Jun 25


6 Responses


Helen Whitten

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I am staying with friends in Italy and we are walking around in a state of shock at the news of the Referendum.  It’s like waking up in a bad dream.  We have, indeed, woken up in a different world.  We feel sad and somewhat ashamed at the impact the decision that only 52% of our countrymen came to.  And, speaking personally, I feel angry at the way the Referendum was conducted and feel that the nature of the campaign, together with the media coverage, has much to answer for in having led us to this point.

People did think about the issues.  I spoke to bankers, plumbers, hairdressers, taxi-drivers.  I spoke to Jamaicans, Latvians, Lithuanians, Angolans – it was not just the white English who voted for Brexit.  It was not necessarily about racism though it might have been about spacism for those living in areas where they can’t get their children into schools or find it difficult to get an appointment to see their GPs.  There were plenty of thoroughly intelligent people who voted out but perhaps the majority of those voting Leave were in areas where the speed of change in their environment had most impacted them on a daily basis.

Either way, I think the votes for Leave had very little to do with individual feelings about any one European or another.  It was an anger with Brussels and our Government.  I suspect the majority of us in the UK acknowledge the benefits we have enjoyed from closer relationships with our neighbours and appreciate those who have come to our country to live and work.

One thing I heard frequently was a lack of trust in authority figures or institutions.  Prime Ministers, MPs, the IMF, the Bank of England have, over previous years, proved to be wrong on one score or another and cases of excess or expenses fraud have left a bad taste.  The media are viewed with equal scepticism. And it is dangerous when people don’t feel they can trust anyone because, quite frankly, the majority of us in England were really not equipped to understand the complexities of what the EU membership represented.  Each side bandied figures about but we all knew they couldn’t be certain about any of them – as the first day of market turmoil has shown.  In truth I think the issues raised in the Referendum should have been handled in Parliament.  Yes, it was democracy at work but without sufficiently objective explanation of facts and consequences it made the decision extremely difficult for many.  On the day before the Referendum I met two charming and intelligent young girls in their twenties in my local deli, one English and one Latvian, still thrashing out the issues and trying to decide.  After all the television and media coverage they were still confused.

From the various conversations I had,  I think the result in some areas of England had more to do with the alienation of a certain class who felt unheard than it had to do with Europe.  The anger was at the Government, at austerity, at a feeling that they had no voice and that successive governments have simply called them bigots rather than listening to their concerns.  At some point, like Paris in 1789, the people rebel and throw their toys out of the pram – and everyone around has to face the consequences.

But the campaigns did not, in my view, help them choose carefully, nor help them fully understand the consequences to Europe and the world of coming out of the EU.  The Remain Campaign did not reach the people and misread the feelings bubbling up in the heartlands of England.  I did not receive any information leaflet from the Remain campaign whereas I received three from Leave.  The only thing I received from Remain was a poster but it only arrived one day before the Referendum.

In the countryside there were Vote Leave posters everywhere.  On the days before the Referendum they popped up on cars parked on roundabouts, in laybys and in windows.  I only ever saw one Remain poster – where were they?  It seems to me that the Remain campaign were only speaking to their own – to the professions, the City, the financiers.  They didn’t get on their Battle Bus to reach out to people and if they did speak they seemed to speak in negative terms rather than to explain to people what actions they might be able to take to ease their problems if we did stay in.  Plenty of people were wavering up until the last minute: perhaps they could have got out there and talked to them on their terms.  And where on earth was Jeremy Corbyn to rally these troops to Remain?

The debate between the two sides generally ended in shouting and ranting.  Getting to the truth of the impact of a decision was very hard.

It takes two to tango.  Any divorce is instigated by two parties.  So I believe the EU leaders also need to take responsibility for their part in this outcome.  I feel angry that it is only now, after the event, that European presidents are saying “yes, I can see we do need to reform the EU…” and “perhaps we should now revisit the Treaty itself”.  Why did it take this desperate and tragic situation to get them to understand that it is not just the UK that has been urging them to reform.

Angela Merkel’s open invitation came at a bad time for the lead-up for the Referendum and fired fears of uncontrollable immigration that our infrastructure could not cope with.  The increasingly federalist tendencies of Brussels also concerned some.  In the likely review that those in the EU leadership will conduct I hope that they will analyse these problems honestly because they cannot be pushed under the table now.  Otherwise the Far Right, or Far Left, will take over – they are waiting to do so.

