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PETER HITCHENS: The faintly sinister Russian and English ambassador whose friendship lit up my life

Pictured above: Sir Christopher Meyer at the launch of his book Getting Our Way in 2009

In the midst of life I am once again in death. The powerful words of the old memorial service – too grim and harsh for most people these days – have crossed my mind twice in the past few days.

In a roundabout way from Moscow via Southeast Asia, news came that my old friend and colleague Igor Monichev, my companion on many wild and improbable journeys through the evil empire, had died.

Then I was snapped out of semi-consciousness as the radio news announced the death of Sir Christopher Meyer, once our ambassador to the United States but also our envoy to Germany and twice stationed in our beleaguered embassy in Cold War Moscow.

He was, in my opinion, one of the finest diplomats of modern times, but also one of those rare people who light up the landscape around him, so full of life and vigor that his presence is a life lesson.

It was my great good fortune to be a journalist at a time when I was able to get to know these two extraordinary men. Let me explain what a gift it was.

Igor was maybe a little gloomy. He was an educated Russian with a good command of English and authorized to deal with Western journalists. One had to assume that he had at least made his peace with what Christopher Meyer would have called “the organs of intelligence.”

I met Igor when the old Soviet system was on the verge of collapse, and he once hinted to me during a frustrating visit to Georgia that he might have done a thing or two in the past that he wished he hadn’t did.

I would say so what? Who among us gentle westerners, who have lived our whole lives under the shelter of the deep blue sea and Magna Carta, had any idea how we would have behaved under communist despotism?

Pictured above: Sir Christopher Meyer at the launch of his book Getting Our Way in 2009

Pictured above: Sir Christopher Meyer at the launch of his book Getting Our Way in 2009

My own guess was just as bad as them. Perhaps this helped explain the vodka-fueled trips to the dark side of the moon that he sometimes made without my company.

Whenever I was around, he was a paragon of restraint. No one in my family has ever forgotten the sweetness and charm with which this gruff man congratulated my daughter on her eighth birthday.

They would meet again many years later when she returned to the Russian capital as the wife of a diplomat, taking her own young children on the same adventure we had inflicted on her.

Igor and I had one important thing in common.

Both of our fathers had been naval officers, mine once serving in the war convoys to Murmansk, his a nuclear submarine captain who lived a life of cold, strict secrecy, exposed to the lax security standards and grim conditions of a nation that at any given time so acted as if it was already at war.

But the similarities stopped there. He once told me about an incident in his life as a child in the Soviet Navy, oscillating from murky base to murky base.

One day all the belongings of the Monichev family, furniture and all, were dragged on a cart by Soviet sailors to their new marital quarters. The sailors were drunk and managed to push the whole crowd into a deep and oily dock, where everything quickly and irretrievably sank. And that was it. It was gone. No insurance, no compensation, no apology, just start over. Hard.

Soviet life was so harsh in this and many other respects that Westerners living in Moscow were often afraid to find out the age of their Russian acquaintances.

Picture above: Igor Monichev at the cold pole in Yakutia, the coldest area in Russia

Picture above: Igor Monichev at the cold pole in Yakutia, the coldest area in Russia

It was a reliable rule that they were usually at least ten years younger than we thought, while we were ten years older than they thought we were. If they were educated – and Igor was a graduate of Moscow University – they put us to shame because they knew British history better than we did, and were as familiar with Shakespeare and Dickens as they were with the great literature of Russia.

Igor was excellent at arranging crazy trips for me to closed cities like mysterious Kaliningrad or (one of my favourites) a huge park full of steam locomotives south of Moscow – in case they were needed after a nuclear war.

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The theory was that the H-Bomb’s electromagnetic pulse would disable all other modes of transportation, leaving the world to get around with nothing but bicycles and Thomas The Tank Engine.

He knew how to put things right, and he either had the thing called “Leaf” or knew how to fake it, that special form of influence that could get me on board the last plane from Crimea back to Moscow, to witness the KGB coup in August 1991.

When I developed the fantasy of doing something rude at the grave of the traitor Kim Philby, Igor laughed heartily and drove me to the cemetery where this wretched man is buried. I’ve lost my nerve. I think he knew I would do it.

But in his spare time he supplemented the modest salary I paid him by translating English detective and spy stories into Russian. Russians love Agatha Christie, and Igor collaborated on some of her books. But his specialty was the more intellectual work of PD James. And the last time we met, he gave me a signed copy of his translation of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

This meeting took place in a cheerful Italian restaurant in northern Moscow, which we both would have thought virtually impossible when we first met 30 years ago.

Igor, who despised the gangsterism of the Putin years, loved the new freedom to travel that came with the collapse of communism.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev during an interview in December 2016

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev during an interview in December 2016

He must have been very discouraged by the narrowing horizons caused by Putin’s war.

If I had never met him, my life would have been immeasurably poorer. If I understand the world as it is and not as we would like it to be, I owe him a lot of it.

The same is true of Christopher Meyer, another man with a father in military service – although he had been an RAF airman who was killed in action off the Greek island of Icaria in 1944, just days before Christopher was born.

I first met him when he ran what was then called the Foreign Office News Department, an organization entirely independent of Downing Street. I tried to become a diplomatic correspondent for my newspaper at the time, a hopeless task as my main competition came from the great, totally unbeatable John Dickie of the Daily Mail.

I had been confronted with the silly snobbery of some parts of Whitehall towards popular journalism. Christopher Meyer had none of it. On the contrary, bless him.

I noticed how, after his death, an established newspaper could not forgive his brio and originality. She used swear words like “rude” and “bitter” to describe him and accused him of breach of trust.

Anyone who knew him would dismiss such sizzling insinuations as defiance by an establishment that disliked his independent spirit.

They probably didn’t like his free and dangerous wit either. I remember when Germany was rocked by mad love for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, Christopher described the resulting crowd scenes as “multiple Gorbasm”.

He and the staff of shrewd, thoughtful diplomats he rallied around him spoke the truth as much as possible, with humor and wit, and speed. They were friendly and attentive.

It was a lesson in how government can function well and do good when the right people run it.

Today, whenever I delve into their inferior equivalents, I remember the days of Christopher Meyer and am filled with regret.

A pleasure to meet and converse with, an ideal Englishman from another era, fluent in foreign languages, knowing everything about the world beyond our shores but not seduced by it, and so unhesitatingly and intelligently patriotic.

I sometimes wondered if he wasn’t living his stuffed, energetic life in the name of his father, whom he’d never met, one of the many thousands who didn’t live to rule the country they were saving, but who knew what they were for fought and what they loved what they knew.

The moment I heard he was dead, the world got noticeably darker for me.

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