At an official level, relations between Britain and Russia are barely above deep freeze. Suspicions over the deaths of dissident Alexander Litvinenko and oligarch Boris Berezovsky together with disagreements over Syria have tested diplomacy.
But in a gilded outpost of West London, a one-man charm offensive has been under way this week to bring Russia in from the cold.
It came when nearly 100 of President Vladimir Putin’s most trusted confidants sat down to a £3,000-a head dinner.
The venue was Kensington Palace and the host, Prince Michael of Kent, is an unashamed Russo-phile whose uncanny resemblance to the murdered Tsar Nicholas has made him something of a pin-up in the former Soviet Union.
The dinner was ostensibly to promote Putin’s favourite combat sport, the Russian martial art of Sambo, which he wants to have Olympic status.
But it was clearly viewed by attendees as part of a new initiative to improve Anglo-Russian relations. Guests included some of the richest men in the world. All Russians, of course.
There was mining billionaire Alexei Mordashov, iron-ore magnate Andrei Klyamko, plus Vladimir Yakunin, President of the Russian railways and Putin’s long-time friend and judo guru, Vasily Shestakov. ‘So many Russians came that several people had to be disinvited,’ I am told.
The Marquess of Reading, who helped organise the black-tie evening, tells me: ‘People from the Duma were there, from industry and from all walks of life.’
There were also two Russian Sambo champions, who gave a demonstration in the Palace gardens, kicking, punching and wrestling — curiously, dressed, like everyone else, in black tie.
A letter from Putin was read out in which he expressed support of the Prince, of whom he is a great fan, but also because he personally likes David Cameron, I am told.
The few Britons at the event included Olympic gold medallist Tessa Sanderson, City broker Tim Lewin and Tory MP Eleanor Laing.
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