On the Russian Presidential Polling Day Sunday, I departed Tullamarine at dawn with a fierce hot northerly blowing, already plus twenty degrees and climbing. I was bound for St Petersburg, minus ten degrees and snowing. En route I sighted both Meekathara WA, which Tamie Fraser once described as ‘hell on earth’ and Baku, Azerbaijan, where one hundred years ago Lt General Stanley Savage (the founder of Legacy) rescued thousands of Assyrians from slaughter, in 1918.
At 8.30pm local time, still Sunday, it was a chilly arrival at St Petersburg, with no Ambassador or Consul to meet me these days, just a taxi ride to the hotel. I had landed in the land where Stalin ruled supreme as a ruthless dictator for 30 long years, 1922 until 1952. I was in time to catch the election count in detail. Then came the two speeches given by a smiling President Putin as his vote surged over 75 per cent of the votes counted. The turnout was just short of 70 per cent. The Russians I encountered in my first 48 hours, when asked, strongly affirmed they had done their duty and voted, but perhaps I was asking the wrong question, maybe it should have been how many times did they vote as stuffing of ballot papers into the ballot box was caught on camera in a few locations.
For all that, it has to be said despite the various controls exercised by the Kremlin, especially as to which candidates were allowed to enter the ballot to stand against Putin, there was a nationwide vote and count with some key messages for the West.
Firstly, Putin rates the business of measured Constitutional compliance and elections as important and further, he said clearly he was not seeking constitutional change so as things stand, this six year term must be his last. Yet this might be fudged in 2024 but not towards seeking ‘President for life’ status as is the case with President Xi in China. To quote Putin from polling night, he does not want to be president at 100 years of age. Russia will be stronger for maintaining presidential terms and limitations than the new approach in China with all its inherent risks. Secondly, one in eight voters voted for the Communist party and a reasonably articulate candidiate at that; in fact the Communist party came second out of a field that included some high profile contenders but none who were seriously going to threaten Putin.
Whilst waiting for Crop Trust meetings to crank up at the Vavilov Institute, I squeezed in a visit to the Russian Museum at Mikailovsky Palace, to note a huge painting of Josef Stalin in pride of place and a sharp reminder there is still a hankering for aspects of the past. This leads to the third point. Putin has genuine widespread support at street level and now a mandate to continue to put pride back into the Russian nation state, and to whip the West from time to time, i.e. business as usual. Unreal but some credit Boris and the Brits handling of the nerve gas attack as adding to the Russian voter turnout.
Issues such as the MH 17 shooting down and the use of pure poison on British soil remain serious unresolved issues, let alone interference in the USA presidential elections. From where I write as my meetings continue, I cannot add much but the West can plan for no great liaison and cooperation with Russia, unless Putin finally forgives the NATO breach of faith in its pushing too far east with its membership.
St Petersburg : Venice in the north.
Meanwhile, St Petersburg looks splendid in snow with not too much slush, the Hermitage remains in possession of the greatest collection of paintings by the Dutch Masters and the huge Vavilov Institute anchors a great deal of plant diversity in the world as it approaches its true centenary.
As the new Chair of the Crop Trust with the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard Norway nearby and HQ in Bonn, Germany, I approved of the venue of the Vavilov for our key March board meetings of 2018, no matter most organisations and tourists wait until spring or summer to make the trip to sample the delights of St Petersburg.
Nikolai Vavilov (1887 – 1943) was an outstanding botanist, geneticist and plant collector who charted the plotting of vital centres of origin of cultivated plants. He spearheaded seed collecting and improved wheat breeding until Stalin threw him in prison to die from starvation, blaming him for drought and poor USSR harvests.
The Crop Trust works closely with the Vavilov Institute to enhance plant diversity and also the use of Crop Wild relatives to gain, through natural cross breeding, better, stronger varieties of wheat, oats , barley and so forth. Our patron is Prince Charles, who recently gave practical support with a lunch at Clarence House using forgotten vegetables from his own Highgrove gardens. As a ‘Not for Profit’ international organisation, the Crop Trust liaises with almost all nations, storing seeds in the Svalbard Seed vault from nations large and small, such as the USA, Russia and even North Korea. There are now almost one million unique species in storage with all having their DNA stored on the Genesis Platform to allow scientists access.
So there is much that is good happening in St Petersburg, even if Stalin still hangs in all his uniformed glory just three blocks from the Vavilov Institute, and Vladimir Putin reigns supreme. However, even Putin admits there is much to be done, especially on the economic front across Russia. To this add human rights.