While checking in at Philadelphia Airport for the flight back to the UK I picked up a freebie copy of last Sunday’s Financial Times. The colour magazine is usually a good read. This time it was.

Twenty years ago (18 August 1991 to be precise) Mikhail Gorbachev was on holiday on the Black Sea coast of the Crimea when some old-guard Communists launched a coup aimed at preserving the USSR. Despite lots of inquiries and autobiographies, there are still a number of unanswered questions about what really happened and what the role of Gorbachev actually was. Was he held under house arrest or was he simply waiting to see which side would win before declaring his hand? As it happened, the coup failed, the USSR folded, Boris Yeltsin came to power and Gorbachev went down in history as the man who ended Communist tyranny and opened up the ‘Evil Empire’ to the fresh air of democracy.

The article in the FT magazine (by Charles Clover) describes events well – despite making the rather odd observation that the eight Party bosses and generals who launched the coup had “formed a state emergency committee, known by it’s clumsy Russian initials ‘GKChP’, to take temporary control of the Soviet Union.” Why are these initials ‘clumsy’? Not in Russian they aren’t. It’s a bit like a Russian suggesting that CIA is ‘a bit weird’ or MI5 ‘oddly English’.

Anyway, reading the article reminded me of a conversation I had a couple of years ago over dinner with the former Chairman of the Senate of Kazakhstan (effectively the Vice-President). It was in the margins of a meeting of the Secretariat of an interfaith conference. I don’t often meet people who knew people who shaped that part of history, so – nothing ventured, nothing gained – I decided to ask the question that really puzzled me: why is Gorbachev revered in the West, yet Yeltsin- a drunkard and a buffoon – revered in Russia? I suggested that Gorbachev re-shaped history, but Yeltsin was an opportunistic joke, normally laughed at in the West because of his behaviour when ‘under the influence’.

The answer surprised me. ‘You are judging like a westerner. In Russia a man who can drink and hold his drink is respected; the weak man who gave away an empire is not.’ Or words to that effect. Apparently, I was misreading the culture. What I saw as weakness was seen ‘domestically’ as strength; what I saw as strength (from the outside) was derided as weakness at home.

It reminded me that we can only understand ‘the other’ when we learn to look though his/her eyes and see how the world looks through that cultural or linguistic lens.

It also helps explain how and why Vladimir Putin maintains such popularity inside Russia: the strong man who restored pride to Russia and flexed his muscles internationally in a way that most Russians thought they would never see again. It wasn’t for nothing that he allowed himself to be photographed half naked with a gun in the wilds of Russia.

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Location:Somewhere over the Atlantic