Russian President Vladimir is known to be a ‘strong man’. That ‘strength’ was amply demonstrated recently in action taken to blunt protests organized by the Opposition. Putin doesn’t rant and rave like those who have made it a habit of blaming their ills on Russia or those who have been quiet when the USA gets down and dirties the elections held elsewhere and are now upset that Russia may have done some tweaking at home last November. He is a man of action, that much can be said. As good or as bad as any other world leader.
This is about an ‘act’ that was soft for many reasons. No words, just a deed, but one pregnant with many layers of meaning. During their recent bilateral meeting, Putin gave President Maithripala Sirisena a gift that was reported to symbolize ‘the close relationship between the two countries’. It was a Royal Sword from the Kandyan era. It was not something that Russians had pilfered, though. We do not know who took it or under what circumstances, but it had been bought by a Russian at an archaeological artefact auction conducted by Sotheby’s in England.
Now everyone knows that even as British leaders pontificate on Sri Lanka’s thirty-year long struggle to rid the country of terrorism and strongly advocate ‘reparations’ they do nothing about what their ancestors looted from Sri Lanka and other countries illegally occupied and plundered. There’s no talk of reparation. No talk of handing over the artefacts that were looted and were purchased by museums in that country which holds illegal both theft and the purchasing of stolen goods.
But why give a sword and why this particular sword, we must ask. We cannot read Putin’s mind, but we can still draw meaning in a meaningful way.
First and foremost, it can be read as a subtle message about the balance of power in the world. Putin is simultaneously, one could argue, sneering at the self-righteous rants of the British. He could also be telling Sri Lanka something on the following lines: ‘The British and in fact the entire cabal of Western nations that play carrot and stick with your country are not the angels that you people appear to think they are. Maybe you should think again about who your true friends are. Maybe you need to have more fight. Maybe you need to be more sharp. Maybe you should consider new weapons.’
None of this was said, but if it’s all about symbolism there can be no harm in such a reading. Of course, there is also an element of condescension in the act of giving and receiving, clothed though it is in the usual garb of friendly bilateral relations. We all know after all the meaning of the Sinhala maxim, inguru deela miris ganeema (exchanging [the superior spice] ginger for [the inferior] chillie) and that siding with one adventurer to get rid of another never helped us. At the same time, this intervention is relatively harmless, if indeed it was a subtle message about colonial history and the persistence of unequal relations of exchange that have done nothing to unshackle Sri Lanka from those bonds.
Putin could have given a gift that was unmistakably Russian in appearance. But he did not. And yet it was a gift that was unmistakably Russian or rather one that has Putin’s political signature. A nudge, rather than a soft rap on the knuckles. Friendly, one must conclude. The sword, after all, is a key element of Sri Lanka’s national flag. The symbolism there cannot be missed.