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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 February 2008, 13:08 GMT
Sackur's world
Stephen Sackur in Moscow
Stephen Sackur filming an introduction on location in Moscow

With presidential elections looming in Russia, what better time for the HardTalk team to head for Moscow? Stephen Sackur reflects on President Vladimir Putin's gift for metaphors, taking tea with Andrei Lugovoi and one prominent Russian's love for 70s British heavy metal.

The picture in the Moscow newspapers of Dmitri Medvedev, chairman of the energy giant Gazprom - and racing certainty to be the next president of Russia - flanked by the ageing band members of Deep Purple provides its own telling commentary on what used to be called East-West relations.

Mr Medvedev is seen sporting a cheesy grin and giving the camera a double thumbs up. He looks like he's just won the lottery. Which in a way he has.

The greying and grizzled dinosaurs of British heavy metal were summoned to Moscow to perform at the fifteenth birthday party of Gazprom – now the most powerful energy company in the world. Mr Medvedev has overseen the addition of hundreds of billions of dollars to the book value of this state-owned oil and gas enterprise.
Russian oil speaks louder than a Richie Blackmore guitar solo

So the smiling Medvedev is a man who generally gets what he wants. His request to have his favourite rockers play for the 6000 Gazprom staff and assorted dignitaries at the private birthday bash clashed with Deep Purple's world tour. But hey, no problem. The World Tour could wait. Russian oil speaks louder than a Richie Blackmore guitar solo.

And why stop at Deep Purple? Mr Medvedev has a bit of a thing for Tina Turner as well, so she too was flown over from Los Angeles for the evening.

It made for a strange party. In the words of the Moscow Times, "attempts by barefoot lead singer Ian Gillan to encourage audience participation led to the kind of slow steady handclap which used to reverberate around the wood-panelled Kremlin hall during Communist Party Congresses… When Tina Turner shrieked 'Is everybody all right?' her question was met with silence. Gazprom's middle aged managers sat impassively in their suits and ties, with only the odd shake of the head to indicate they were listening".

Dmitri Medvedev with members of Deep Purple
Dmitri Medvedev (centre) poses with members of Deep Purple
What's striking about Gazprom's birthday bash isn't just the self-conscious flaunting of Russia's energy wealth but the unmistakeable whiff of the 1970s about the whole affair. And I’m not just talking about the music.

Back then Russians felt their country counted for something. OK, the Soviet system wasn't exactly user-friendly but no-one pushed Russia around. When the Communist edifice crumbled and the USSR was blown to the four winds Russians found themselves politically and economically disoriented.

But no more. Eight years of Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin and the recent stratospheric rise in energy and commodity prices has seen the Russian bear get its growl back.

Putin himself was snarling last week. About Kosovo, America's missile defence plans and Western grandstanding on democracy. During a bombastic four hour session with the Moscow press corps he told European election observers to stop hassling Russia and "go teach their wives to cook cabbage soup".

Russia is – to use a phrase Putin might appreciate – minded to stick two fingers up to the West
Questioned about allegations that he has salted away a vast personal fortune he said his accusers had "picked this stuff out of someone's nose and smeared it all over their little papers". Nice image, Mr President.

I mention it only to convey the pervasive mood in Moscow. Russia is – to use a phrase Putin might appreciate – minded to stick two fingers up to the West. And nothing illustrates the point better than the case of one of my guests on Hardtalk in Moscow: Andrei Lugovoi.

Mr Lugovoi, you may remember, stands accused by British prosecutors of murdering the former KGB agent turned fierce Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London.

The Russian government has swatted away British demands for Lugovoi's extradition. Indeed the suspected polonium poisoner was elected to the Russian parliament just two months ago, thanks to the political patronage of Russia's clown prince of xenophobic nationalism Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Stephen on set with Andrei Lugovoi
Stephen on set with Andrei Lugovoi

The depth of Mr Lugovoi's commitment to his new political career remains uncertain. He chose to meet me not in the Russian Duma, but in the offices of his "security" company which occupy a suite of rooms in one of Moscow's luxury hotels.

Given the British suspicion that Mr Lugovoi was a prime mover in the plot which saw Mr Litvinenko's cup of tea spiked with polonium-210 in a London hotel bar I was wondering whether I would be offered a pre-interview cuppa.

"English breakfast, herbal or radioactive?" was a question that would have broken the ice rather well. Alas, it never came.

Instead Mr Lugovoi was an odd mix of boyish smiles and scarcely concealed rage. As I asked him to explain the suspicious trail of polonium traces that matched his movements to and from London in October 2006 he was at first dismissive, and then eager to point to traces found in places he had not visited.

As I probed his relationship with Litvinenko I was left confused.

"English breakfast, herbal or radioactive?" was a question that would have broken the ice rather well
Litvinenko was a "traitor", he had tried to recruit the patriotic Lugovoi to spy for the British. He was trouble. And yet Lugovoi cultivated an intense relationship with this renegade which saw them meet half a dozen times in less than three weeks in the run up to Litvinenko's agonising death. Why?

It's never been a career ambition of mine to become Detective Inspector Sackur of Scotland Yard, but I suspect my interview is as close as Lugovoi is ever going to come to a grilling by British investigators.

Mr Lugovoi concluded by telling me his unjust persecution by the British was part of a "war" the west has declared on Moscow. This was a line straight from the Putin playbook - Cold War rhetoric revived for a new generation of resentful Russians. And just for a moment I felt myself transported back to the 1970s; just as surely as if I'd recovered one of my dusty Deep Purple LPs from the attic and cranked up the volume on my ageing record player.

Previous Sackur's World stories

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


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