The world is in a fragile state.  Putin may well be delighted by the destabilisation of Europe.  ISIS warlords will be watching our vulnerability.  We need to pull together.  In any divorce there is a period of shock, rejection, anger, sadness but, as I said in my last blog, I hope that the leaders of the world rise above hurt, ego, punishment or revenge and put the good of the world first.  I hope there will be a willingness to cooperate and overcome divisions as fast as possible as it will benefit all nations to do so.  Above all I hope all parties will apply their wisdom to this sad situation.

Call me an optimist (my business was called Positiveworks!) but could this possibly be a Hegelian moment where the thesis (EU creation and history of 48 years) has been challenged by the antithesis (UK voting Leave) which could potentially lead to a synthesis that enables all countries to review treaties and alliances and bring them up to date to last a further fifty years into the 21st century in an optimal and transformed state?  I sincerely hope so.

If you are concerned then click the link below:

Petition: EU Referendum Rules triggering a 2nd EU Referendum

Petition: EU Referendum Rules triggering a 2nd EU Refere…

We the undersigned call upon HM Government to implement a rule that if the remain or leave vote is less than 60% based a turnout less than 75% there should be anot…

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We went to the Hay Literary Festival recently.  Inevitably, there were many talks that touched on the EU.   In a mock referendum held at the close of the Festival, three-quarters of those there voted to stay in and I have, after sitting on the fence for some time, decided to join them in this.

I did not want to make a decision without careful thought and research.  It is a complex subject and the decision is certainly not one to be taken lightly.  There are many factors that have the potential to seriously impact each of us living here and in Europe for many years to come.  But for any of us trying to make up our minds, the level of political debate has, in my view, been shameful – full of slings and arrows and ineffective ways of putting any points of fact to the voter.  It has insulted the public intelligence.  The name-calling has reminded me of children in a playground – and sadly this seems to be just the same in the electoral discussions on the other side of the Atlantic.

How do we raise the level of debate?  It is arrogant and disrespectful to presume that anyone with a different perspective is an “idiot”.  There are perfectly legitimate arguments on both sides.  There are voices of reason from business, economists and government putting each case and not one of them has a crystal ball to the future.   Yet representatives of the campaigns seem to imagine that they can terrify us into submission by citing one terrible consequence after another of not doing what they want.  It doesn’t make for an intelligent discussion of the facts and potential consequences.

But politicians of all parties are, I feel, paying the price for persistently ignoring the concerns of some of those voting to leave, calling them racist, little Englanders or bigots rather than waiting to hear what they are actually saying.    Politicians don’t seem to want to hear opposing perspectives.  They just hurl abuse rather than listen.  This is hardly a good example of statesmanship. The media have been equally scaremongering, leaving out some of the subtle aspects of the challenges we face.

It was this piece in the Evening Standard that helped me decide.  It was a quote from entrepreneur Rohan Silva “The institutions of the EU are amongst other things, unaccountable, untransparent, undemocratic, wasteful, sometimes corrupt, top down, not fit for purpose for the world we live in today, that’s all true.  But as someone who runs a small business and works to support hundreds of other small businesses, small companies are least well placed to withstand the turmoil, the uncertainty and the flight of capital that’s going to happen from leaving for at least three years after leaving the EU … The jobs lost, the sleepless nights, the anxiety, the economic damage will be truly considerable and the price of that is not worth paying at this time because the EU for all its flaws is not as bad as leaving.”

This summed up pretty accurately how I felt.  Having run a small business for 23 years, I have enjoyed making my own decisions and feeling free and flexible to build alliances – but not be limited by them.  So my natural tendency is to be small and flexible.  I find it frustrating that reform within the EU is so cumbersome.  Practices and contracts should always be reviewed frequently, especially in such a fast-changing world and with a group of countries that has expanded from a small number of six to twenty-eight very diverse nations.  If we look at this from a Darwinian perspective, we know that if a living body does not adapt to changing circumstances it will become extinct.

I love Europe and the Europeans, was born and spent my early childhood in Portugal, have lived in France and travelled to many countries on business.  I believe that the collaboration of different nationalities has resulted in advantages in innovation in science, medicine, the economy, the environment and in a deeper understanding of humanity.  Immigration has brought huge benefits to our country and I admire the energy and enterprise as well as the cultural input that the majority of those arriving here have created.  And yet the speed and rate that our country is growing is a perfectly rational concern, as anyone who travels on the London tube will know.  No-one should be insulted for having raised the issue.  Our infrastructure is creaking and we don’t have money in the coffers to improve housing, education or roads at the drop of a hat.

