Only a handshake, please, for the queen

October 18, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Ivan the Terrible began Russia's relationship with the British by proposing marriage to the first Queen Elizabeth 441 years ago.

VTC She refused him, and neither she nor any subsequent English monarch ever set foot in the place.

Yesterday, the second Queen Elizabeth changed all that, having accepted a less drastic proposal from President Boris N. Yeltsin. Mr. Yeltsin simply invited her to visit.

But when the queen flew here to begin her four-day royal tour, Britons and Russians alike were describing it with considerable awe.

"Boris Yeltsin will personally tell the queen her visit is a historic reconciliation," said Vyacheslav Kostikov, Mr. Yeltsin's spokesman. "We understand that after 70 years of a totalitarian regime we have to make a tremendous effort to restore our historical traditions. Britain could serve as an example for us to preserve our legacy for the future."

Presumably, the legacy does not include restoration of the czar, the last one having been slain by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Sir Brian Fall, the British ambassador, said that some princes had turned up before -- the queen's son Prince Charles was here just last May.

"The visit itself is the first ever by a British reigning sovereign to Russia," Sir Brian said. "Not the first since the revolution, not the first this century, the first since the beginning of time."

The queen, traveling with Prince Philip, was the perfect guest. She arrived in a mink coat and wore a hat. Russians love fur and they consider it a national duty to roundly scold anyone foolish enough to venture outside without a hat on a chilly day, or a hot sunny one, for that matter.

Mr. Yeltsin was the perfect host, despite some fears to the contrary.

Questions of protocol

Aside from a handshake, the queen may not be touched. Mr. Yeltsin, of course, comes from the land of the bear hug and hearty kiss. Perhaps the queen would adapt to local custom.

The royal spokesman sniffed at this suggestion. "Protocol is of more concern in your country than it is to us," he admonished a U.S. reporter.

But Mr. Yeltsin's spokesman, still squirming after a couple of gaffes that recently raised questions about his boss' sobriety, hurried to amplify.

"A large group of protocol specialists came to Moscow," Mr. Kostikov said. "All British norms of behavior and protocol will be observed."

For example, at today's Kremlin banquet, the Russians have let it be known that the British have let it be known that the queen doesn't drink vodka. Mr. Yeltsin will toast her with champagne.

Yesterday, the royal and presidential couples met in the Kremlin's St. George's Hall, full of the gold and marble that so delighted the czars for whom it was built. They entered from opposite doors and met exactly in the middle of the 200-foot-long room.

The queen got a polite handshake.

Later, Mr. Yeltsin and his wife escorted the queen and her husband to the Bolshoi Theater, where they watched the ballet "Giselle" from the czar's box.

The last czar to sit there was Nicholas II, who was a cousin of Queen Elizabeth's grandfather, King George V. Nicholas' wife, Princess Alix of Hesse, was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. As czarina, she was known as Alexandra.

Nicholas hoped to find sanctuary in England when he abdicated as his rule collapsed in Russia. George approved, but then thought better of it. He was afraid that revolution would be imported to England, and he didn't want to encourage such thoughts.

The world thought that the British government turned the royal relative away. But documents later showed that it was George who did. The next year, Bolsheviks killed the czar and his family under Lenin's orders.

If that past recalled strong emotions, the queen gave no sign of it. After the ballet, it was off to the British Embassy for a reception before returning to the Kremlin for the night.

British soap opera

The Russians were as happy as could be to have the queen here. They absolutely love soap operas -- a good one on television can bring the entire nation to a halt.

"Even the British agree the royal family is a great British soap opera," said Anna Dyer, a Scot who is working as a business consultant in Russia. "My friends here are always interested in finding out who's misbehaving this time."

Ms. Dyer said many Russians find the visit an affirmation of confidence in their country. "If it's safe enough for the queen," she said, "it should be safe enough for anyone."

Alexei Voloshenko, a 56-year-old metallurgist visiting Moscow from the Siberian coal region of Kuzbass, has been closely following news of the visit.

"I personally believe the whole of Russia is awaiting her, not only Moscow," he said yesterday."

"And I think even men are emotionally excited by the queen's visit. It's the event of the century."

Not that he was eager to re-establish the monarchy here.

"We're having enough trouble getting democracy right," he said.

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