Around the time that Stalin’s mummified corpse was taken out of the mausoleum, Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote a verse honouring Humour, which, when decapitated, just laughed. Eloquent testimony to the indomitable power of the human spirit in surviving the years of the Gulag.
But few have ever suspected that the head of the country’s foreign intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin, has beneath that hard, unsmiling shell, a wicked sense of humour.
It emerged when on 15 November, bright eyed and bushy tailed, he sauntered over to the international conference in Moscow celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the Institute of Europe, founded on the transparently false supposition that the EU would become a world power. But hopes have evidently risen with the ineptitude of Mr Trump in charge of the United States; not least the hopes of Mr Naryshkin.
Yet if there is one lesson to be drawn from the bitter experience of the Cold War it is that, when the Russians try to drive wedges in between the American and European members of NATO, the result has usually proved entirely counter-productive to their fond expectations.
On this occasion, Mr Naryshkin obviously intended to win over hearts and minds to this project by announcing solemnly, no doubt to add force to the irony, ‘that our country has preserved those Christian values in their essence that Europe itself has to a certain degree already lost.’ As my grandmother would have said: I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!
Evidently he is referring to the well known Christian practices of invading and occupying the territory of neighbouring countries (Georgia and Ukraine), persecuting and assassinating troublesome journalists, suppressing all public displays of political opposition through brute force, targeting for assassination those identified as traitors (Litvinenko) while giving sanctuary to those responsible, stealing public property on a scale hitherto unknown, and the torture and killing of lawyers (Magnitsky) who challenge corrupt behaviour by members of the security services. Or, perhaps, he looks back with some nostalgia to the days of the Spanish Inquisition?