My night with President Putin in the Kremlin

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Sputnik | Alexei Druzhinin | Kremlin | Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin.

No wonder Napoleon and Hitler both failed. The Siberian wind is a lazy wind, because it doesn't bother going round you: it goes straight through you. And I felt its mercilessness in February as I arrived in Moscow to realise my ambition of meeting Vladimir Putin.

I was there thanks to my old friend Oliver Stone, the veteran film director, who had persuaded Russia's president to let him follow him for months. As executive producer on Stone's series on Putin for US cable network Showtime, I hung hard to my locus standi for an audience with the Russian "tsar".

We arrived at 8pm at what seemed to be the smallest door in the Kremlin. A single lamp dimly lit the unassuming entrance. There was no grand staircase. Instead, a set of narrow spiralling steps took us up to a long corridor. We were ushered into a brightly lit room with imitation Versailles furniture that surrounded a utilitarian, four-metre-long bar stocked with every imaginable drink, attended by two corpulent waiters in ill-fitting black suits. Adjacent were two larger rooms, at the end of which were positioned two vast ornate armchairs, facing each other.

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We had waited all day for the appointed hour and, now that it had come, it didn't matter that our place of rendezvous was disappointingly devoid of any KGB atmosphere: no sinister signs, no alluring intrigue, no musty smell of suspense.

Then, finally, a sudden silence descended, broken only by marching footsteps. The president, shorter than I expected and — even more unexpectedly — carrying a slight paunch, came striding into the room, with one interpreter and one security guard who immediately retreated to a corner. Stone shook Putin's hand. I was ignored. Putin sat down with his interpreter beside him. Had Putin interfered with the US election and, in particular, helped Donald Trump to win? Stone asked him. Putin discarded the idea contemptuously. But what about the CIA report that there was overwhelming evidence of Russian interference? Putin sharply reminded Stone of the CIA's "intelligence" on Saddam Hussein's WMDs, which turned out to be completely wrong. Had Putin read the actual CIA report on the US election? Yes, Putin replied bluntly. All 200-odd pages of it. And he quoted the report's conclusion that the interference was "highly probable" at best, and not incontrovertible. Stone could not catch Putin out on detail.

After more than an hour of deep conversation, they got up for a break. This was the moment I had been waiting for: I was finally introduced and pressed the flesh. It was nearly a firm handshake. I watched his face: rugged and angular, but no discernible tyrannical features, and I detected no scars. I told him I was Chinese and lived in Hong Kong. He had not been to Hong Kong, but he liked the Chinese, he said. I was expecting him to mention the Chinese president Xi Jinping, but instead he said he liked Chinese food and fashion. He confessed to preferring spicy Chinese food. He also proudly told me he was in possession of two Chinese jackets, one of which, his favourite, was deep blue. Was this stratospherically powerful man really making small talk about Chinese food and jackets?

Our break ended. Serious discussion resumed: Chechnya, Ukraine, Crimea, Afghanistan, Syria, the US and the prevailing world order. Each answer Putin gave was considered and extensive. He had no one else to confer with. His press secretary, Dimitry Peskov, was present for a short time but did not interject once. At one point Putin wagged his finger at Stone saying he knew Stone was anti-American, but that he should not try to make Putin himself appear anti-American.

This second session went on for two hours, meaning Putin had hardly drawn breath for almost four hours, yet he seemed to have stamina for more. I was utterly exhausted just staying silent and listening. There were no distractions, no vaulted ceilings with eerie lighting; no desks piled with sinister files stamped "Top Secret".

It was 2am. The encounter came to an end and I was pleased to add the Kremlin experience to my dinners with Mugabe, Castro and Chavez, and a fleeting moment with Kim Jong Un.

All of us stood up and stretched. I felt I had been on a film set. I had been. Except that the protagonist was not a film star, but a real man who denied he had any real money; a tough man who smiled rarely. And, yes, I noticed one thing about Putin: he only drank one brand of Russian water from a plastic bottle. We were not invited to share it.

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