Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
In 1867, Walter Bagehot famously argued that the British monarchy’s strength was its mystery, and one can still see the point. But try to explain it to a Russian. However robust one’s monarchist convictions might be, the rational justifications for constitutional monarchy wither when exposed to the bracing daylight of post-communist cynicism. Discussing the British monarchy with a Russian makes for an exhausting conversation that can run for years. And now Prince Charles has pulled the rug from underneath the argument.
This week, the Prince of Wales compared the foreign policies of Vladimir Putin to those of Adolf Hitler in a private conversation that was conducted in a Canadian museum. This was hardly a public forum, the Prince was speaking casually and off the record, and while his historical judgement might be flawed, he is entitled to a private view. But that does not matter to ordinary Russians, who will see this as the authentic voice of the British establishment. The Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, who seems equally unversed in history, argues that the heir to the throne ‘has a point’. This reinforces the perception of a hostile UK governing consensus.
The moment in the recent past when Russians could best understand the purpose of the monarchy probably came in October 1994, when the Queen cut a statesmanlike figure next to President Yeltsin during the only visit to Russia by a British monarch. More usually, confusion and misperception reign. Two examples from the year 1956 illustrate the point.
One day in April, during his ten-day trip to the United Kingdom, Khrushchev was being shown round London by a group of officials distinguished by their grandeur. When they reached the Albert Memorial, Khrushchev effected bemusement. He liked the Queen, who had entertained him at Windsor, and he could probably grasp her role. He must have had a sense of the significance of Queen Victoria. But her husband? What had he done with himself? ‘He discharged the duties of consort to the monarch,’ one of Khrushchev’s lofty guides explained. ‘But what did he do during the day?’ Khrushchev shot back.
The Soviet side broke royal protocol in the autumn of that year, in the midst of the Suez crisis and the Hungarian revolution. Kliment Voroshilov, who was the President of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet or, in other words, the ceremonial head of state, sent a telegram to the Queen on 13 November. ‘I hope, Your Majesty,’ Voroshilov wrote, ‘that the support afforded by the Soviet people to the Hungarian people will be correctly understood by You and Your Government.‘ Within 24 hours, the Soviet side was keen to withdraw the telegram, not least because the Queen was effectively disabled from replying to such a politically controversial missive, and an unanswered telegram would be a humiliation. The situation was defused, but the Soviet and Russian tendency to see all aspects of British administration as a single unit under the power of a small group was again displayed.
But if the monarchy remains a puzzle to them, Russians are most likely to fall for its charisma — or at least the graciousness of the Queen — when they recall Yuri Gagarin’s visit to Britain, which took place in July 1961. Gagarin, conqueror of the cosmos, was, like the Queen herself, a young global celebrity. But his solo flight in space was scant preparation for luncheon at Buckingham Palace. Raised in dirt poverty and immense hardship, his manners scarcely held up as he sat with the Queen and her courtiers. What should he do with the slice of lemon in his tea? Instinctively, he tossed it into his mouth and swallowed it whole. He looked around, suddenly unsure of himself. The courtiers blanched. But the Queen smiled and ate her lemon too, or so the legend has it — a legend that would be more valuable than strict historical truth in a country which reveres Gagarin’s memory and that could profitably reset its relationship with Britain. Instead of making a fuss, President Putin might have better responded to Prince Charles’s error with a friendly tap on the shoulder at the forthcoming D-Day commemorations, when everyone will remember how the USSR led the fight against Hitler and how Europe is always more secure when Russia is at its core.
(Image: Prince Charles in 1972, by Allen Warren)