The Remain contingent have been extremely tardy in putting their case and certainly the Labour Party seem only just to be waking up to the need to speak out on the matter at all.  Speaking personally, we have received information and stickers from Vote Leave but absolutely nothing from Remain either in Hampshire or in London. Therefore the only banners and stickers one sees as one drives around the countryside are Vote Leave.

And what a boring statement the word Remain represents.  Static, not forward motivating.  Stronger in Europe was a far more inspirational phrase.  And in the meantime the Conservatives are tearing themselves apart in a really appalling way and the prospect of Johnson, Gove and IDS leading a government is wholly unattractive.  All in all, I wish to God Cameron had never started this whole referendum lark.

But whilst I am not as convinced as some of the long-term benefits of staying in, I do see that in the short-term it is better to remain within the EU. It is a huge distraction for government and business alike to have to renegotiate contracts and terms at a time when the domestic and global economy is anyway under pressure.   And if the EU does implode or explode over the next few years we shall be at the table to influence the outcome.

All families and groups have squabbles.  In assertive communication each party is able to express their own views and at the same time be open and respectful in listening to the views of others in order to seek a solution, where possible, that honours all those involved. Taking into account diverse opinions can take longer but the outcomes are generally more creative than when a decision is made hastily.

Hopefully our politicians can now transform their approach, make amends for the truly unnecessary rudeness and insults that have been bandied about during this debate, and repair relationships with colleagues both in the UK and the EU.  Hopefully all concerned can be grown-up enough to consult in an assertive way on how to continue to build peace and prosperity in the world, including the world beyond the EU.  Hopefully our global allies will have the willingness to work together for the future, as collaboration and cooperation are surely the way forward.


Jun 09




Helen Whitten

Posted In


The world of my childhood seemed so huge and problems far away.  In the 1950s (yes I am that old!), China, Australia, Hawaii were almost on another planet.  Air travel was not common, and, crucially, there was neither colour TV nor 24 hour news.  We were able to live in our own little bubble of life in the UK with the odd intrusion of threat from Soviet Russia, Suez, Korea but these seemed too distant to disturb our peace at home.

On my recent visit to the St Benet’s Monastery on the Norfolk Broads I became acutely aware of what a small sphere the monks must have lived in.  The monastery was inaccessible other than by water or a long walk and was eventually abandoned for that reason.  But, I thought, what a peaceful place it must have been without the endless battering of news and information that we are subjected to in the 21st century.  Of course they would have had local gossip, rivalries within the church hierarchy, talk of wars in Europe, politics and the managing of food and supplies within nature’s upheavals but they would not have also had to carry the pain and suffering of the rest of the world along with their own.

It has struck me that today we see the troubles of the whole world on a daily basis and that this can be mentally and emotionally exhausting.  It may be an earthquake in Nepal, a hurricane in Texas, drowning refugees in the Mediterranean, violence in Africa: these people enter our homes and disturb our equilibrium.  We may wonder now why we went into Syria but I remember the photos of those beautiful children with their big brown eyes looking out at us, their parents asking the West to help and us responding with charitable donations while the government responded with battle.

In all this we can end up feeling responsible not just for our own families, work and livelihood but almost equally responsible for solving the problems of the world.  It is, in its way, a glorious moment in history that we feel so empathetically involved with so many people across the globe and many charitable acts are achieved as a result.

And yet at the same time it is exhausting if we carry it all on our shoulders, as of course we can’t solve all these problems.  And nor can most governments.  A sense of helplessness can sink into our being with the inadequacy of our ability to ease world hunger, to bring peace to the Middle East, to stop the threat of Putin’s expansionism, of North Korea’s nuclear menace.  It’s overwhelming.  And when I read of children and adults in the UK experiencing increased anxiety and depression I wonder whether this exposure to the ills and perils of the world is impacting their mental health.

