Moscow memories – reminiscences of a former Thai envoy

Article by Prajit Rojanaphruk, Thailand’s former ambassador to the Soviet Union, published in "The Nation". 


His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej graciously appointed me Ambassador of Thailand to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (now the Russian Federation) in 1985.

My three-year tour of duty in the Soviet Union, from 1985 to 1988, was of special significance since it was during the time of Soviet political reform called “glasnost” and “perestroika”, meaning “openness” and “restructuring” launched by then Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev’s initiative finally led to regime change – from the Union of Soviet Social Republics to the Russian Federation – after the signing of the Commonwealth of the Independent States Agreement (CIS), bringing to an end the Soviet Empire in 1991.

Being Thailand’s ambassador, I not only represented Thailand but also, together with other Asean ambassadors in Moscow, jointly represented Asean in our relations with the Soviet Union as a grouping.

During my term of office there, there were four significant official visits of Thai dignitaries to the Soviet Union. The first was the visit of General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh when he was the defence minister, followed by the visit of Air Chief Marshal Siddhi Savetsila, the foreign minister, both of which paved the way for the visit of Prime Minister General Prem Tinsulanonda.

General Prem, accompanied by ACM Siddhi, led a big delegation from Thailand composed of high-ranking officials and leading businessmen to the Soviet Union from May 16-22, 1988. The Soviet government accorded a warm welcome to General Prem and his delegation. 

He was received by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Kremlin Palace and had a meeting with prime minister Nikolai Ryzhkov. The Soviet government arranged a special plane for General Prem and official members of his delegation to travel to Kiev and, of course, to the beautiful and famous cultural and historical city, Leningrad (now St Petersburg). The plane was closely followed by General Prem’s special plane from Thailand carrying the rest of the non-official members of his delegation. 

At the invitation of the director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the USSR Academy of Science, Eugeny M Primakov, to attend an international meeting on “Asia-Pacific Region: Dialogue, Peace, Cooperation” in Vladivostok from September 30 to October 3, 1988, Thanat Khoman, former deputy prime minister and foreign minister, as well as the former permanent secretary at the Foreign Ministry, Phan Wannamethee, flew to Vladivostok via Moscow.

Vladivostok at that time was a forbidden city. No foreigners, including diplomats based in Moscow, were allowed to visit this city of high strategic importance as a huge naval base was located there on the east coast of the Soviet Union. The convening of an international meeting in Vladivostok for the first time was a direct result of the Soviet policy change under “glasnost” and “perestroika”.

During the stopover for a few days in Moscow on the way to and from Vladivostok, I had the opportunity to welcome my two highly respected former bosses. One evening, I had the honour to host a dinner for them at the Thai ambassador’s residence, which was once the residence of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. One of the dishes on the menu was “Crepe au caviar flambe”, my own recipe using local world famous delicacies, Russian vodka, and caviar as the main ingredients. I personally presented the cooking of this dish at the dining table before my VIP guests and I was happy that they really liked it.

General Prem’s official visit to the Soviet Union greatly contributed to the strengthening of a new era of friendship and cooperation between Thailand and the Soviet Union. 

Today Thailand and Russia have close ties of friendship and cooperation, both at the official and private levels. Trade, investment and tourism between the two countries have been on the increase. 

I learned from current Russian Ambassador to Thailand Kirill Barsky at a dinner party he recently hosted for former Thai ambassadors to the Soviet Union/Russia that a Russian businessman has successfully invested in air-conditioned sturgeon farming in Hua Hin which, in the near future, would be able to produce caviar and sturgeon meat for the Thai market. 

I had a memorable tour of duty in Moscow, the capital city of the great empire of the Soviet Union, rich in history and culture. When I first arrived in Moscow to take up my post, it was winter. I was stunned by the beautiful scenery on my way from the airport to my residence at the Thai Embassy which was covered with snow. It reminded me of the movie, Dr Zhivago, which was partly filmed in Moscow. 

While in Moscow, I and other Asean ambassadors, occasionally had the privilege of being entertained by Soviet hosts at get-together meetings in the beautiful and relaxed ambience of countryside guest houses called dacha. I did enjoy my stay in Moscow despite the long severe winter when the temperature would sometimes drop below minus 25 degrees Celsius. During my time there, there was a serious nuclear plant accident in Chernobyl on April 26, 1986 causing many deaths and leaving many injured. It was quite scary even though Chernobyl is quite far from Moscow but there was widespread fear of nuclear radiation being spread by the winds.

Security measures in Moscow those days were very tight. One day while I was driving in Moscow, a police car stopped me. A police officer politely asked me my destination. I was told that I was out of bounds, out of the outer ring road beyond which no foreigners’ cars were allowed to enter without permission from Soviet authorities concerned. I told the police that I was a new Thai ambassador and had lost my way. I had to get back on track.

Another minor incident was because of my decision to grow a moustache. One day, when I returned to Moscow after my trip abroad, the immigration officer at one of the four international airports in Moscow questioned me about my identity as the photo on my diplomatic passport did not have a moustache. It took me some extra time to re-enter Moscow. 

This year Thailand and Russia are jointly holding a series of events in both countries to mark the 120th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, first marked by by the visit of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) to Russia as the guest of Tzar Nicholas II in 1897. 

 

Original at "The Nation" website: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/news/opinion/30320265

 

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