Whether or not it was an intentional joke we may never know. David Cameron told the story of how, on his first trip to the then Soviet Union in his gap year in 1985, he was approached by two Russians on the Black Sea coast who spoke perfect English and took him out to dinner.
They asked him, he told his student audience, what the old Etonian thought about British politics. Mr Cameron suggested that this may have been an attempt by the KGB to recruit him – but no offer was made.
The Russian students didn't laugh – and so it might have ended had Mr Cameron embryonic career as a KGB agent not been raised with the Russian President at their press conference a couple of hours later.
Dmitry Medvedev was asked by a journalist whether Mr Cameron would have been a good spy. "I'm pretty sure that David would have been a very good KGB agent," said the President – who until then had showed no humour. "But in this case he would never have become Prime Minister."
Double-agent Cameron laughed – as did the British delegation – although Mr Medvedev appeared uncertain for a moment that he'd even made a joke rather than praise the efficiency of Britain's secret services.
Despite such "lost in translation" humour, however, the mood of the trip was better than most had hoped for. The previous night the British delegation had tried to play down expectations and suggested they might be in for some snubs.
Would Vladimir Putin turn up, they wondered? Would he cut Mr Cameron short, or keep him in talks for hours like he did with Barack Obama?
In the end the visit passed without incident. There were no breakthroughs on difficult issues, but no one expected there would be. What they did get was a strong signal that Russia wants to build a stronger relationship with Britain.
But whether that yields long-term results only time will tell. As foreign officials point out – that's what Tony Blair used to think.Reuse content