I have never been to Russia. I cannot read Russian. I do not even know any Russian people. I am, therefore, completely unqualified to pronounce upon what seems to be a pretty sorry state of affairs at the top there. But we readers form a gloriously democratic community that knows no boundaries and is not disheartened by what it does not yet know. Books, we readers believe, can enlighten the darkest minds and lift the most troubled hearts. Here, then, is my gift to you, Lt Col Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, a man I do not know: a small library of books you might like to read.
I would love it if you would read John Le Carré’s The Complete Smiley and let me know how they strike you from the other side of Checkpoint Charlie. The television version was terrific, if you haven’t time to read all eight books, what with running several countries and all the other calls on your time: or – even better – you could listen to the completely wonderful BBC radio version starring Simon Russell Beale, even though I suspect he isn’t your sort of chap. And of course I’d be interested to hear your views on Charles Cumming’s The Trinity Six and Alan Bennett’s plays about the Cambridge lot: An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution. We’ve developed a tendency here over the last twenty or thirty years to romanticise Philby and his chums, but, quite apart from the sheer bloody boys’-games pointlessness of it all, they did directly contribute to an awful lot of deaths, didn’t they? Of course, you would know, from your time in the KGB, exactly how many: although, as my grandfather said to my mother when she expressed horror at the sheer number of people who died in the concentration camps (before your time but the point holds), ‘How many would have been alright?’
Lucky you, President Putin (you are president at the moment, aren’t you? Again?): you can read Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and – best of all – Chekhov without the need for translations. If you have a spare moment, I would love to hear which is your favourite: Uncle Vanya, perhaps. Do you see Serebryakov selling his late wife’s estate as progress or treachery?
I only know your home town, St Petersburg, from books and films. I suspect that novels set in the Siege of Leningrad – even one as good as Gillian Slovo’s The Ice Road – may seem downright impertinent to you, as your family were there and suffered terribly. Crime and Punishment is set there, of course, and so is the compellingly wonderful Eugene Onegin. If you haven’t time to re-read Pushkin, listen to Tchaikovsky’s marvellous opera, especially with Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin and the lovely Nuccia Focile as Tatiana. You’re not going to let the fact that Tchaikovsky was gay stop you from celebrating his music, are you?
It is just possible that you may have Ukraine much on your mind at present. Have you read Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin? It’s set in Kiev and Misha the penguin is a give-away from the zoo there (at least he didn’t get eaten by the President). Do read it. From what I have read about you, Mr Putin, you do not tend to empathise with people who are unhappy or being caused distress. Perhaps you might find empathising with a penguin a good starting-point on your journey towards kindness.
Would it be asking too much to suggest that you read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich? Only – just in case you haven’t come across it before – please don’t treat it as a checklist for your prisons. The idea is that you should read it and weep. Because I do want you to weep, Mr Putin. It would be good to have a world leader who was unafraid of compassion and did not think that posing naked to the waist down while dismantling either a Kalashnikov or a bear was manly. Can I add Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom to your list? Oh, and some Oscar Wilde as well. He was the chap who said, ‘Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.’ But to be honest I’d just like to see you curled up in a corner of the Kremlin reading An Ideal Husband.
You do seem to be a bit troubled by homosexuality, don’t you? Perhaps reading Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain will at least make you realise you have more in common with America than you thought. Red-neck Mid-West America, anyway. Oh, go on, watch the film. You know you want to (and you can get in some more weeping practice at the loss of the luminous screen presence that was Heath Ledger). But wouldn’t you – and your fantastic country – be happier if you spent more time worrying about world peace? So here are some suggestions for books that encourage us to know the human heart rather than discount or despise it.
First – and first on any bookshelf of English books about Russia – Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring. Set in Moscow in 1913, this deft, dryly humorous, sometimes shocking and always perfect short novel captures a world that is shifting, thawing, changing. Next, the Russophile Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales: you might enjoy Ransome’s own account of the Russian Revolution in his Autobiography as well. You will know, Mr Putin, that Ransome married Evgenia Shelepina, Trotsky’s secretary. When you are at a loose end, come and visit their grave in the tranquil churchyard at Rusland in his beloved Lake District, and celebrate a truly happy Anglo-Russian union. Meanwhile, you might enjoy reading Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! Richard Feynman’s family originated in Russia, so you could proudly claim him as one of your own. He was wise –Nobel-Prize-winningly so – breath-takingly clever and, even more rarely, funny. He worked with Hans Bethe on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. Feynman had the brilliance to help develop the atomic bomb, the judgment to agree to work on it to forestall Germany getting there first, and the magnificence of soul to re-evaluate his decision and conclude that he had been wrong.
Aah, changing your mind and your actions: the hallmark of greatness. My final gift to you, Vladimir, is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. спокойной ночи и удачи (good night, and good luck).