We can’t go backwards to the world of my childhood.  24/7 news via television channels and social media is a part of life forever, I suspect.  And so I have been thinking how we need to learn to acknowledge what we can change and accept what we can’t, as the serenity prayer suggests.  To do our small piece in life, make a difference in whatever way we can, but recognise that we cannot solve the problems of the world. To lighten the burden that is placed on our shoulders by de-cluttering our minds and focusing on the simple joys we can find in our own lives.  To switch the attention we give to negative news and train our minds to seek out the blossom on the tree, the singing blackbird on the lamppost, the laughter of a child.  To consciously make time to switch off and take solace, away from the battering of the media.

I’m not brilliantly good at this but I have become aware that I need to try to stop over-thinking solutions to all the challenges we face – and that includes a resolution to stop worrying about Donald Trump!



We have just returned from four days on the Norfolk Broads.  For me this was an old haunt as our parents used to take us on boating holidays when we were children.  I have happy memories of waking to mist on the water and the echo of moorhens and coots calling across a Broad.  I enjoyed lying in my bunk, aware of the gentle sway of the tide and creak of ropes.  There was always something to do but never too much.

On this recent trip I became aware of how content I am to travel at 3 miles an hour, as we did on our boat.   I understood why my father relaxed and enjoyed just messing about on the river all those years ago.  I could sit for hours watching the marshes, reeds, fields and windmills trundle by slowly.  Or gently rowing across Salhouse Broad accompanied by families of ducklings and goslings,  with the odd heron swooping by.  It was wonderfully restorative after a busy few weeks.

Mind you, I have never been a speed merchant.  When, many years ago, we had to hire motor bikes in Bermuda – there weren’t cars – I went so slowly that the bike couldn’t gain purchase on the road so I kept wobbling and falling off.  When I made a feeble attempt at learning to ski at the age of 40 my son, who was elegantly snowboarding down a nearby mountain, commented that I looked stiff as a board on my 3 foot nursery slope and was travelling too slowly to keep upright.  Despite riding all my life, I ensure that my horse is going uphill if we canter or gallop so that I can be sure he will stop at the top of the hill.

In a conversation in a pub with an old schoolfriend, Penny, an old schoolfriend, she told me of a quote she had read in a Paolo Coelho book “walk neither faster nor slower than your own soul.  Because it is your soul that will teach you the usefulness of each step you take.”  I find this a wise saying and am aware that there are many people who prefer to walk faster than I do and that may suit them but doesn’t suit me.

It also reminds me of a poignant moment when I was late to meet a boyfriend some twenty years ago.   I was anxious to make a good impression and got out of the taxi in Soho in haste, paid the cabbie and rushed along the road.  Somewhere in the shadow of a shop door someone commented “It’s not a race, you know,” and I remember laughing, relaxing and slowing down.

I can easily forget that my soul likes to walk slowly and push myself to rush but it doesn’t serve me well.  I can lose perspective and take wrong decisions and action if I haven’t given myself time to reflect.  So now I need to be more aware of Coelho’s words of wisdom and adjust myself to that delightful three miles an hour we experienced on our boat on the Broads.

I wonder if you know at what speed your soul likes to walk?


May 13




Helen Whitten

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With all the talk of Nigeria in the news at the moment I recalled a work trip I took to Lagos way back in 1996.  Here are some memories.

Nigeria was calling me.  I had just been engrossed in Ben Okri’s book The Famished Road, a story of a spirit child living in the harshness of Nigerian villages.  Then, out of the blue, I received phone calls from two, unconnected, female Nigerian management consultants asking me to go to Lagos and run courses for their businesses.  The prospect immediately intrigued me.  It felt like destiny and I had to go.

I’d written an article for the Journal of Management on Tony Buzan’s Mind Mapping and memory skills and its application to professional life in an era of information overload.  The management consultants, Tiwa and Udoka (I have changed the names), had never met one another but had both read my article and seen the potential of Mind Mapping as a tool for Nigerian professionals.  I met them at a West End Hotel.  I have to admit that the fact that they were women made me feel more comfortable with the project, especially as my mother was freaking out and telling me not to go.  “It’s dangerous, darling.  There’s crime and violence, mugging and corruption…”

But I felt in my gut that it would be ok and I have learnt since that if it feels right then I should do it.  And so I went, ignoring those who warned me of the dangers.  Later I heard some horrifying stories from a telecoms client whose engineers worked in Nigeria so, I have to admit, I have never returned, despite being invited again.

