In the silence that followed, I looked across the bar, where a table of shaven-headed young Fascists were casting curious glances in our direction. You could hardly blame them: Igor Samconov - a former rocket technician, who is now a well-known artist in St Petersburg - and Yuri, a retired geologist, share a fondness for their figurehead that is impressive even by the standards of the far right. What, I asked Igor, would he like to say to Margaret Thatcher if he had the chance? "That I adore her," he said. "That she is my idol. That I would like her to sit for me. Naked," he added, "if she agrees."
Yuri, Igor, and 500 others launched the Thatcherites of Russia at a public meeting in St Petersburg two months ago. Like much else in their brief history, this inaugural function did not go exactly to plan: proceedings rapidly degenerated into bouts of heckling, much of which was delivered by a nationalist MP, Vyacheslav Marychev, a man best known for attending the Russian parliament in a dress. Spurned by the Iron Lady herself, her Russian admirers were addressed by her former friend Sir Alfred Sherman - an elderly ex-Communist who is regarded, even by some Thatcherites, as prone to becoming over-attached to certain right-wing theories.
My visit to the party faithful in St Petersburg was guided by Yuri Dorofev, "Regional Coordinator, Thatcherites of Russia". Dorofev - who resembles the elderly sitcom actor Brian Murphy, of Mrs Merton and Malcolm fame - grew up in St Petersburg, a city described in the Rough Guide as being "more heavily sodden with drink than any on the face of the planet": a reputation which, it has to be said, Yuri has done little to diminish. "There were one or two people at our launch meeting," Dorofev conceded, "who, Sir Alfred noticed, were insane. "These people," he added, "were indeed mad. We know that."
It would be nice, I suggested, to begin by seeing the party headquarters. Dorofev hailed an unlicensed cab, and the driver took us - by mistake, I imagined at first - to a desolate industrial zone. He pulled up outside a sprawling cobalt plant. Yuri led the way through the main entrance and into a small side-room which, he announced, was the site of the party HQ. The room, which might have been the model for the office facilities in Terry Gilliam's film Brazil, was empty except for a desk, three chairs and a broken typewriter. Taking a seat, Dorofev explained that the finance for the office was "not quite in place". Was he getting paid for his work? "We haven't quite sorted that out yet, either," said Yuri.
The Russian Thatcherites are, by and large, a friendly and approachable group of people, more generous of spirit, in so far as you can generalise, than their British counterparts. They constitute an extraordinary alliance of voters who seem to have little in common except for a disaffection with Communism and a strong personal admiration for the Iron Lady. Yuri took me to one of his regular haunts, a deserted theatre bar filled with caged birds and aquariums stocked with exotic fish. There we met Nikolai Nikolaevich Brown, a wild-eyed, bearded man of about 50. Brown, a poet, is fully behind the Thatcherite manifesto, which calls, among other things, for the establishment of a Russian House of Lords, complete with hereditary peers.
"I am especially keen on the House of Lords," said Brown. "I also want to see the restoration of the Russian monarchy." Did he voice these opinions under Soviet rule? "I did," said the writer, "and I was put on trial. In court," he added, "I read them my poems. In the name of the people," he declaimed, to his audience of catfish and canaries, "supreme Russian freaks do their business. I left the courtroom singing `John Brown's Body'." It was, he remarked, "a bold and unusual strategy". How did it go down? "I got 10 years," said Brown.
He has written to Margaret Thatcher, but received no reply. Like many of his comrades, Nikolai Brown finds her apparent indifference towards his party a source of sorrow and bewilderment. Were she to attend one of their meetings, the effect would be something like God turning up for Songs of Praise.
One factor in Mrs Thatcher's continued absence may be the Russians' involvement with the man concisely described in their manifesto as "Sir Sherman", who fell out with her in the 1980s. Then there is the rather un-Conservative nature of the Russian Thatcherites' membership. Igor Samconov, the painter, for instance - an engaging man of 35 - is a former punk who has "spent quite a bit of time copying out the lyrics of Elvis Costello".
Historically, Russians have tended to form unusual bonds with western icons: Stalin, you may remember, was a keen admirer of George Formby and Shirley Temple. Many in the Thatcherite party seem to have seized on their heroine rather in the way that, in the Sixties, a British student might have decorated a room with a poster of Lenin: identifying her as a symbol of dissent without necessarily being familiar with the full details of her career. Two party members reminded me about Mrs Thatcher's bravery following the loss of her son Mark who, they told me, died heroically while leading a British battalion in the Falklands.
Listening to Elvis Costello seemed a curious recreation for Samsonov, bearing in mind that Costello's 1989 song "Tramp the Dirt Down" ends by Costello's beseeching God to grant him a long life so that he can be sure of seeing the former member for Finchley lowered into her grave. "Ah," said Samsonov. "I've not come across that one."
