My last discussion of the G20 caused a nervous phone-call from the Russian Ambassador in The Hague, who put me through to Vladislav Surkov. Mr. Surkov wanted to know where I got all this information and who were my sources.
I replied that I could tell him but not over the phone. When I bargained for an interview, he gave in and said that we could meet at a neutral location. Minutes later the Ambassador had me in a police motorcade at 150 km/h to an Aeroflot jetplane, at Valkenburg Air Base normally used by the Dutch royal family. The neutral location appeared to be president Putin’s private chalet in Sochi.
After inspecting me, Surkov said: “Well, I suppose that I must thank you for coming here. Now that the formalities are over, will you please tell me where you got that information and who are your sources ?”
TC: “Thank you for your warm welcome. I am sorry, but I hear a pounding noise in the room next-door. I hope it is not an old boiler that might explode ?”
VS raised his eyebrows. “That is president Putin doing his judo practice. He has stated that he has no interest in this interview, but our words are translated to him just to make sure.” There was a loud bang. “Apparently he didn’t like being compared to an “old boiler”. I feel sorry for Vyacheslav Volodin, his personal trainer.”
VS: “Now, your sources.”
TC: “Ah, yes. Before I tell you, I must relate a small story so that you understand me. Have you ever heard about physics professor Abraham Pais, who wrote Einstein’s biography Subtle is the Lord and a beautiful autobiography A tale of two continents ? When he was young he was persecuted by the Nazis as a Jew in Amsterdam, but his life was saved by Tina Strobos, a Dutch woman of his age whose father had been a Russian merchant. Leventina Strobos died two years ago with an obituary in the New York Times. Her story is amazing, and there is a recording of her at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum about how dangerous the resistance against the Nazis was.”
VS looked annoyed but the words Nazi and Russian merchant appeared to kindle an interest. He cleared his throat and said: “I presume that you refer to Israel’s atomic bomb and the resistance of the Russian people against the Nazis in Kiev. Please continue.”
[Not in the interview but for Dutch readers: An Dutch obituary of Strobos of 2012 is here. Check the book on Strobos by Peter de Waard and his website with more pictures, or this recent Volkskrant article. These explain that Tina Strobos was born as Leventina Buchter, but that Alphonse Buchter was not her real father, but said Russian merchant. A painting of her made during the War turned up at the BBC Antiques Roadshow.]
TC: “I am sorry mr. Surkov. I had no intention to refer to the Israel atomic bomb or the government in Kiev. I just wanted to give an example of the ties between Russia and Holland and the bravery that some people are capable of, and the good results that come from that bravery. Besides, to answer your question about my sources: I got my information from an article in de Volkskrant and then looked further on the internet.”
VS: “Listen, are you trying to make me cry ? You are telling me a romantic story about a brave Russian girl who overcomes her weak Dutch genetic handicap, who fights the Nazis but then she falls back into weakness and collaborates with the Jews. Haven’t you read my Science Fiction novels Near Zero and Without Sky, to know that I do not care for such romance and weakness ? Yes, I admit openly that my original name is Aslambek Andarbekovich Dudayev from the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic. Yes, I am half Russian and half Chechen, but I overcame my handicap and changed my name to proud Russian. Now I am Surkov. I also write Science Fiction under the name of Natan Dubovitsky so that people don’t know. Later, when I become the successor to Putin, I must choose a new name. I like Stalin but that has been used before. I hesitate between Tupin after Tupac or Nerin after the Roman emperor Nero, another great writer of the past.”
TC: “Let me quote from your novel, starting where you compare the sound of being squashed with the sound of Russian swearing.”
“I lay between Mama and Papa and didn’t hear the blow. It’s possible that Papa made some funny quacking sound when the excessive weight crushed him, or he swore coarsely. One time he had yelled out something of the sort in front of me and frightened me.
It’s possible that my mother also let out some kind of sound, but not necessarily. I’m not sure she even had time for a guilty smile, like the one she always had when something unpleasant happened to Papa or me. I hope it wasn’t painful.
They were killed. I wasn’t. Death wound round their bodies but didn’t reach mine. My brain was just touched by its black and stifling presence. Something boiled out of my brain and evaporated: the third dimension, height.
When they dug me out in the morning, chilled to the bone because my parents had quickly grown cold and become like the sand, I saw a two-dimensional world, endless in length and width, but without height. Without sky. Where is it, I asked? It’s right there, they answered. I don’t see it, don’t see it! I became frightened.” (part of Without Sky)
TC: “My personal interpretation is to compare this crushing from 3D to 2D with the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
I heared a new sound from the other room, no longer the pounding of judokas, but either some Russian swearing or perhaps the squashing of Vyacheslav Volodin.
Surkov was genuinely flattered that I had read his novels and that I actually understood some aspects of them. He made an abrupt gesture though: “I will not comment on my books. Too many people have tried to read warnings in Mein Kampf and it didn’t help anyone. It was good enough to bribe the author with so-called royalties, why doesn’t anyone understand this ? Thus, we stop this discussion about fiction. Now, please tell me where you got your information about Russian politics and who are your sources.”
TC: “I use the same sources as Sarah Palin did when she predicted in 2008 that Russia would invade the Ukraine.”
VS: “That is utter nonsense. We have asked our friends at The Independent to debunk it, and they found someone who concluded: “Palin made so many wacky claims its about time one was proved right. A broken clock is correct twice a day.””
TC: “Exactly. The Russian policy on the Ukraine is so wacky that the logical conclusion is that you follow the nonsense on the internet. Thus I know where to look in order to predict what you will do.”
VS: “Okay, Vlad, you can come in now, if you want.”
The pounding had changed from the other room to the door. It stopped and Putin entered. His judo suit was rather ripped. Apparently it had been Vyacheslav Volodin who had been hustling Vladimir Putin instead of the other way around.
Vladimir Putin put a hand on my shoulder and said: “Listen, I just want the world to feel my pain over the lack of respect. The West is provoking us into a new Cold War. Mikhail Gorbachev said the same in Berlin at the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. We fear the extension of NATO to the Ukraine. We want Barry and Angela to say that they will not do so. I know that I come across as an aggressor who can only continue on that road of aggression, like Dmitry Bykov says, but please, who is Bykov compared to the President of the Russian Federation ? I am a sensitive man, that is what Vladislav here keeps on telling me. People should not make fun of his literary work either. Vladislav is a sensitive man too.”
TC: “Do you know what one of my sources says that Sarah Palin is planning to do ?”
My two hosts were all ears.
TC: “Did you hear about those 10,000 walruses on that island in Alaska, due to the melting arctic ? Sarah Palin wants to train them so that they can invade Russia from the North-East, so that China stops buying oil and gas from you. You better think again about the Ukraine.”
Vladislav Surkov immediately got it, and shivered. When I left to catch the jetplane back home, he was explaining it to Vladimir Putin, using words that sounded like swearing or just squashing.
Appendix: (1) A London Review of Books effort at review of Near Zero with also an interpretation of Hamlet. (2) Another effort at review of Without Sky. (3) There is the Dutch article by Hans Loos Oorlog met alle middelen (Volkskrant). (4) The word walrus might have a Dutch origin. There is no known link to wall and Russian. (5) Some readers might also want to read Radio Free Europe on Surkov. (6) See the earlier Mind Map for the European theatre, while it is only a happy coincidence that Surkov worked as a theatre director too.