Russia is fertile ground for celebrities of all hues to make pots of extra cash, whether it's oligarchs flying in their favourite singer, or Hollywood stars parachuted in to liven up a party.
One person has been popping up more than any other of late though, and that's Sharon Stone. At anything Russia-related these days, her grinning face seems to put in an appearance, like some kind of recurring nightmare, supporting whatever it is that the particular junket is about. A trusted source told me about the prices to bring different "entertainers" to Russia for events – Stone is one of the more expensive, reportedly coming in at as much as $250,000 a time. But pay that, and, calendar permitting, she'll likely be there.
A week ago, she was in Moscow for some music awards. "I love Russia. I love the country. I love everything about Russia," she gurned, to wild applause. Two days later, she was in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, for the premiere of Five Days in August, a propaganda flick about the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, which paints a less than pleasant (and sometimes less than truthful) picture of her beloved Russians. She also took time out to engage in some banter with Moscow's Enemy No 1, President Mikheil Saakashvili. I hope she didn't tell him how much she loves everything about Russia.
These are just the latest in a long line of junkets for Stone. She was one of the star guests at the notorious St Petersburg "charity" auction where Vladimir Putin wheeled out his cringe-worthy rendition of "Blueberry Hill" last December and, off-camera, sang a duet with the Russian Prime Minister. When a journalistic investigation uncovered that the children with cancer for whose benefit the concert had been organised hadn't received a kopeck, the organiser (an old friend of Putin) said that actually, the whole point was to "raise awareness" rather than to raise any actual money.
In March, Stone was rather oddly called on to co-compere Mikhail Gorbachev's 80th birthday bash at the Royal Albert Hall, with Kevin Spacey. She rattled off a few platitudes about freedom, made some terrible puns, and engaged in bizarre and inappropriate scripted faux-flirting with Spacey. I'm sure that with a bit of imagination, the organisers could have found someone a little more sincere, and with a little more genuine connection to the events of late 1980s Russia, to host Gorby's big day. And they might not even have had to pay.
If I was going to place a bet on where Stone might end up next, I'd say keep an eye on Grozny. The local dictator, Ramzan Kadyrov, has already flown in Roberto Cavalli for an unlikely fashion show, as well as a whole host of faded international football stars to play against him in a vanity match (Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman, hang your heads in shame). I'm sure, for the right price, maybe Stone would be delighted to grin at the cameras and talk about the peace and stability underpinning Chechnya today.
Some advice to Kadyrov, though – if you do get Stone in, better show her a map first, as she's apparently not too hot on Caucasus geography. "Azerbaijan? What is that?" she apparently asked in confusion when the name of the billionaire host's home country came up on her autocue during a hotel opening in Turkey two years ago. "I can't pronounce this! Chaka Khan! Chaka Khan!"
No more beautiful spot to sip a vodka cocktail
There's something very Russian about the all-or-nothing excesses of St Petersburg's northern climate. In winter it's mostly dark, icy and ravaged by howling, bitter winds, while in summer the hot sunny days tail off into long bright evenings, a couple of hours of twilight, and then sunrise again while the nightlife is still in full swing. Boats carrying revellers speed through the canals and bob along the River Neva; bleary-eyed locals mingle with tourists on drinking sessions that seem to flow seamlessly from one day into the next.
Russia is not known for its pleasant urban environments, and having travelled through most of Russia and the former Soviet Union, I get used to labelling the better cities as "not bad for the region", or "reasonably nice". But sipping vodka cocktails on a rooftop terrace this weekend, looking at the cathedrals and palaces glinting in the pinkish midnight glow, I was reminded that St Petersburg in June is not just "nice for the region", it's up there with the world's most beautiful cities.
Don't teach Russian hotel staff to imitate Americans
I was lucky enough to spend the weekend at the newly opened W in St Petersburg, the latest instalment in the chain of hip boutique hotels that is going increasingly global. It was all very nice, with suitable levels of wanton luxury and decadent opening parties.
But one thing bothered me. I was ordering some room service when the chirpy voice on the other end of the line asked if I wanted "vetya weasel". I'm sorry, I said, I'm not sure what that means, but I'm probably fine for weasels, thanks. "Vetya weasel," she repeated. Eventually, she rather sheepishly asked if I wanted any water. It transpires that water in W Hotels is referred to as "wet your whistle", and the poor Russians have obviously been told this is what they must say.
The hotel was peppered with these little phrases, presumably dreamt up by an American brand director in a New York office – staff who utter "Whatever Whenever" when consulted. The smiling faces and obsessive can-do attitude are certainly a refreshing change from the usual miserable service levels in Russia, but Icouldn't help feeling that in chain-ifying the boutique, W has managed to achieve the opposite of what it intended, and have made the idiosyncratic and quirky seem forced and templated.