Russia raring to see Queen

Andrew Higgins
Saturday 15 October 1994 23:02 BST

IF ONLY the Queen's British subjects were as loyal as Viktor Popov, veteran Cold War warrior, former Soviet ambassador to London and now Russia's deeply respectful chronicler of life at Buckingham Palace.

After a diplomatic career spanning the final stage of Stalin's terror to Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, Mr Popov has adopted a cause as delicate and possibly as doomed as earlier missions to win support for Moscow's military adventures in Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan: he wants the Queen and her troubled offspring treated with a bit more respect.

His judgement on the British monarchy: 'If not ideal, then very close to it.' Move over Andrew Morton and Anna Pasternak. Mr Popov has just published an alternative, doggedly ungrubby Russian view of the House of Windsor: Life at Buckingham Palace: Elizabeth II and the Royal Family.

Camilla Parker Bowles gets only a brief mention. Major James Hewitt is ignored entirely. 'My view is not idealised, but I write with sympathy for the Royal Family,' says this former master of Moscow's London mission.

When the Queen arrives in Moscow tomorrow to stay at the Kremlin as guest of President Boris Yeltsin, she will encounter an odd phenomenon: Marxism has left behind a curious reverence for monarchy. Though only 18 per cent of the country wants the Tsar back, according to an opinion poll in Sevodnya newspaper, monarchs command respect in a land empty of such rallying symbols.

Even under communism, Moscow treated British royalty seriously. Before being sent to London as ambassador in 1980, Mr Popov received special instructions from Andrei Gromyko, the foreign minister. 'He told me it would be great if we could establish close links with the Royal Family. He thought it played a bigger role than it seemed.' So big, according to claims in the Russian press this week, that the KGB spied on British royals in the 1970s.

The initial print run of Mr Popov's book was fixed at only 3,000 copies. But Viktor Ushinsky, chief editor of the International Relations Publishing House, says this was a mistake. 'We were afraid it would not sell. It sold very quickly.'

The Queen's four-day state visit to Russia has been carefully scripted to avoid contact with Russia's own cantankerous would-be monarchs. The demise of the Romanov dynasty embarrasses both parties: Buckingham Palace because George V, more concerned for his own safety than for that of his cousins, reneged on an offer to provide sanctuary to Russia's desperate royals; and the Kremlin because of Mr Yeltsin's own role in the Communist Party's liquidation of history. As regional party boss in Sverdlovsk, now Yekaterinburg, Mr Yeltsin supervised the 1977 demolition of the Ipatiev House where Nicholas, his German-born wife, Alexandra, and their five children were murdered in July 1918.

Mr Popov carries heavy baggage of his own. As ambassador to the Court of St James until 1986, he played out the endgame of the Cold War with predictable truculence. It was on his watch that Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB station chief and British spy, was summoned to Moscow to face what, had he not escaped back to the West, would almost certainly have been a firing squad.

Today, at home in a spacious central Moscow apartment decorated with souvenir crests from British cities, Mr Popov laments the slash-and- burn methods of Fleet Street and offers counsel to Charles and Diana: 'They should go back to where they were 10 years ago, to the relations they had before, when they still loved each other.'

Mr Popov has a soft spot for Prince Charles, but the balance of public sympathy probably lies with Diana, described last week by Komsomolskaya Pravda as 'a goddess with legs like Claudia Schiffer'. Many Russians are familiar with their rows. But in a country where the President is regularly accused of being a drunk, tanks shell parliament and Vladimir Zhirinovsky is a serious contender for power, the foibles of a ceremonial English family rarely shock.

'The monarchy is unshakeable,' gushed Izvestia, Russia's most authoritative daily. 'No matter what happens in the country, the British know that there is an institution that will survive any difficulty.'

The Queen will be the first English monarch to step on Russian soil - Edward VII only got as far as sailing into Russian waters for lunch with the Tsar aboard a yacht in 1908. But the present can still elbow aside the sense of history. Moscow's most popular daily, Moskovsky Komsomolets, focused its coverage of the upcoming visit on a new sex shop near a school on the Queen's schedule. Its headline: 'Your Majesty, shut the Erotica.'

(Photograph omitted)

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