To appease my Mum, my clients reassured me that I would have a body guard during my visit.  Moses, as he was called, would meet me off the BA flight and would take care of me.  And so I boarded the flight to Lagos with a combined sense of trepidation and excitement at the adventure ahead.  I was impressed by the beautiful tall Nigerian ladies on the plane, some of whom were in African colours and turbans.  I was also aware of the sheer bulk physicality of the tall Western-besuited men.

Moses did meet me,  though I hadn’t been expecting him to be carrying a gun.  Nor had I realized that he would be able to come literally to the gangway of the plane rather than waiting in Arrivals.  But connecting with him certainly did allay some of my concerns.

Moses took my passport and told me to wait for him, which I did amongst the hubbub of colourful locals claiming massive suitcases or huge tartan bags tied together with string.  Whoever inspected my passport at Passport Control did not see me, so did not check whether my passport photo matched the person entering the country.  Whether money changed hands to get me through I shall never know but soon Moses returned, picked up my bag and I was in.  My client met me through customs.

We drove along pot-holed roads packed with street vendors selling mangoes, oranges, bananas and vegetables.  Faces peered into our car, men banged on the window.  I could see the rationale for Moses’ gun.  My client took off her jewellery.  I was relieved that I had decided not to wear any.

Tiwa had suggested that I should stay with her rather than in a hotel.  She realized I would feel safer.  We drove to her house in a good suburb.  It sat behind high fences and she had guards who watched the gates.  I had my own comfortable room and a shower room nearby.  Tiwa was very careful about what I ate.  She was a sophisticated woman whose daughter was at boarding school in England and she knew it would not serve her purpose to test my stomach with Nigerian fayre.  So every evening her cook prepared simple chicken and boiled potatoes.  It was a sensible precaution and I stayed well for four days out of five.

The course was at a hotel in the centre of Lagos.  It was not luxurious but it was comfortable.  I had a large number of delegates, all locals from banks, manufacturing and service industries based in Nigeria.  They were charming, intelligent and open to learning.  Remembering their names was not so easy – I had once won a competition at the World Memory Championship on remembering names and faces.  However, remembering long unfamiliar Nigerian names was a real challenge.

They were a very lively group with a good sense of humour, so I had to work hard to help them to focus.  Looking back on the photos I am amazed that I managed it – there I was, a small, short white woman in the room with some 25 extravert Nigerians, teaching them a skill that people in the UK and Europe can find left-field.  Another trait I noticed was that when I spoke of win-win in customer relationships, which was an aspect of the course, they didn’t agree with the concept.  How can this be a good thing when surely one should win and the other lose when one negotiates?  I tried to explain that for long-term customer relationships win-win can be more effective than win-lose but I am not sure I succeeded in getting this across.

Many of the group had degrees, MBAs and postgraduate and professional qualifications.  But they complained of the inadequacy of the infrastructure in Nigeria – the potholes in the road, the fact that the telephone system continuously broke down and that there were electricity blackouts.  When I asked them whether they had travelled out of the country or come to the UK most of them replied that it was too expensive for them.  I was saddened at their frustration at being trapped in their own environment.

And, almost without exception, they all asked me whether I was getting closer to God.   I was rather taken aback by the question, knowing, as I did, that this was a country rife with corruption, crime and violence.  But I replied that I hoped I was.

Menace was in the air on the journeys to and from the hotel and I was aware of some fairly shadowy looking men on the streets and heard some stories of muggings.  The traffic was terrible and the driving worse with people holding their hand on their horns almost continuously.   I was glad of Tiwa and of Moses and his gun.

On the last evening the other lady client, Udoka, kindly invited me for a traditional meal at her home.  We were driven there and, having had a large three-course meal in the hotel as part of the course that day, I was not hungry.  We were greeted by a huge table with many silver platters laid out as for a banquet.  When I asked who was joining us Udoka replied that it was just for us.  My heart sank.  I knew that this dinner had been created in my honour and I also knew that I was going to find it difficult to do it justice.  I am not good with hot spices and my stomach is sensitive to large quantities of vegetables.

We talked politely and Udoka’s mother briefly came to meet me.  I knew this was an honour and tried to conquer my exhaustion and lack of hunger and eat as much as I could.  As I lifted the silver platters I found, unfamiliar offerings.  There was, I think, a yellow-coloured rice stew perhaps made with goat or chicken, soup possibly made with ogbono seeds, yam, amala, greens of many types.  The quantities were enormous for three people.  It was kind.  I did my best and moved the food around my plate and tried to look as if I was enjoying it.

