Tea with Putka
MARCH 28, 2003
"Show me a Russian and I will tell you a long and complicated story," said The Mole as he and his staff were considering a new research report on the possibility of a Russian Grand Prix in St Petersburg. The Mole loves to talk of Russia with the younger members of his staff. They are fascinated about stories from the days when the Cold War was still hot and Boris was the enemy and not a man with whom to trade oil.
"Nothing ever happens quickly in Russia," he said.
"Gosh," said one of the Penelopes. "You know that's awfully true. I studied Russian literature at SSEES and I remember reading Mikhail Sholokhov's novel about the life of Russian peasants. It was called "And Quiet Flows the Don" and it seemed to go on for ever.
"So you never got round to the sequels, eh?" said The Mole with a smile. "I must say that I struggled with "The Don flows on and on" and gave up completely with "On and on and on flows the Don".
"Just look at the facts," continued The Mole. "The Russians assassinated a Tsar as early as 1881 and yet the whole system was not knocked over until 1917. And it has been the same in Formula 1. Bernie has been talking to the Russians since long before they ceased to be Reds. I cannot even remember all the details but it must have been around 1980 when Bernie went to the Kremlin to meet Leonid Brezhnev and try to work a deal by which he would take the F1 circus to Moscow and the Russians would let him have the profits of a tour of the west by the Bolshoi Ballet. It all fell out of bed in the end and I am not sure why but I think that it was something to do with the embarrassing defections during the Bolshoi's disastrous 1979 tour of the United States. That is why we ended up with a race in Budapest."
The Mole paused and let the others take up the discussion. The report had concluded more or less what The Mole had expected to read. Vladimir V Putin, it said, was born in St Petersburg. His parents fought through the 900-day siege of the city during World War II. Putin graduated from the Leningrad State University before disappearing into the KGB in 1975. When he left the service in 1990 he went straight into the St Petersburg city government and quickly worked his way through the political system to become Prime Minister in 1999 and President of Russia in 2000.
Since then he has made it clear that St Petersburg is in favour. Putin has even suggested that the Federal Assembly should be moved from Moscow. He has received most of the world's foreign leaders in St Petersburg and millions of dollars have been poured into revamping the city.
"Putin was never very keen on having a Grand Prix in Moscow," the report said. "No-one has ever really explained why the deal between Ecclestone and Yuri Luzhkov, mayor of Moscow, fell apart at the last minute last autumn but the mayor of St Petersburg, Vladimir Yakovlev, was not slow to react. Bernie flew straight from Moscow to St Petersburg."
A discussion had started and for a moment The Mole considered telling everyone about dropping in to see Putin a few weeks earlier while negotiating to buy a deniable satellite.
"Putka" was an old friend from the 1980s when (officially) he was a KGB Colonel based in Dresden. He and The Mole sometimes had tea together in Berlin where they exchanged notes. Putin, The Mole suspected, was quite often in the West, trying to pick up information from places such as the IBM Scientific Center in Heidelberg.
But they never talked about it.
Putka was busy poring over plans for the Konstantinovsky Palace in St Petersburg when The Mole arrived and initially they talked about the old days. When the tea arrived the conversation quickly turned to whether Bernie Ecclestone is serious about a race in Russia.
"I think you can say that," said The Mole. "There are 150 million people in your country, Putka, and the F1 sponsors all want to sell things to them. If you guys can come up with Bernie kind of money, then the circus will come."
Putin complained that $40m a year with a 10% annual incremental increase is rather a lot of money to ask for a motor race, particularly when one gets to keep almost none of the rights associated with the event.
"Build big grandstands," said The Mole. "It will be worth it. The race will bring lots of money to the city."
"Da?" said Putin. "But it is still a lot of investment."
"Get someone else to pay," said The Mole. "Do what the Malaysians have done. You have oil companies, don't you? All they do is pump money out of the ground. Use it."
Putin thought about it for a moment, as he sipped his cup of tea. He nodded.
The Mole focussed back on the conversation going on around him.
"Ever since Putin took power his relationship with the big oil companies has been interesting," one of the Penelopes was saying. "When he was first elected he began to attack the men who dominated the Russian economy, trying to get control back from the firms that had picked up the pieces when the Soviet system collapsed in 1991. Putin went after the biggest names including Vagit Alekperov, the man who had set up Lukoil, Russia's biggest oil company.
"Compared to some of the Russian corporations Lukoil had been pretty stable and responsible and when Putin began to talk about tax evasion charge, a deal was quickly struck. Lukoil became a friend of the government. Putin and the company began to lobby the national assembly for money to help it grow. Alekperov accompanied Putin on an official visit to Greece.
"Lukoil was already St Petersburg-friendly at this point. The city is helping the oil company build an oil terminal, and Lukoil has placed an order for three ice-breaking tankers in the St Petersburg shipyards. In recent months Lukoil has chipped in money to help the city pay for its 300th birthday celebrations and has made it clear that it is willing to do more.
"You will be interested to know that there was a Lukoil man at Imola recently," said Penelope (Roedean). "And we are pretty sure that they are thinking of backing the Russian Grand Prix."
"Really?" said The Mole and winked rather naughtily at Penelope.
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