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Two Meetings: Autumn in Oxford/Spring in Moscow

Fortunately, I have only ever met two people who were later assassinated. The first was my late employer in Paris, who ‘disappeared’ during the last, grim Mitterrand years in 1990s France. The second, tragically, died today, in an act of appalling and repulsive violence.

Although my meeting with Benazir Bhutto on an autumn evening in Oxford, just over thirty three years ago, was of course of the briefest, the minute I had with her was enough for me to understand that her destiny and mine were not going to cross again. I thought of her later, when her father was hanged, and then again when she became the leader of Pakistan. My own humble circumstances did not compare – and I thanked God for that.

In October Benazir Bhutto was sent back to Pakistan, a highly unstable country created by violence less than sixty years ago. She was despatched there by Washington, with the help of the Foreign Office in London, and was destined to survive in her native land for scarcely ten weeks. Highly Westernized and a secular ‘democrat’ by orientation, Benazir Bhutto appeared to those in the Western capitals, who have destabilized the whole of the Middle East from Palestine to Pakistan in the last five years, to be able to restabilize Pakistan. But Western capitals forget that democrat rhymes with kleptocrat – even in English. Victim of Western political ambitions and her own, she is now dead. Poor Benazir.

Apart from her, I have only ever ‘met’ one other political leader, and my minutes with him were shared with thousands of others, so it cannot actually be called a ‘meeting’ at all. He was President Vladimir Putin and that ‘meeting’ was on a spring morning in a Cathedral in Moscow last May, just over seven months ago. Therefore, I know nothing of him directly. But I do know some things about him.

I know his confessor. I know that his wife is pious and converted him to active faith. I know that they have a chapel in their home. I know that he has said that family life is the building block of the nation and hopes that it will grow stronger. I know that at this moment, outside his residence in the Moscow Kremlin, there stands a 33-metre high Christmas tree, which has the star of Bethlehem on top of it. (I know that that is politically incorrect in Washington, where they have things called ‘holiday hedges’, not Christmas trees). I know that President Putin has been elected ‘Man of the Year’ by Time magazine – hardly a magazine friendly to him. I know that he told that magazine that politics cannot be done without morality and that there can be no morality without spiritual values, without faith. And I also know that nearly 65% of Russians approve of him after over seven years in office – something which cannot be said of Americans and their approval of President Bush.

I have never been keen on politicians. Democracy in this country at least seems to mean that every four or five years we apparently have to choose between voting for one insincere person or voting for another insincere person. I know that I try to vote for the one who seems to be the less incompetent and that in any case, whichever one wins, he or she will always win and with a minority of votes. Such, it seems to me is democracy here. Perhaps it is so everywhere. Perhaps it has always been a matter of choosing the lesser evil. But perhaps if we came to political office, we would do even more foolish things than the others.

But there is one thing that I do know. This is that of a meeting on an autumn evening in Oxford 33 years ago and that on a spring morning in Moscow seven months ago, I know which I preferred.

Fr Andrew

14/27 December 2007

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