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Splitting Hairs Over the Last Time They Broke Bread

Britain says Putin's state visit will be Russia's first since 1874. Moscow has a different take.

June 24, 2003|William Wallace | Special to The Times

LONDON — The pageantry of a state visit is the highest ceremonial treat Britain has to offer another country, and Queen Elizabeth II doesn't hand the accolade out like candy. By tradition, there are just two such occasions a year, and no Russian leader has been invited for one since Queen Victoria sat on the throne.

Of course, relations during much of the 20th century were marred by that matter of the Bolsheviks' 1918 murder of Czar Nicholas II and his family, who happened to be cousins of the British royal family.

But the collapse of the Soviet Union has healed that old wound, and today, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin will arrive in London as a guest of the queen. Her invitation is an acknowledgment that a Russian state visit to Britain is long overdue.

Not that they agree on just how long it's actually been.

Ask Buckingham Palace the date of the last state visit by a Russian head of state, and they'll say 1874. That was the year Czar Alexander II visited Queen Victoria, a courtesy call after the marriage in St. Petersburg of his daughter Marie to the queen's second son, Alfred. "We've looked back in the files and there was definitely a state banquet involved," palace spokesman Stuart Neil says. "That fits the criteria for a state visit."

Doesn't count, say the Russians.

"The 1874 visit was on the invitation of the queen, but it was linked to marrying children between the two families and that is not exactly what state visits should be about," says Vladimir Andreev of the Russian Embassy in London. "We've looked into this, and diplomats can say what they want, but the firm opinion of our researchers is that the last true state visit was in 1844.

"It is our understanding," Andreev says firmly, "that the British agree with us."

Hardly. Yes, the British acknowledge, Czar Nicholas I did come to London in 1844 at Queen Victoria's invitation. And yes, Buckingham Palace does have an 1844 Room, which was decorated to impress Nicholas and has been refurbished to mark Putin's visit.

But, the palace says, 1844 does not qualify as a state visit. "It wasn't a state visit in the purest sense," Neil says dryly. "It was just the visit of a head of state."

Indeed, the palace has very precise criteria about what constitutes a pure state visit.

It is hosted by the queen, for one thing, not the prime minister -- although the government chooses whom to invite.

The visit always lasts from a Tuesday to a Friday and must include a state banquet. ("We treat 1874 as the last state visit and the standard for our hospitality and arrangements," says Andrew McKie of the Guildhall, the formal hall in the city of London where the banquet will be held.)

The visiting head of state also gets to stay at Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle.

Moreover, protocol dictates that there be a carriage procession up the boulevard of Pall Mall to Buckingham Palace. When Putin arrives at Heathrow Airport, he will be greeted by Prince Charles, who will escort him to Horse Guards Parade.

There, as royal salutes are fired from nearby Green Park and the Tower of London, Putin will hop into the back of a 1902 landau carriage outfitted with the queen's state harness to make the drive to the palace. Official state visit status sealed.

Yet it won't be Putin's first visit to the palace. In April 2000, the then newly minted Russian president dropped in on Prime Minister Tony Blair for a 24-hour stay, during which he found time to pop by the palace for a cup of tea with the queen.

Other Russian leaders have visited as well, including Nikita Khrushchev, who spent 10 days in Britain in 1956. But the royal family remained bitter over the czar's execution. In 1967, when the Foreign Office lobbied to bring Premier Alexei Kosygin to Britain, diplomats found the queen not yet ready to forgive.

"Kosygin was quite a difficult meeting to set up because there was lots of resistance from the palace," recalls Martin Nicholson, a retired British diplomat. "The British royal family were sworn enemies of the Soviet regime, and the feeling was: Why should the queen shake hands with the representative of a government which had murdered her cousins?"

The queen grudgingly met Kosygin. But it was not until the Soviet Union imploded that she herself visited Russia, accepting President Boris N. Yeltsin's invitation for a state visit in 1994. Putin's visit this week is the diplomatic equivalent of having people back for dinner.

Putin's state visit comes 189 years after another Anglo-Russian get-together that everyone agrees was an official state visit. It too featured a glittering banquet at the Guildhall, with the future King George IV hosting Czar Alexander I of Russia to mark what they thought was the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

An oil painting done at the time depicts the occasion. Hanging in the Guildhall, it shows the guests dining splendidly.

But "The Allied Sovereigns Banquet" is an unfinished work. The artist, Luke Clennell, had sketched out the seating plan from the night, expecting the guests to sit for him later so he could fill in their features. But the foreign dignitaries left for home before he could get them to sit for the portrait. Clennell was crushed that his work would never be done to perfection.

He went mad, and never painted again.

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