Ten years ago, to mark the 110th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Thailand, Russia was witness to a historic occasion – a state visit by Her Majesty Queen Sirikit.
As Russian ambassador to Thailand at the time, I had the honour of accompanying Her Majesty during her trip to Moscow and St Petersburg. As we reach the 120th anniversary of ties, it seems an opportune moment to share some memories of this important chapter in the long relationship between Russia and Thailand.
The tour began with a visit to Moscow and meetings with President Vladimir Putin and his Cabinet, which turned out to be exceptionally friendly. During the Kremlin dinner organised in honour of Queen Sirikit, the president received news that Russia had won the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, drawing hearty congratulations from Her Majesty.
In Moscow, the Queen was particularly impressed by the Kremlin and by the performance of the Bolshoi Theatre’s ballet troupe.
The Queen travelled on to St Petersburg, where she stayed in one of the Constantine Palace mansions. During her trip to the Hermitage Museum, an accompanying Russian security officer received a phone call. Reporting that it was the Russian president on the line, he passed the phone to Her Majesty. The Queen later recalled that Putin had phoned to enquire whether her St Petersburg programme was satisfactory, if everything was going to plan and if she had any additional requests.
Her Majesty said she was surprised by this gesture of politeness and care. She later recalled this story as evidence of the unprecedented attention Putin gave towards every detail of her stay in Russia – even after the visit’s official programme had ended.
The Kunstkammer – St Petersburg’s Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography – was witness to another interesting episode when the Queen was shown gifts which Emperor Nicholas II received from King Rama V during his visit to Russia in 1897. They included a sword made of gold, prompting Her Majesty to remark that gold mines had since disappeared from Thailand.
More history lay in store at the Grand Palace in Peterhof, where a dinner hosted in the Queen’s honour featured the same menu as the one hosted by Nicholas II for the King of Siam 110 years previously. In order to reproduce the menu Russian chefs had been sent to France to retrieve recipes that had been lost. Floating through the open windows of the Palace on this warm summer evening came the same music that had reached the ears of the two monarchs more than a century before.
The evening was rounded off with a performance of Mariinsky Theatre ballet dancers against the background of the famous Peterhof fountains.
The Queen was also shown the rooms at Catherine Palace where the King of Siam had stayed.
Her visit also featured an emotional moment on a visit to the royal tomb of Nicholas II in the Peter and Paul Fortress. After laying a wreath, Her Majesty kneeled at the tomb – a gesture that Thai officials later told me they had never witnessed her perform before. The Queen later remarked it was a sign of deep respect towards the Russian tsar, who was a friend of Rama V and of Siam during the most difficult period of her country’s history. She added that Nicholas II had played the pivotal role in supporting the struggle of the Thai people for independence of their country: the whole world saw the photo of Nicholas II and King Rama V sitting side by side, demonstrating that Russia and Siam were bound by close friendship.
Her Majesty was so impressed by the Russian ballet that, upon her return to Thailand, she ordered that the Mariinsky Theatre be invited to perform a gala concert in Bangkok. The concert duly took place, as a gift from Putin to King Bhumibol on the occasion of his birthday. Both the King and Queen attended and the performance was a tremendous success among high society, top officials, business elite and foreign ambassadors gathered at the Thailand Cultural Centre. The Russian performers recalled later they were received in Thailand as they had never been received in any other country before.
I will never forget what Queen Sirikit said following the visit: “It is only now that Thai-Russian relations are fully normalised after the execution of Emperor Nicholas II during the Russian revolution in the early 20th century.”
The memory of this glorious chapter in our shared history will last long in the hearts of the Russian and Thai people. I am certain that the 120th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our countries will be a remarkable milestone and a joyful event too.
Yevgeny Afanasiev is a former Russian ambassador to Thailand (2004 – 2010) and currently ambassador to Japan.