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Sunday Journal: A small exchange brings warmer Soviet-U.K. relations

On a bitterly cold December morning in 1984 I was standing in Kensington Palace Gardens in London. The tree-lined street and solitude belied the important people and decisions made here. The residents are embassy staff, ambassadors, the rich — and the very rich.

Since 1840 to this day Kensington Palace Gardens is the property of the British Crown. The rent, however, goes to the British Government and not the Queen. Thus the properties are "sold" to private buyers or tycoons on long leases. One was sold in 2005 to an Indian steel magnate for $115 million.

I was standing opposite No. 13, the mansion and residence of the Russian ambassador. Nearby was the residence of the Sultan of Brunei. The sultan was reputed to be the richest man in the world with a fortune in excess of $38 billion, a collection of 5,000 automobiles, private jets, three wives and 12 children.

As I shivered, I moved my toes and stamped my feet to keep warm as snow covered the ground. Yet the front garden of the sultan of Brunei's mansion had flowers growing in long rows. As soon as they wilted they were replaced, even in winter. The bright flowers made a striking contrast to the gray weather. But as a police officer I was not there to admire the flowers, I was there to help guard the next leader of Russia.

Mikhail Gorbachev was on a visit to the United Kingdom to cement better relations with the free world and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Here in winter the seeds of perestroika, the dismantling of the Soviet Union, were being sown.

Accompanying Gorbachev was his glamorous wife, Raisa, and they were both staying at the residence of the Russian Ambassador.

Every time he appeared, a large bulletproof Russian limousine, a ZiL, would arrive. At the same time a group of about 50 Russians, both men and women, would surround the car, a shield of flesh and bone. The men were always dressed in gray, had snow-white complexions and all wore white socks. The women wore headscarves, gray skirts and black jackets. These were not well-tailored clothes but more of a utilitarian presentation that suited communism.

The ZiL would pull away and the gray entourage would vanish into the Russian ambassador's residence. Flippantly, I wondered if they would retire to eat Caspian caviar, sip icy Stolichnaya and listen to Tchaikovsky.

As I glimpsed Gorbachev, strawberry birthmark flashing, coming and going during his three-day visit, the procedure would always be the same. The ZiL would appear, and be surrounded by Russian agents. It was a case of us and them, but with no winners or losers.

I made eye contact and smiled at a Russian agent. I do not know why, it was just a spontaneous reaction; surprisingly he smiled back. I had established some kind of rapport with a Russian whose face was as white and colorless as an icicle.

During the next two days as Gorbachev came and went I would smile at this same agent, and he would always smile back.

The final day of the visit arrived. During his stay Gorbachev had visited the British Library where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, and a library where Lenin, in 1903, first produced his paper Iskra (Russian for spark). I assumed he had also visited the grave of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery. Marx lies there with his family amidst the eerie stillness and rustling leaves.

Following their hours of discussions concerning nuclear disarmament, the arms race and human rights, Margaret Thatcher remarked publicly that Gorbachev was a man she could do business with. As the ZiL made its final journey, Gorbachev looked at me and smiled. I was very touched, pleased and yet totally taken aback.

Finally, I crossed the road and said pree-vyet to the Russian agent I had been smiling at for the last three days. He replied in Russian, bowed his head, smiled and shook my hand. He spoke no English and I spoke no Russian apart from my hello. I reached into my pocket, removing all the change I had, and offered it to him to select what coins he liked. He chose a 50-pence coin, a large, silver, seven-sided coin, and put it in his pocket. Then, he pressed a small red badge of Lenin in my hand, quickly turned and hurried away. The street resumed its silence.

Kelvin Fielding was a police officer in the Royal Hong Kong Police and then with Scotland Yard over his 18-year career. He lives in St. Petersburg.


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Sunday Journal: A small exchange brings warmer Soviet-U.K. relations 06/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 11, 2010 4:48pm]
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