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“For many here in Russia, Putin is the antithesis of a monster”

Today is Russia Day, which marks the official beginning of the Russian Federation — or, to give it its formal definition, the declaration of state sovereignty by the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR).

With just two days to go until the World Cup kick-off, it feels like half the world is with me here in St Petersburg, ready to play. Half a million visitors will be welcomed and the Kremlin has gone all out to showcase Vladimir Putin’s new Russia as a vibrant, safe and strong nation.

Thanks to a two-year renovation program across the major cities, St Petersburg is immaculate. The buildings are pristine, the facades freshly painted. It looks truly splendid – and a stark contrast to its beleaguered European counterparts in Italy, Greece and Spain.

When you talk to the people here, they say they feel Russian, really Russian; 85 per cent identify as Russian first, no matter where they are from. Almost 90 per cent worship in the Orthodox cathedrals or Christian churches. They share a clear understanding of who they are and what they believe in. And you can feel it.

As an outsider from the UK, a place that’s shedding its identity faster than a convict on the run, I envy these people and their unshakeable commitment to their country.

If you ask Russians about Putin, most say they love his strength as a leader and admire his strength on the international stage.

They see Putin’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, his military intervention in Syria and the country’s military spending (more than 4 per cent of GDP) as examples of Putin at his best, showing the world he means business.

And their message to the UK is clear: you have no power over Putin.

Following the poisoning on UK soil of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and British spy who acted as a double agent for the British intelligence services, the British government accused Russia of attempted murder and announced a series of punitive measures against Russia, including the expulsion of diplomats.

The UK’s official assessment of the incident was supported by 28 other countries. Altogether, an unprecedented 153 Russian diplomats were expelled.

Russia denied the accusations, expelled diplomats tit for tat, and effectively accused Britain of the poisoning. Importantly, Putin has been able to shrug off sanctions thanks to booming oil prices following American sanctions on Iraq and Venezuela.

In May, Donald Trump announced that the US would scrap Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and impose sanctions on Tehran. An oil-supply squeeze has sent crude prices surging over $80 dollars a barrel. For Putin, this oil windfall was perfect timing. In January, Russia’s finance ministry announced a painful series of cuts to pensions and services in order to balance the budget; thanks to Trump and the oil prices, those plans have been shelved.

Standing here in Russia among people who strongly identify as Russian first despite comprising over 160 nationalities, chastisements from Theresa May and the threat of sanctions from a collapsing Europe are risible. While Russia appears united under the spotlight of the World Cup, Europe has never been more divided in a time of peace.

Europe is collapsing fast, from Brexit to the surging support for the Lega in Italy, from Orban’s win in Hungary to the tragic impotence of Trudeau in Canada and Merkel’s failure at the polls. Clearly Putin has had a hand in supporting this fracture; Marine Le Pen was offered soft loans from Russia, and Orban cheap Russian gas; his allies in Italy have already called for an end to sanctions on Russia.

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The picture of Trump and the European eunuchs at the laughable G7 meeting captured this perfectly. The climate is so bitter that the French finance minister termed the meeting the “G-6 plus one.”

Trump believes Putin should be back as part of the G8 and, of course, he is right. With the G6 so weakened by their globalist disaster, America, Japan and Russia are the power players. It makes little sense for Russia to be excluded from the table. Or for anyone else to talk without Putin there.

There is determined effort across the western media to portray Putin as a monster and Russia as the monster’s lair, a place where only the foolish or the fearless dare tread.

Which is poppycock. This place is bright, brilliant and alive. During the festival of the White Nights (right now it is only dark for four hours a day) the people fill the streets at night, celebrating with their families and dancing in the street.

The underground is safe, clean and historic. Some station stops are palaces in themselves, with grand chandeliers, marble pillars and huge works of art. It’s quite the contrast to the cloying filth of London’s underground.

There is no litter. People have advanced to the point of being able to use bins, and walk down the street without needing to stuff their faces or face-plant in their phones. It is a glorious thing to see. The West has a lot to learn from these good people who have respect for their country.

This is not to sweep under the carpet the human rights violations suffered under Putin’s regime, or the number of political prisoners. I am screamed at on Twitter by the many who believe Putin truly is a monster, who reference crimes against the people of the Ukraine, the lack of true democracy, Russian aggression in Syria, and Sergei Magnitsky.

Magnitsky was a Russian lawyer and auditor who died in highly suspicious circumstances in a Moscow prison after he blew the whistle on a massive fraud perpetrated by Russian tax officials. And, of course, I see the problem: how can anyone support both journalistic freedom and a regime that disappears its critics?

But then I glance back at my own country, the UK. A country where democracy means so little that Brexit will never happen, where the votes of 17.4 million people don’t count. A country that intervened aggressively against Assad, a secular leader fighting against Al Qaeda in his sovereign state. A country in which an activist was recently sentenced to 13 months in jail for speaking the truth. And I wonder what makes us so morally superior?

What makes Putin the definitive monster and us the great white knight in shining armour?

We are anything but. The UK has lost its way. Europe is a mess. America is the beacon of hope for the free world.

For many here in Russia, clear about their identity and sense of place on the international stage, Putin is the antithesis of a monster — a hero, even. Together with Japan and America, the fightback against the globalists begins.

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