Queen lays on reception fit for a tsar as Putin jets in for first Russian state visit in a century

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Indy Politics

Britain does nothing better than good, old-fashioned ceremonial, and for President Vladimir Putin, making the first Russian state visit for more than a century, London laid on a reception fit for a tsar - including that rarity, a perfect summer's day.

For a government reeling from its inability to keep a cross-dressed Osama bin Laden out of Windsor Castle, you might have expected overzealous security. But aside from some new concrete barriers blocking off the ceremonial route and the now customary sharpshooters on strategic roofs, police and public seemed relaxed.

The presidential convoy from Heathrow airport was 10 minutes late, an eternity in royal protocol terms, which left the ranks of the Household Cavalry and Grenadier Guard marking time on the parade ground, and the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh making the rounds of the platform dignitaries a second time. That included several more pats for David Blunkett's guide dog.

Mr Blunkett was huddled with the Prime Minister and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, to one side of the official dais, looking strangely inconsequential. The first (of more than 60) cannon sounded, the band struck up and President Putin and his wife, Lyudmilla, swept up in their official car, accompanied by the Prince of Wales. Mrs Putin wore a billowy cream brocade coat and an enormous cream hat. The Queen was in pale green with a smaller cream hat.

After a low-key rendition of the Russian national anthem with distant cannon accompaniment, Mr Putin was invited to inspect the guard of honour.

A compact figure, Mr Putin looked especially small alongside his escort, Prince Philip, amid the massed ranks of scarlet and black uniforms.

As Mr Putin and the Queen left Horse Guards Parade in the lead carriage, the six dapple-grey horses setting off at a clip towards The Mall, there were gasps and scattered applause from the stand of Russian guests. "Of course, the pictures will be all over our 9pm news this evening," a Russian television journalist said. She had been on most of Mr Putin's overseas visits, but never seen any spectacle like this. Would they be as impressed back home? "Well, of course. It is a real honour for our President," she said.

One of her colleagues was less sure. "Some will think it is fantastic that our President is greeted like this; others will be more critical ..." He did not complete the thought.

One source of criticism could be the French menu for last night's banquet at Buckingham Palace, which included poached salmon, pan-fried spring chicken in champagne and cherry pudding, accompanied by French wines.

But the music and the guest list were appropriately eclectic. Some Prokofiev, some Handel and medleys of the Beatles and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Guests included the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and Britain's woman cosmonaut, Helen Sharman. To the relief of security staff, there were no cross-dressing Bin Ladens to be seen.

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