Russia’s Time to Shine on World Stage

Times Staff Writer

An international gathering that brings together the leaders of the major industrialized nations is about confronting such important issues as ensuring reliable energy supplies and fighting infectious diseases, topics at the weekend’s Group of 8 summit.

But it is also an opportunity for the host to preen on the world stage -- no big deal, say, for France, which held the first such gathering in 1975 in the chateau town of Rambouillet. But it is one big deal for Russia and its president, Vladimir V. Putin.

As first-time hosts at this year’s summit, both country and president dedicated considerable energy to demonstrating that they were up to the task and belonged in the club of top industrialized nations.


Russia’s efforts went so far as to try to control the weather. But beyond the climate, Russia and its leader went about establishing themselves on the new grand stage in several ways.

Consider the mansions where the Russians housed each of the visiting leaders: They were erected in recent years on the grounds of the Konstantinovsky Palace, which was built three centuries ago by Czar Peter the Great, destroyed during World War II, and eventually rebuilt to imperial standards.

Each mansion could serve adequately as a replacement for a Beverly Hills teardown. Among the amenities: A shoe-polishing machine was spotted in the vestibule of President Bush’s residence, ready to give a last-minute shine before guests stepped outside.

Each has roughly 20,000 square feet of living space. That’s about 10 times the size of a typical American split-level. The Russians call these McMansions “cottages.”

The available space, at least in Bush’s residence, did not include the attic and basement. They were off-limits, sealed even to the president’s security agents, a White House official said.

The president’s aides figured the closed space had something to do with eavesdropping. As is often the case when the president visits abroad, space was set up within his quarters with special walls -- a room within a room -- to keep private conversations private.


The aides assumed that any conversations they conducted outdoors in the yards, largely free of shrubs but decorated with saplings, could be picked up. So, they were told to limit sensitive talk to the secured room, or to the president’s limousine. Nevermind that the leaders generally moved about in golf carts.

Then there was the scene Saturday night when Putin welcomed each leader individually to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer palace 18 miles outside St. Petersburg.

The Russian president stood at the top of a long stairway as his counterparts arrived in limousines. Each had to walk step by step upstairs to be received by the waiting host -- much as courtiers may have been greeted on a summer evening in the 1700s.

Bush gave a less formal greeting to German Chancellor Angela Merkel when he encountered her Sunday in the more modern pavilion on the Konstantinovsky Palace grounds where the afternoon meeting of the G-8 leaders was being held.

It was a lesson in body language.

On his way here, the president spent much of Thursday with Merkel in her Bundestag district in northeastern Germany, building on a friendship that began with her earlier visit to the White House, a welcome guest after her conservative coalition turned Gerhard Schroeder out of office last fall. Schroeder’s opposition to the war in Iraq had made him a thorn in Bush’s side.

It’s safe to say the former chancellor never got the treatment Merkel received from the president.


Entering the meeting room, as relayed by a Russian television camera, Bush headed directly behind the chancellor, reached out and, placing both hands on the collar of her gold jacket, gave her a short massage just below the neck.

She smiled.

As for the weather, it was less than smiling Sunday, in this place known for its dark and brooding moods -- and clouds. With showers forecast, Russian aircraft seeded the approaching clouds about 30 miles away. It was for naught.

At midafternoon, roiling clouds rolled through, whipping up white caps in the Gulf of Finland and sending torrents of wind-borne rain sweeping across this St. Petersburg suburb, drenching anyone unfortunate enough to be caught outdoors.

That did not include the G-8 leaders. They made it from their golf carts and into their afternoon meeting just ahead of the rain, with British Prime Minister Tony Blair one of the last to dash in, his red and blue striped tie flying over his right shoulder.