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28 hours in Moscow

November 19, 2007
Text: Nikhil Lakshman

It looks like Walt Disney designed it!" a friend exclaims, spotting St Basil's Cathedral from the bus ferrying the media to the Kremlin.

Most people confuse the breathtaking cathedral with the Kremlin, the seat of Russian power. It is, in fact, a totally different structure, separated from the Kremlin by the inevitable wall, a huge cobblestone path, and a narrow street.

Racing to keep our date at the Kremlin -- unnecessary really, since the prime minister's encounter with Russian President Vladmir Putin and the consequent delegation-level meeting go on well beyond schedule -- and sprinting thereafter to the media centre to file our stories, and get to the airport to catch the flight home (all in an hour!), one doesn't get a chance to savour the cathedral from the inside. Just a couple of minutes of overawed reflection at the most awesome church I have seen in my life. Nothing Uncle Walt created can ever come close to a building ironically commissioned by Ivan The Terrible, Russia's first czar.

The Kremlin, in contrast, is not half as impressive. Parts of it resemble churches in Goa while the grandly named Grand Palace -- the venue for the prime ministerial meeting -- is well, not so grand. Having grown up on stories of how spectacular the Kremlin was, I must confess huge disappointment. The Kremlin won't hold a candle to Rashtrapati Bhavan though it is certainly better preserved than the White House, which was in some disrepair when I checked it out on the prime minister's visit to Washington, DC on July 18, 2005.

The hospitality at Rashtrapati Bhavan too would easily beat what greets us at the Kremlin. The dour guard at the gate to the Kremlin has little idea why we are here, and after we finally convince him of our bona fides and shiver on the icy cold, mile-long walk to the Grand Palace, we scramble for the few cups of tea available. Gruffly informed by the server that there is no milk for the tea, I long for the legendary Indian hospitality; back home, Rashtrapati Bhavan staff would have not only served as many cups of tea as we want, we would also have had something to munch. In this event, we keep hunger at bay through that long wait for Messrs Singh and Putin with just a that half cup Chai.

Mandarins at the MEA speak glowingly of the state of Indo-Russian ties -- but none of that bonhomie is on display as we wait in the ante room outside the Malachite Hall for the two leaders to show up. Inside, as the agreements are signed and the leaders speak, there is little interaction between the Indian and Russian sides -- the Indian and Russian governmental delegations and media sit side by side, grim-faced. Maybe, it is just the Russian way of doing business.

Image: The St Basil's Cathedral. Photograph: Nikhil Lakshman

Also read: 'No wrinkles in India-Russia relationship'
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