Out of Russia: Snubs and gaffes make a swell visit

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The Independent Online
ST PETERSBURG - It took painstaking study of television footage to determine that Boris Yeltsin was probably not conducting the marching band of the Royal Marines from the deck of the Britannia. After much debate, the unsteady movement of the Presidential arm was judged to fall - just - within bounds, on the acceptable side of gesticulation. Hope crashed, headlines vanished. 'Close but not quite there,' sighed a frustrated colleague.

The source of Fleet Street's collective disappointment was this: Boris Yeltsin was sober, or sober enough, to avoid a repeat of recent disasters in Berlin, where he seized the conductor's baton and sang along tunelessly, or Shannon, where he left Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister, standing on a windswept Tarmac.

Not that Mr Yeltsin left the royal rat pack entirely empty- handed. A crack as he walked down the gangplank after a state banquet aboard the Britannia provided some satisfaction. He growled that he still preferred Russian food.

The Queen's cooking had, it was decided, been maligned, her hospitality traduced and her very person almost molested.

It has been that kind of week. It began on Monday with a search for the phantom Tass news-agency photographer who had, it was rumoured, taken an exclusive picture of Mr Yeltsin giving the Queen a bear hug. He was never found. Everyone else's photographs showed a studiously correct Russian President receiving the Queen with pomp, decorum and an entirely unremarkable handshake in St George's Hall of the Great Kremlin Palace. The closest thing anyone could get to a Kremlin embrace was a trick shot that made it seem as if Mr Yeltsin might be touching the royal back.

Sergei Filatov, the President's chief of staff who escorted the Queen in Russia, acknowledges his boss's sometimes unorthodox style: 'Boris Yeltsin is not a person who fits into protocol easily.' But it was the Queen herself, perhaps the world's most experienced connoisseur of good etiquette, who stumbled most spectacularly.

Generating more column inches than Mr Yeltsin's views on British food was Her Majesty's view of Manchester, uttered during a private chat with a biologist at St Petersburg State University: 'Not such a nice place.' As one of the two journalists who stumbled upon this particular nugget of trivia, I plead guilty to the lese majeste of a novice - and to talking too loudly in a bus full of wiser royal watchers who know what makes a good story.

It is a skill that takes much practise. But even by my count, the royal visit to Russia produced half a dozen. There were three 'Snubs' Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin snubs Queen; Foreign Affairs Minister Andrei Kozyrev snubs the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, and, out-snubbing them all, Queen snubs Romanovs.

There were also two 'Gaffes' - Manchester and Boris slams royal cooking - and one 'Slur' (Prince Philip tells an English student with a Lenin-goatee he is turning - 'you are half-way there' - Russian).

Less easily classified are entries in the more general 'Screw Up' category: the Queen's people-free enounter in Moscow's Red Square; the chartered press plane that missed the royal touch-down in St Petersburg and - a big hit this one - the 'War of the Roses' between the Queen and schoolboy, who grabbed his flowers back after she declined to admire his toy car.

It is tempting to wonder how the founder of St Petersburg, Peter the Great, might have fared under such scrutiny. When he stayed in London in 1698, a favourite pastime was to be pushed in a wheelbarrow through the manicured hedges of his host. Another pleasure was throwing darts at paintings. His exuberance appalled. It also helped to make him what, in today's limp language, might be called a 'reformer' - and just possibly the greatest tsar Russia had.

When Queen Elizabeth visited Peter the Great's tomb, she did what monarchs do when they lose their power and worry about causing offence: she peered impassively, and then wandered off.

That is something Mr Yeltsin would never do. He makes his views known. The Queen's verdict on her time in Russia was left to her spokesman, who crafted an anodine statement of appreciation. Much talk of 'added momentum', 'partnership', and 'setting the seal on a new relationship'. Boris Yeltsin did it himself, standing next to the Queen on the Britannia, beaming with delight at the spectacle of royal retreat and bellowing into the cold night: 'Terrific, terrific.' Perhaps not such a bad trip after all.