And that night I was ill.  And the next day, the last day of the course, I was ill and had to excuse myself several times during the day. And when I got to the airport to catch my plane home, clutching my stomach and a handbag full of cash as my fee, I said goodbye to Moses who, this time, could only take me as far as the check-in desk.  After that I was on my own with my churning tummy.

It was here that I began to feel truly vulnerable.  I had lost my security system and worries flicked through my head.  What if the plane had a problem?  What if I became seriously ill?  What if we were so delayed that we had to be put up in a hotel until it was fixed?  Who would I call?  What would I do?

I sat in departures and occasionally ran down to the ladies.  When the BA air crew walked through the lounge to board the plane I caught the eye of a stewardess and I knew she understood how anxious I was and how much I was looking forward to leaving the country now.  It had been fun, I had been welcomed and entertained but now I was tired, sick, and ready to go home.

We waited a little longer and then were called onto the plane.  I can still feel the relief that I stepped walked into the Jumbo and I felt the BA carpet beneath my feet.  A small touch and I knew I was on my way home.  With my handbag full of cash close to my chest, I watched Lagos disappear from view and was relieved when we reached European airspace.

I left with great respect for my clients, the delegates and for the good will, humour and bright minds that remained there.  Today, reading about the Nigerian economy, corruption,  Boko Haram and the kidnapped girls of Chibok, I think of those warm people and hope that none of their daughters has been threatened.

And I am still endeavouring to get closer to God.

Names have been changed.


May 11


1 Responses


Helen Whitten

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I’ve just returned from a week in Russia, visiting Moscow and St Petersburg 26 years after my first visit in 1990.  At that time I was on a tour organised by Auberon Waugh’s Literary Review, to visit the Russian authors’ houses and discuss Russian literature, which I had loved since I was a teenager.   I was travelling alone, part of a group of some 20 people all with an interest in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Turgenev and Chekhov, among other authors who could not then be mentioned.  We met for the first time at Moscow Airport and were greeted by a country at the very depths of economic austerity.  There were no lemons or oranges in Leningrad (as it was then) or Moscow and there were lines of drab-looking people outside the food stores, queuing to find a chicken, loaf of bread or a half-dozen eggs for their family.

The food we ate on that tour was disgusting – weak chicken stock with a few pieces of pasta or an egg, indeterminate meat or fish.  So our group spent the next ten days supplementing our diet with black market caviar and vodka.  These were sold on the street by young boys or by hotel waiters, who charged us $5 for any purchase, although at that time it was illegal for them to possess American dollars.  So we had to wrap our dollars in napkins or newspapers.  One day the caviar was brought to us in a teapot, another time I bought a bottle of champagne from the attendant in the ladies loo and wrapped the $5 in a paper towel.

During the day we stimulated our minds with Russian literature and at night we drank vodka into the early hours of the morning, opening tins of caviar with nail scissors and talking about life.  We were like a bunch of teenagers let out of school, albeit we happened all to be over 40! Being in Russia was a heady experience.

But for the population of Russia at that time Gorbachev’s era was a difficult one and he was an unpopular leader due to the food shortages. Perspectives of leadership are always interesting: whilst the West saw him as a good influence and key to ending the Cold War, the Russian people were, quite literally, starving.  They were also conceptually unable to understand that they could, in a capitalist world, get loans and start their own businesses to work their way out of poverty.  Years of rule under Tsars and Communists had taken away their ability to perceive creative options.  The Cold War had ended, the Berlin Wall had come down the year before in 1989 but the average resident of Moscow found it difficult to see beyond survival.

And what a difference 26 years makes!  Our visit this time started in Moscow where we oldies were very competently chaperoned by the 21 year old daughter of our friend.  She was on secondment to Moscow University, studying Russian.  She was impressively fluent and also able to gain the respect of waiters and to ensure that even the most scary-looking taxi drivers did her bidding.  The latter would drive at 100 kpm along multi-laned city streets – like Lewis Hamilton on a suicide mission.  I just shut my eyes and sighed with relief whenever we got caught in the huge traffic jams we encountered both in Moscow and St Petersburg.  Although the drivers still constantly switched lanes at least we weren’t going quite so fast.

