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Saturday, 25 May, 2002, 12:35 GMT 13:35 UK
Getting to grips with Russia
Talks between President George W Bush and President Vladimir Putin in Moscow will bolster both men's reputations, and the impression that the two countries are becoming firm friends. But understanding Russia is never an easy task. It all reminds Kevin Connolly of a similar trip when George Bush senior visited the Russian capital.
It was early in 1991, Communism's last year of living precariously.
In the Soviet Union, closed cities were being opened and the old certainties of Leninism were being replaced by the new anxieties of the free market.
It had taken 74 years for a leader with whom the West felt comfortable to clamber to the top of the Communist system. It seemed hard to believe that the system would respond by disintegrating.
Learning to live together
The Soviet Union had had a good Gulf War. That is to say the military had been infuriated to see their friends and clients in the Iraqi high command humiliated by the West, but Moscow's politicians had extracted what political capital they could out of the fact that they were powerless to do anything about it.
So when President Bush senior came to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1991 it was in part, simply to express thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that the Cold War superpowers had learned to live together.
But publicly all the talk was of how to develop relations with the first Communist in decades who didn't look as though he was going to die on the Kremlin reviewing stand or reduce our homes to irradiated ashes. Or both.
One of our themes for coverage of the summit was to be arms conversion - a buzz-word which meant: 'How do you re-direct the energies of an economy which can make rockets to put military communications satellites into orbit but can't put telephones in the homes of its own people?'
"Swords into ploughshares," I explained to one of our over-used stables of English-speaking pundits.
But I was disconcerted when he replied: "Have you ever considered what it would be like to plough a field using an out-of-date sword that had been deliberately blunted under the scrutiny of an international committee of retired fencers?"
He was a distinguished political commentator, wonderful linguist and veteran of several foreign postings, but his lifestyle provided several clues to the gulf opening up between the Cold War adversaries.
As we were talking, his weekly package of luxuries from the Communist Party's special store was delivered. It was a curious moment, which reminded me of the arrival of Red Cross parcels in one of those old prisoner-of-war movies.
It contained a duck, a couple of packets of peanuts, and some Latvian chocolate.
He looked at them eloquently, and continued with his train of thought.
Communism didn't collapse just because it failed to deliver consumer goods to consumers. It collapsed because the privileged elite suddenly realised that the perks were rubbish.
Anyway, his contacts were enough to get us into a MiG aircraft factory in the centre of Moscow where, we were assured, we would find arms conversion in full swing.
On the desk in front of him, beside a model of a MiG fighter, stood a food blender the size of a concrete mixer connected to a domestic plug by yards of flex the thickness of ship's cable.
MiG aviation's contribution to arms conversion he explained was going to be a range of kitchen equipment.
In his father's footsteps
When he turned it on, his office filled with a deafening whine which suggested the engine units were coming directly off the aircraft production line.
And so, for the purposes of journalism, we did.
The summit was as successful as it could have been, bearing in mind that one of the participants was about to fall victim to a military coup.
Signing an arms reduction treaty in fact might well have helped to seal Mikhail Gorbachev's fate. The only other thing that strikes me about it, looking back, is that you could have got long odds on George Bush's son being at a summit as president within 12 years.
My point, I suppose, is that while superficially much has changed since then, and Vladimir Putin with his steely conviviality is no Mikhail Gorbachev, much has also remained the same.
The West has never quite known how to treat Russia and its ambitions - undented by weakness and poverty - to be seen as both a European and a global power.
It straddles the world, after all, from the Baltic to the Pacific, and the frozen White Sea to the deserts of Central Asia. But economically, outside a few tiny enclaves, it tends to look permanently as though it's just lost a war.
Finding a diplomatic language that responds both to the strategic power and the economic weakness has defeated more subtle politicians that George W Bush. A new ability to draw parallels between Chechnya and Afghanistan will only close the gap a little.
I'm sure the latest summit like all the others will have some carefully chosen theme, some painstaking agreement reached in advance - the modern equivalent of arms conversion.
It will last about as long as the MiG experiment with kitchen equipment. But the underlying theme, the quest of the West to fit Russia into its global view doesn't change. Curiously it's no easier now Russia is a potential ally than when it was a potential enemy.
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