However many times I visit Russia, there's always something to surprise. As one of a group of international Russia specialists invited annually to meet Vladimir Putin, I've been flown by private plane from Moscow to the Black Sea for dinner. I've been on a day trip to Chechnya, and I've been taken on a mystery tour through glitzy suburbs to the then President's official residence. In surprises, this year was no exception.
Bused through the stop-go-stop traffic of Moscow's Friday evening rush-hour, we were off to dine with Putin at his favourite restaurant, Le Cheval Blanc. An hour or so later, we found ourselves in the pitch dark, as the snow fell in enormous globules, tramping through post-Soviet Russia's first private equestrian club. Fortunately, I'd opted for boots over shoes. There were those in very risky heels. It had not occurred to any of us that the cheval of the name might be just that, and that there would be more than a hundred of them.
Anatoli Merkulov, the owner, met us, immaculately attired in a dress suit and tie – appropriate to receiving the Prime Minister later – and escorted us through the first stable block. His own favourite steed stamped around a stall with its own heating system. A startlingly elegant golden-tinged beast had been presented to Russia's current President, Dmitry Medvedev, by the President of Kazakhstan; an Arabian stallion was a gift from Turkmenistan. Medvedev was said to be a horse-lover; Putin less so.
Merkulov related how he had bought an abandoned collective dairy farm after the Soviet Union collapsed, with money from a fish-trading business he had set up with Scandinavia. Riding clubs existed in Soviet times, he said, but they were few and far between, and all the horses were dispersed as the system collapsed "for various reasons" – an elliptical phrase covering myriad irregularities.
Merkulov's club is now regarded as the premier Russian stud farm and stables, but – 13 years after it first opened – it's one of five in that single district alone, with dozens more dotted around the capital and the country. How do you become a member and what does it cost? There are no membership fees as such, you buy your way in by paying to board your horses. This is the new Russia, the new class, and it doesn't come cheap.
Our penultimate stop, after the veterinary block and before the restaurant, was one of three dressage rings, where mostly young riders were practising in front of a vast, angled mirror. After we had watched for a few minutes, the woman instructor approached on the most perfect white horse – like a unicorn without the horn. This was Merkulov's wife, it transpired, and, of course, her horse was the inspiration for Le Cheval Blanc.
Woman with a history – and without fear
Social mobility takes many forms in today's Russia and yesterday's, and the Russia before. Last week, you could not but be aware that a leading popular television personality had just passed her 30th birthday – quietly with friends, somewhere in western Europe. Xenia – known as Xiusha – made her name as TV's wild child, a young woman whose appetite for outrageous attention-seeking brought tut-tutting from oldies, while endearing her to the first post-communist generation.
At 30, she has calmed down a bit, is hailed on the street by those same oldies who now treat her almost as a wayward daughter, and draws admiration for her plain speaking. What I didn't divulge is that her second name is Sobchak, and she's the daughter of the late mayor of glasnost-era Leningrad, whose memorial bust bears the inscription: "To Anatoli Sobchak, who gave the city back its name." She has clearly inherited her father's way with words, his fearlessness and his popular touch. There are those now urging a move into politics. Russia should be so lucky.