Today’s Russia is flourishing in comparison to 1990.  Trams and buses go on time and the high-speed train from Moscow to St Petersburg travels at 220kpm and feels as smooth as silk in comparison to the trundling and juddering of the overnight train we took 26 years ago.  There has been investment on infrastructure, the hotels and restaurants are buzzing, young and old are well dressed and there are French and Italian designer boutiques in the GUM department store and elsewhere.  With organic and health food cafés on almost every corner one could easily be in L.A.  The museums, chapels and the Hermitage have been restored and there is a sense that the Russians are way better off than they were before.

And so it is easier to understand, from actually visiting the country, how Russians perceive President Putin to be a good thing.  Contrary to 1990 where the West saw Gorbachev as an ally but the Russian people disliked him; today the Russian people seem (from our short glimpse) to be happy with what he has done for their country on the inside but the West views Putin with trepidation.

With May 9th coming up we witnessed the build-up of troops and tanks in preparation for what they coyly called the “theatrical celebrations” of the end of World War II.  Red Square was transformed with banners of hammer and sickle; the square outside the Hermitage filled with thousands of marching soldiers and the narrow road outside our hotel became blocked with tanks, missiles and warheads.  When I sent photos of these scenes to others and mentioned my concern, one response was “OH come on!  What’s menacing about a few nuclear missiles and nerve gas weapons in the hands of a psychotic? Don’t be pathetic…!” and another : “show me a stable democracy that still feels they have to parade military equipment to the rest of the world”.  Further East, of course, Kim Jong Un is also rattling his sabre and blasting his nukes to deepen our disquiet.

But I got the feeling that there is still some fear beneath the surface.  When discussing press freedom with our guide he looked, for the first time, uncomfortable and told us of how his mother, raised in the Stalin era of “fear-in-the-blood” berated him for talking too much. “Be careful” she would tell him.  And yet, he said, the young can’t really imagine what life was like in previous eras and history is buried, along with the records of Chernobyl.

When we chatted to some young girls wanting to practice their English they were aware that it is illegal for them to download English movies and therefore have to log in with an IP address registered in the Netherlands.  “Perhaps one day the authorities will find us” they said, giggling nervously.  And security is everywhere – in the detail required for a Russian visitor’s visa, which includes secondary schools and the birth place and date of ex-spouses even if long-divorced; the x-ray machines as you exit airports, enter railway stations, museums and shopping malls.  This made me think that we may not be protecting our own department stores and galleries adequately from IS terrorism.  Yet we saw no sign of multi-culturalism: no blacks, Asians, hijabs or saris; just one-colour cities of white Russians and tourists.

The streets were clean and there are now no boys selling caviar, vodka or fur hats on the corners for dollars.  There is over-employment, which results in no litter and good service.  However, the cottages we saw in the countryside were tumble-down and I saw not a single animal – no cows, sheep, horses.  Not even a chicken in the back garden, which seemed strange.

I hear that Putin has been reading Stalin’s records and documents and, in idle moments, I wondered whether he had also been reading Machiavelli’s Prince – the effective ruler needing to be “a fox to discern snares, and a lion to drive off wolves.”  Machiavelli’s rule that when seizing a principality or state “the usurper should be quick to inflict what injuries he must, at a stroke” triggers images of Crimea.  Putin is strategic in seeking the approval of his populous, it not being wise for a leader to become hated for fear of premature death or rebellion.

The oligarchs and new leaders of businesses in Russia also seem to have taken a leaf out of Machiavelli’s book in discovering how to play the dance of power between ruler, powerful elites and the general population.  Leadership is a balance between strategy and action for the benefit of a business or country but can require tough decisions   I came away with the distinct sense that Putin does not shy from such toughness.

When I left St Petersburg in 1990 I left with the impression of leaving  an inefficient country.  Banks ran out of money; Post Offices had no stamps; restaurants had no food, wine or vodka; our coach driver lost his way between Tula and Orel because he had no map.  On our last day, as we sat on the runway waiting to take off, the BA pilot explained that we had been delayed because the Russian Air Traffic controller had removed his earphones and was looking the other way.  The pilot had tried waving to get clearance.  Eventually someone else in the tower saw him wave and alerted the controller, who allowed us to take off.  I remember thinking it a fitting farewell to a disorganised region.

The same is not true today.  We took off on the dot and there were plenty of lemons in St Petersburg.  But, with Putin in the Kremlin, I am not sure that makes me sleep any better at night!