Boris will be wide awake for Her Majesty: On Monday the Queen will begin a historic visit to Russia. Nicholas Bethell explains why our monarchy is so revered there

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The Independent Online
I WAS there at Wembley on 30 July 1966, when our side hit the underneath of the crossbar in extra time, and I remember the linesman signalling frantically to the referee his opinion that it had crossed the line. It was that Russian linesman, as much as Geoff Hurst, who was responsible for England going 3-2 ahead in the World Cup final.

Not long after a taxi driver in Moscow told me: 'Your Queen was very grateful. She invited our linesman to Buckingham Palace for tea and cake. Then she presented him with a television set and a motor bicycle.'

A few years earlier, the great clown Oleg Popov brought Her Majesty much amusement at a command performance of the Moscow State Circus in London. Such was her delight, I was told in Russia again and again, that she came backstage after the show, shook Popov's hand and kissed him on the cheek.

The Queen inspires many such fictions. More than any other foreigner, she touches the Russian imagination. She symbolises what the Russians admire about our country, our gentleness and politeness, our dislike of revolutions and violent change, our respect for those with whom we disagree, our pomp and ceremony, our skill as traders and investors overseas.

This is why President Yeltsin has been so insistent in inviting the Queen to make her state visit. He knows how much interest and enthusiasm it will arouse. Their handshake on the tarmac at Moscow airport on Monday will be seen by many Russians as a royal seal of approval. No British king or queen has ever set foot on Russian soil.

We can be sure that he will be there on time, in good order and on his best behaviour. It would be more than his life was worth for him to keep Her Majesty waiting for one single moment.

The visit will bring practical benefit to both countries. Some experts reckon we are Russia's third-largest trading partner. There is a vast amount of business to be done in this huge country. Despite the chaos and crime, Britain will be in there, looking for its fair share of the profits.

We will now be reminded of past British-Russian links, some hidden or half-forgotten as a result of the 77 years of mistrust. We can look forward to four days of historical rediscovery, evoking nostalgia for days when the British played an visible role in Russian life and anglophilia was the order of the day among Russian writers and at court.

For instance, the Queen will unveil a plaque at the first English embassy in Moscow, established in the mid-1500s under Ivan the Terrible. It stands in what is still called 'Old English Courtyard'. She will visit St Andrew's, the English church in Moscow, and Catherine the Great's Palace in Pushkin near St Petersburg. It was built by the great Scottish architect Charles Cameron.

She may be told about Pushkin's reverence for English literature, especially Byron and Samuel Richardson. She will be reminded that Peter the Great lived in London as a young man and worked in the docks. She may then hear that in 1915 British railwaymen built the northern line to the ice-free port of Murmansk, to help the joint war effort against the Kaiser.

Then there was John Hughes, the Merthyr Tydfil engineer who in 1880 shipped furnace equipment through the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Sea of Aral, before lugging it by bullock cart overland to build blast furnaces and found the industrial city of Donetsk in the Ukraine. (Until the Revolution it was called Hughesovka).

It was not all brotherly love, of course. There was the Crimean War and the British determination that, by jingo, the Russians would not have Constantinople. The Russians were with us against Napoleon, and against Hitler, but as much as they respect us, they tend to see us also as a foxy race. For instance, they greatly admire our secret service, far more than we do.

They wonder what we were doing in the Crimea, so far from home. And Russians generally, however liberal and pro-Western, see it as an act of betrayal that we opened our second front against Hitler in France as late as June 1944.

Our intervention in the Russian civil war in 1921 will not, in today's climate, be held against us. On the contrary, the main complaints I hear are that Britain's help to the Whites was too little too late, or that we shot only 12 commissars in Baku. And they still recognise the unique role played by Margaret Thatcher in hastening the demise of Communism.

Inevitably, the Queen's visit will focus on the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1918 - an event many in Russia still find traumatic. The Tsar and the then-future King George V were photographed together in England shortly before the latter's marriage to Mary of Teck. They look like identical twins.

The Duke of Edinburgh's grandmother was Tsaritsa Alexandra's sister. There are other ties of blood between the two royal families. Until recently it has been assumed that the murder of so many of her kin was in itself good reason why the Queen should never visit Russia.

She is rightly wary of her good name being used to give respectability to shaky or undemocratic governments. At times she has been badly advised and mistakes were made. In 1978 she received President Ceausescu of Romania and his wife, Elena, as her guests at Buckingham Palace. A reign of terror followed. In 1986 she was the government's guest in China. Three years later there was the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Still, now that the Soviet Union has gone for good, the British government's view today is that the Queen is our best ambassador, our best promoter of British exports, that her unique status should be used not only to say thank you to a long-established friend, but also to help nurse a friendship still in its infancy.

These are the practical reasons why the visit takes place now. It is a risk. We do not know how long Mr Yeltsin will remain in the Kremlin. But he has shown great bravery and the government wants to give him a clear sign of Britain's support.

On top of this the Queen is also, in many Russian minds, a mythical figure, the good fairy who will touch Russia with her magic wand and bestow favour upon it. She is queen not only of Britain, but also of Western values, for a land still sharply divided between those who welcome and reject such influences.

The writer's latest book, 'Spies and Other Secrets', is published on 14 November by Viking, pounds 18.

(Photograph omitted)

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