There was much amusement at Vladimir Putin’s snapping of a pencil at his meeting with Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and Petro Poroshenko in Minsk a few weeks ago. The four of them were negotiating a ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine, and no doubt you could cut the atmosphere with a knife.
I like to think that the pencil snapping meant that Putin wasn’t entirely getting his own way. Certainly it was remarkable, in that Putin doesn’t usually show his feelings. Dignity of office, I suppose, and the great weight of responsibility that he bears, do not permit the Russian President to smile, or do those endearing human things like engaging in folksy chit-chat about hiking with Angela, or simply being charmant like Francois, or twinkly like Petro.
But I think Putin’s interlocutors got off lightly. Meetings can be hazardous.
Just think about what happened when Vlad the Impaler, bent on consolidating his own power, invited a gaggle of regional nobility to a dinner party in 1456. Following the, no doubt, meaty meal, he had the old and infirm immediately murdered and marched the remaining guests 50 miles to a dilapidated castle. He put the surviving nobles to hard labour restoring it. Most died from maltreatment and exhaustion; and those who didn’t were impaled on spikes outside the castle when restorations were complete
And think of poor Alexander Litvinenko’s tea party at the Millenium Hotel in 2006. Invited to meet some former KGB colleagues (possibly they were friends of Mr Putin) he was poured a strong cup of Polonium tea, and died three weeks later.
Then there’s the early Reformation figure, Jan Hus. He was invited, on the promise of free passage, to a pow-wow in Constance, but was imprisoned, tried and burnt at the stake.
I think Angela, Francois and Petro got off quite lightly.