“We would like to invite you to Moscow this May, to address our students on creativity and leadership.”
I accept the offer to swap Manchester for Moscow for a week in the late spring as a great deal. The attraction of the assignment fades, as relationships between the two governments cool after the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury. I discover later that even Roman Abramovich is having similar visa problems, but from the opposite direction.
An announcement on the Russian visa website makes the official position clearer:
“As a result of the irresponsible actions of the UK Government, which lead to an expulsion of 23 diplomats of the Russian Embassy, the consular service for applicants has been seriously affected.This leaves us no option but to temporarily limit the number of all visitors. The Embassy is doing its best to reestablish the ordinary workflow.”
Days before the proposed visit, I am seriously considering a fallback position. I find myself muttering that nothing is decided before everything is decided. My fall-back is to walk away. They need my goods more than I need their visa, I argue with myself. Withdrawal means withdrawal.
As in all good dramas, there is a final twist. After two journeys from Manchester to London, and with one last bound, I am free to travel. The visa page in wonderful Cyrillic characters is pasted into my passport. It now offers a conversation point with border guards on my next visit to the land of Trump.
The journey to Moscow is eventful. A fifty minute transfer at Frankfurt proves as impossible as it always seemed, and I arrive at my hotel at 2am.
Later that morning, I blearily discuss my proposed lectures. More like workshops, really, I explain. We will work together collectively to explore a living case of the creative options open to a leader.
With some trepidation, I choose Brexit and its leadership choices as my main theme for discussion at the workshop. To my pleasure, I find that the students are remarkably well-informed about the topic. Without prompting, they quickly home in on the most intractable problem, that of the Irish border. We examine the possibilities such as a technological fix, and even the impossibilities such as a virtual border and abolishing the border completely . I feel I am more engaged in authentic discussion than after all the ersatz debates I have suffered for over a year on Newsnight (bad), Question Time (worse), Peston, (frenzied) and Daily Politics (unspeakable).
I learn a lot about the way a country can take control of its borders. During my visit, I surrender my passport around a dozen times at various checkpoints. The ritual is almost identical. Each page is carefully scrutinised. I am also carefully scrutinised.
Back home, I am not surprised to see that the Government is still persisting in its public assertions of the vital importance of a granite-hard Brexit. I witness the unedifying sight of Jacob Rees-Mogg reading ‘evidence’ from his smartphone (surely a blow against his carefully-crafted victorian undertaker image). He is facing reasoned arguments from a distinguished Cambridge lawyer. “Experts” he sniffs, “I had to listen to nonsense from an expert just last week”.
The Mail continues its hysterical headlines, adding to its list of traitors. This now includes high court judges, unelected peers trousering their daily expenses for blocking the will of the people, communist agitators led by the evil Corbin and the Svengali figure of McDonnell. All are plotting for the downfall of capitalism. I retain a hope that I might also be elevated to that band of brothers and sisters. Maybe by drawing the Mail’s attention to my role as, at best a useful idiot, and at worse a sleeper preparing for my defection to Moscow. Jeremy Corbin consciously or otherwise clings to the Blairite idea that a creative fudge may be possible.
The slightest of contacts over a week in Moscow suggests to me that the young people in the capital there have much in common with those in London and Manchester. There is an openness to change, and a willingness to see beyond platitudes expressed as universal truths.
I live in hope.