17 OCTOBER 1998, Page 9


n the night train from Moscow to Smolensk, I shared a compartment with a white-haired psychopath who sat on the bunk opposite in his Y-fronts and stared at me with burning eyes. I fell asleep momen- tarily and when I awoke he was apparently trying viciously to rape the slumbering woman on the bunk beneath me. Was she his wife? A stranger? Vital questions as the train rushed through the darkness and they struggled in the half-light of passing sta- tions in the vastness of Russia on the edge of revolution. What was I to do? I didn't have long to think. I decided to emulate King David and feign madness, so I shout- ed the war-cry, `Za rodinoo! Za Stalina!' (`For Motherland! For Stalin!') He stood Up, leaving her weeping but chaste, and stared at me. 'We could do with Stalin right now in Russia! Everything's collapsing!' he said, as if nothing unusual had happened, his lewd finger punching the air as he Climbed into his bunk. I was travelling to the tiny hamlet in Smolensk province, Chishova, where Prince Potemkin, whose biography I am writing, was born. On arrival, the local schoolmasters forced me to undergo a feast in my honour. The sinewy gym-mistress slapped my back, embraced me in her python-like grip and handed me a bouquet, to the cheers of vil- lagers. An octogenarian peasant couple live where Potemkin's home once stood. They grow potatoes, tend beehives, barter milk, have received no pension since 1992 and are unaffected by boom or bust: 'You should ask the big people in Holy Smolensk about that.' I could write a book on the bizarre things that have happened to me on the hunt for Potemkin. Now I'm off to Romania to find his brains and viscera.

Which has safer banks — Jersey or the Antilles?' Alexandra the adventuress is, like all Russians, in a panic about money. She spent the summer in Monte Carlo as the mistress of one of Russia's richest oligarchs. Afterwards, he put $250,000 in her Swiss account. She's now convinced that her oli- garch will be destroyed by the communists and her wicked money traced to Geneva. It isn't her only big gift in an amorous career that spans Russian moguls, Manhattan bil- lionaires, Chechen gangsters, Hollywood actors and a Rabelaisian succession of pen- niless poets who got to ride in limousines bought with other men's crimes. So she is sit- ting in her Moscow apartment, a glittery wasteland of designer paraphernalia, shriek- ing down her mobile at bank managers in faraway tropicalities. Observing the adven- turess is still a most revealing way to under- stand Russia: somewhere, what with her beautiful legs and her bulging bank accounts, between her drab home village near Rostov- on-Don and her oligarch's Provençal villa, ticks the time bomb of history.

I'm not alone in thinking the magnificent Astoria Hotel, now owned by the Fortes, is, with its air of Tsarist raffishness, the most stylish and luxurious, the best in St Peters- burg. Hitler thought so too. It is next to St Isaac's, near the Hermitage and Falconet's Bronze Horseman, opposite Diderot's apart- ment where he visited Catherine the Great. Hitler decreed that, when Leningrad fell, he'd salute his panzers in this square from the Astoria's imperial balcony, then dine in its dining-room. Of course Leningrad never fell, yet today it feels like a defeated city.

Ajubilant Petersburgian moment: searching with patient Hermitage Museum curators through stacks of priceless paint- ings in a dusty, shambolic corridor, closed to the public, in the Winter Palace I found the two paintings commissioned by Potemkin from Sir Joshua Reynolds.

An ex-girlfriend worked for the new, already drifting Premier Primakov before he was spy boss and foreign minister: 'We employees always had a joke about him. He could never say no, so he simply answered, "Yes, I completely agree, but . . . " and then never finished.'

Here there's always a Jewish angle: the provincials blame the leading reformers from Chubais, Kiriyenko, Nemtsov to the billionaires Berezovsky and Guzinsky— for the economic debacle as corrupt 'Jews'. Actually most of these so-called Jews could only be termed Jewish according to Himm- ler's strictest definition, being often micro- scopically Jewish by blood, thinking them- selves Russian and with no Jewish culture whatsoever. But in power they're immedi- ately hated as wicked Jews. Ironically, Pri- makov, the man supported by Left and Right to clean out reformers, is partly Jew- ish too. But my companions in Smolensk province won't believe it: 'These Jews caused corruption. But Primakov is the son of Cossacks, not a Jew. Wherever did you hear such lies? From Jews, perhaps?'

Irang my oldest Muscovite friend, Dmitri Yakushkin, a boyish, aristocratic, cultured television interviewer. 'Are you ringing to congratulate him?' asked his elegant wife Marina. 'President Yeltsin has just appoint- ed him presidential press secretary. Come and celebrate!' So mercifully there's one intellectual in the Kremlin, though, with Yeltsin often unintelligible, Dmitri could turn out to be the most powerful press sec- retary since Alastair Campbell.

Iheard the unlikely but exciting news that I had a television series of political interviews when my producer telephoned me in the Crimea: 'Channel 4 have com- missioned a series called Sebag.' A queer thing to hear in Sebastopol. Channel 4 has just shown the pilot with the shadow health secretary Ann Widdecombe. Political inter- views used to be confrontational, practised by the master, Jeremy Paxman. Then Mr Blair preferred the bland, scripted Des O'Connor Show. My programmes should be different from both: the sort of intimate, spontaneous conversations revealing poli- tics and personality that, until this sound- bite-cursed epoch, were the natural medi- um of statesmen. Witty, clever Widde- combe was the perfect guest, discussing Paradise Lost, love, politics. When the audi- ence see a politician less formally, more intimately, they virtually always like them more: a surprising cure for image prob- lems. The result was an affectionate por- trait, a warm-up for Widdecombe's out- standing Bournemouth performance, so unstick, so stalwart, so British, she must be a future Tory leader. Why not?

The debauched city I first thought of as `Moscow Babylon' in 1991 is now a doom- laden Weimar awaiting what? Hitler, Bona- parte, Marcos? Meanwhile, for the first time since Russians got wildly rich in 1993, the wealth of Westerners impresses Rus- sian girls again. Sitting in an empty, expen- sive restaurant, a Russian Rockefeller defied Western banks: 'Until recently, they treated me like God. Now they're threaten- ing to sue me to bring down all our compa- nies like dominoes. Fuck 'em! We can't repay them, but the government will never let us go under.' He's bankrupt in Russia and a billionaire in London: it's a Russian conundrum.