Towards the end of a long day spent interviewing Yuri's fellow supporters in the bars of St Petersburg, we went to visit Leo, a former sailor who served two years in KGB prison, and now runs a burger bar decorated with pictures of Ernest Hemingway. The restaurateur, who has the build of an all-in wrestler and claims to have "a PhD in refrigerators", served several rounds of goldfish bowl- sized glasses of vodka in quick succession. Reticent at first, he grew increasingly communicative on a wide range of subjects, finally becoming overwhelmed by that least Thatcherite of emotions: self-doubt. "Actually, this Thatcher party is shit," he told me. "Fucking shit, like all the other parties."
"But I like Margaret Thatcher," he went on. "And I like Ernest Hemingway". Leo disappeared, returning with more vodka and several small dishes containing a bracing assortment of raw venison, stewed lamprey and beer sausage. "I am a respected authority," he explained, "on aphrodisiacs". Leo, like many I spoke to, became captivated by Margaret Thatcher's television appearances during her Soviet visit in March 1987.
"Mrs Thatcher," says Ruslan Fedorovsky, a 35-year-old commodities trader living in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, recalled, "was openly saying what people had known for donkeys' years about freedom of expression. Everyone in Russia remembers that. We felt she was fighting our corner."
Many people I spoke to likened Mrs Thatcher to Catherine the Great. What qualities, I asked Andrej Goldobine, a Russian Thatcherite journalist, did Margaret Thatcher share with the Empress? "Far sightedness," he said. "Shrewdness, and determination." In addition to which, I reminded him, Margaret Thatcher, unlike Catherine, was never dogged by allegations of routine sexual intercourse with a horse. "Those horse stories," said Goldobine, "are just rumours".
Whatever the qualities of their illustrious mascot, the Russian Thatcherites have some way to go before they are taken seriously as a political force. "They are weak," says Mikhail Gorny, director of Strategiya, an independent political studies centre, "and their support is negligible."
If the party is to stand any chance of achieving a credible stature, the Russian That-cherites would do best to turn to their British-based co-founder, Ruslan Fedorovsky, easily the most able member I spoke to. He is an obvious choice to head the party, which has decided to postpone appointing a leader for two years.
The Thatcherites do have an office in Moscow, and are planning to open a London headquarters. Ultimately, though, the strength of the party lies with its grass roots sympathisers; men like the elderly sculptor Edward Petrovich Masslennikov, a friend of Yuri Dorofev's, whose studio we visited at the end of my last day in St Petersburg.
The conversation began conventionally enough, as we sat in the large workshop surrounded by Masslennikov's half-finished sculptures, mainly of female nudes. Gradually, however, his thoughts turned to philosophy. Great changes were coming, he said, adding that, through me, he was telepathically "tuning in"
to the British people. What sort of images was he receiving? "Oh, very positive," said Masslennikov. "Courage. Philanthropy. Sailors."
His telepathic contacts, Edward Masslennikov went on to explain, were not confined to Europe. "I have met extra-terrestrials," he told me, without a flicker of irony. I looked at his assistant, who carried on chipping away at a stone forehead with a chisel, as expressionless as his material. "There are," Masslennikov added, "quite a few of them around. Not many people know this," he added. "I do."
His first encounter, the sculptor recalled, occurred when he was shopping with his wife in St Petersburg, in 1989. "A trolleybus came," he recalled, "we got on, and I noticed a man and a woman who were firing these sort of black needles from their eyes. I knew they were extra-terrestrials. Their skin was tanned; their eyes were grey."
"I realise now," he went on, "that they were installing a big programme in me." Some people might wonder if he had had too long a lunch that day. "Absolutely not," said Masslennikov, pointing out that a few years later, he was joined by two more aliens in the queue for the chair at his local barber's.
Edward Masslennikov has had many prophetic visions, he told me, but he cannot predict the future for the Russian Thatcherites. "But I can feel her - Margaret Thatcher," he told me, "right now, while I'm talking to you. She is beautiful. She is young." She is 73, I interrupted. "Trust me," Masslennikov replied, "she looks good, kid."
"I can see her," he continued, "and I am tuning in to her through you. I can see her in this sort of film of cigarette smoke. She is standing there, behind you, watching us," he explained. "She is luminous."
His assistant had not stopped tapping away at his stone head. I looked at Yuri, waiting for his reaction. "Edward," said the Thatcherite party convenor, flinging his arms around the sculptor, "I have to embrace you now."
Curious though this last episode may seem, our recent encounters had been such that it was not entirely surprising that my trip should have ended with the Baroness's ectoplasm hovering a few feet away.
"Edward," Yuri Dorofev remarked, as we made our way out into the darkened streets, "is a genius." Even in Yuri, however, I sensed that this last meeting had inspired a degree of unease. Maybe he was going home by trolleybus. Or perhaps he was simply aware that - unforgettable though Masslennikov's ghostly vision had been - the Russian Thatcherites will have to acquire some more mundane political talents if the Iron Lady is to grace them with a second, more orthodox appearance.
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