qualities, after all, that one immediately associates with the man.
I had a dream about him, by the way. This was an ayran dream rather than a kefir one, courtesy, to give credit where due, of TFC, the excellent Turkish supermarket in Dalston. It took place in his sports club. He sallied out onto the area of engagement, back straight, shoulders back. He was wearing an admiral’s hat of the Napoleonic era – it was a dream. His Black Belt was tied one extra time around his tummy to avoid his tripping over the ends.
But I am avoiding the question of his own dreams and the question will not go away. When he lies in the imperial bed with Mme Putina, side by side like Jack Sprat and his wife, what nocturnal fantasies assail him?
I imagine him meeting the people of the Baltic nations, the Ukrainians, the Georgians, all those who got under the wire in 1990, the men of the Stans (the women are indoors), the Hungarians. Come back, says Vladimir Vladimirovich. Let us build the Russian empire all over again. We will be mighty and I will be your eternal mighty leader. And in his dream the people of the Baltic nations, the Ukrainians, the Georgians, the men of the Stans and the Hungarians will chorus:
Golly, what a good idea.
I hope so. If his press office made it all up and there is no kefir to soothe his night thoughts, it would take a stronger mind than mine to peer inside his.