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SUNDAY 14 APRIL 2024

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Evil murderer in Kremlin
is a world apart from the smiling Gorby and his wife

On a clear Spring day in Moscow 34 years ago I was in the back of the Express Volvo with my distinguished chauffeur Peter Hitchens at the wheel. We were in a crawl of traffic but my heart took a leap when alongside us in the middle Zil lane (reserved for the most senior Soviets) came the Gorbachevs, Mikhail and Raisa. 


Their progress was slow enough for me to smile at them and to get a little wave of approval in return.


I confess to being rather starstruck because I admired hugely what the last leader of the USSR had done and was still doing to drag the world’s largest country into the 20th and 21st centuries after the tyranny of Stalin, the subsequent inertia of Lenin and the rest of the awful gang we used to see on the balcony overlooking Red Square in May for Victory Day.


And now? Just three decades later a grim, unsmiling gangster in the Kremlin who murders opponents at will. A little dictator who employs at least six doppelgangers lest some brave assassin gets near enough for a pot shot. A former KGB man who ranks among the worst of the last 100 years; Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and the genocidal madmen of Dark Africa. 


I have been to Russia, Ukraine and the benighted Belarus several times since the last days of Communism in the late ‘80s and have been both fascinated and in despair at what I have seen. And during that time, almost 40 years,  never have things been worse than now.


However much we all hope that Alexei Navalny will be the final victim of Putin, we are misplacing our optimism. Other will follow just as Yevgeny Prigozhin did, murdered by plane crash last year; Boris Nemtsov shot dead in 2015; Alexander Litvinenko poisoned by polonium in 2006 and the outspoken journalist Anna Politkovskaya shot in her home the same year. There are many others such as Boris Berezosky, found hanged in his Ascot house in 2013, whose deaths are as yet unexplained but almost certainly the dirty work of the Kremlin thug.


And what of the thousands Putin has sent to modern gulags, just as Navalny was in his last days alive? Places like the Polar Wolf prison camp 1,200 miles from Moscow, beyond the Arctic Circle where the winter sun never rises and the temperature falls to minus 44C. (I was exposed to minus 32C in Moscow and after 10 minutes my eyes and my head ached as never before.)


By way of punishment Polar Wolf prisoners are forced to wear light clothing, taken outside and showered with near-freezing water. More brutal still is being locked overnight in a tiny cage outside, almost certainly a death sentence. Those who behave can have visits. Two a year.


Think also of those brave Russians who left flowers in Navalny’s memory only to be rounded up by police and in many cases bundled into paddy-wagons to an unknown fate. Meanwhile Vladimir Putin has palaces throughout his wretched kingdom, surrounded by fawning, frightened sycophants and apparatchiks, and wants for nothing. 


Nothing that is except for friends, admiration and acceptance. And morals.

The world must turn the screw on him and that means seizing the estimated $600 billion of Russian money in foreign banks, some of which would be useful to possibly ensuring a speedy end to the war in Ukraine. And stamping down on organisations and companies which still work with Russia. Sanctions, sanctions  and more sanctions please. 


We cannot just sit back and wring our hands. If we do there will be more victims, maybe thousands if we include those political prisoners who die in the prison camps. The civilised world has always had an obligation to fight evil and now is not the time to let up.

 *****

Incidentally the last time we were in Moscow, eight years ago, it was officially the most expensive city in the world. I found out the hard way when, arriving late from the airport, we decided to eat in our hotel. A decent two-course dinner with a bottle of Chianti and coffee came to an eye watering £360.


The following evening we went out with a delightful couple who worked for Will Stewart, brilliant successor to Hitchens. We went away from the city centre and ate superb Georgian food with far too much wine and vodka. The bill? £80 for four or the price of a few drinks in one of the swanky hotels where hookers were out in their skimpy finery awaiting newly-rich clients.

 ***** 

After Mr Bates vs the Post Office comes the sequel — Mr Staunton vs the Business Secretary. The gist of this is that Staunton, when chairman of the Post Office, was told to delay paying compensation to sub postmasters ‘in the run-up to the general election.’ And when sacked it was because ‘someone has to take the rap.’

 

Now Kemi Badenoch, the Business Secretary, has come out fighting, denying all charges Staunton made in the Sunday Times. So who to believe?  Sadly this government is so discredited that I’m not sure I could believe anything it says. Especially when the minister in question is widely said to be manoeuvring for the key to No 10.

 *****    

 Let’s hear it for Steve, a black-cab driver in whose taxi I left my iPhone recently. Thanks to the Apple Find My Phone app on my iPad, within minutes of the phone beeping away on the back seat Steve messaged me to reassure me he had recovered it. Six hours later he was at my front door delivering the wayward phone. He had even charged it and I had to force him to take some money for his detour on his way home.

Black-cab drivers, London’s finest!


ALAN FRAME


20 February 2024