The Lions of St. Petersburg

Society in Russia is rigidly stratified. Unlike England where a cat can look at a king, in Russia a cat can look only at a slightly larger cat, the consolation being that the cat can be absolutely beastly to slightly smaller cats. Since they tried equality for sixty-odd years, and look where it got them, who can blame them?

It is like the situation at my public school in the sixties, where any boy could require any menial service of anyone his junior. That was based on respective age. In Russia it is a little more complicated, though ultimately simple: it’s mainly about money.

At the top of the tree of course is the Perpetual President along, I imagine, with the Perpetual Presidential girlfriend, since, as in the English aristocracy, consorts take on the status of those more powerful who have taken them under their protection. Although immensely wealthy, as a result no doubt of investing his Presidential salary wisely, he is not the richest man in the country. Nevertheless he has the power in practice to ask other rich people to give him their money, which comes to the same thing.

We were invited by our good friends R and S to a party which they gave, where some of this became apparent. The guests included a couple who are probably at the top of the tree in their city. As I stood nursing a small measure of vodka before we went through to the dining room, the she of that couple advanced on me in a regal Dior dress. By ‘regal’ I mean that it looked as if it might have been designed for a queen – not a real queen like ours but one in a story book.

“You look funny,” she said to me. “Are you all right?”

And without waiting for a reply she turned away.

For a moment I was nonplussed. Had my old trouble re-asserted itself? I checked a mirror (the room was full of them) but everything seemed to be all right. Then I realised. I was wearing Scottish evening dress, which she must have found surprising. (The kilt was the Hunting McBlag: black, as you will know, streaked with a disconcerting crimson; the conventional sgian dhu in my stockings playfully replaced with a small Kalashnikov). Her remark that I looked funny was no more than a polite acknowledgement that, from infinitely higher up on the ladder, she had noticed me, and what followed was merely ritual enquiry after my well-being, like the ‘Y’alright?’ with which one’s friends from Essex often greet one. In short she had treated me in a way that was gracious and appropriate: it had just come a little unstuck in the translation.

As to the funniness to her of my dress I should mention that whilst the women at the party had gone to great trouble with their appearance and looked for the most part imposing, formal and lovely, most men had decided that an open-necked shirt and slacks would do. I think that my bow tie was the only tie of any sort in evidence.

Later I watched the him of the couple at the top of the tree. He was acting with impressive benevolence and courtesy, like a laird at a reception given by an esteemed neighbouring land-owner, with a word here and there to the guests and the entertainment, going onto the dance floor prepared to make a fool of himself when the action seemed to be slowing.

Prowling jerkily round the party was another big beast, a woman who has made a great deal of money very quickly and is well known there. I was to meet her as it turned out the following evening, a much smaller impromptu occasion with a few friends at R and S’s dacha. I will call her ‘LOC’.

We were sitting on the veranda, reminiscing about the party and particularly S’s amazing singing, on which subject she was being modest. There was a commotion as someone joined us from the house. I looked up. Was it Laurence Olivier doing his Richard III, I wondered briefly. No, it was LOC. S introduced us, mentioning that of course she and the better half had met. LOC did not acknowledge this in any way but took to stalking up and down the veranda, throwing glances backwards over her shoulder and muttering.

‘LOC,’ someone whispered to me in an awed voice, in case I had missed the point.

I had a small measure of vodka before me on the table. Without warning LOC seized the glass and placed it elsewhere, producing a camera and going about the business of framing an intended photograph. I took it back.

‘I’m drinking from it,’ I said. ‘There is a free one, there.’

Again she did not acknowledge this in any way, but pushed between me and the table thrusting a scrawny arse into my face as she closed on her composition, and forcing me to stand up and move away. At last she spoke to me.

‘Good. You’re angry. I want to photograph you now.’

‘And I,’ I said, ‘want you to fuck off’, and I went into the next room and talked to my friend T, who is a psychologist.

After a minute or so there was a delegation.

‘She didn’t mean to upset you. She says she thought that you must know that she is very famous and eccentric and she has to take photos.’

I was still irritated.

‘Being notoriously rude doesn’t make her rudeness any more acceptable,’ I said.

After a further minute the delegation came back.

‘She’s really sorry. She’s making her sorry face. You must come and see her sorry face.’

And so she was. It was disgusting, like a puppy that has shat itself in a cartoon. Combine that mental image with that of Laurence Olivier doing his Richard III and you’ve got it.

‘Sowwy,’ she said.

‘It’s all right,’ I said.

But she continued to pout and later T, the psychologist, could be heard encouraging her not to abandon her sense of self-worth in the face of such an insensitive assault.

Had I been a psychologist, I told the better half later, I would have drawn a different conclusion: if we all treated each other as fellow human beings instead of rungs on a ladder, there would be no wars, no divorces and no unpleasant scenes on our friends’ verandas.

Bollocks, said the better half.

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