The ornate halls of Moscow’s Kremlin have hardly been a welcoming place for Canadian delegations of late, which is what makes John Durrant’s visit there this week especially remarkable.
On Russia’s Day of National Unity on Monday, one of its most significant holidays, Durrant, a Russian literature professor from St. John’s, was the guest of honour at the head table in the grand Georgievsky Hall, seated right beside President Vladimir Putin.
“Who would have thought I’d be here? It’s the highest moment,” he told CBC News in an interview at the Kremlin, shortly after Putin bestowed upon him the Order of Friendship, one of Russia’s highest civilian awards.
“What can I say? I’m honoured.”
A ‘thank you’ for decade of work
Durrant was given the award primarily for his decade of work serving as Russia’s honorary consul in St. John’s, a position that he said involved everything from helping stranded Russian sailors to hockey players and escorting official Russian delegations around Newfoundland and Labrador.
It’s common for foreign nations to appoint non-diplomatic representatives in cities where they don’t have an embassy to help with consular matters. Durrant said he believes the Russian government initially asked him to take on the role because it was familiar with his work as a translator and as a Russian language expert.
As part of a “thank you” speech to Putin and the dignitaries, Durrant promised to work tirelessly to “establish understanding between our people.”
“It involves a lot of different duties,” he said, of the honorary consul position. Over the years he said he has helped the families of Russian fishermen who have died and dealt with the crews of various Russian ships that have stopped in St. John’s.
Durrant, who speaks six languages, has also facilitated trips for hundreds of Memorial University students over the years to Russia as part of their language studies.
As for his hour-long one-on-one with Putin, he said they first talked about hockey to “break the ice, so to speak.”
And Durrant said the pair also chatted about dogs.
“When he learned that I was from St. John’s he spoke about dogs — because of Labradors — and I think his favourite pet was a Labrador named Konni.”
Indeed, Konni, a female black lab, was a fixture at Putin’s side for the first 15 years of his rule in Russia and often accompanied the Russian leader to international conferences. Russian state media frequently showed photos of the pair together, in part to help portray Putin in a friendly, softer light.
Konni died in 2015.
I find President Putin to be a very attentive conversationalist.– John Durrant
“I find President Putin to be a very attentive conversationalist,” said Durrant, who studied Russian at Lomonosov State University in Moscow, in what was then the U.S.S.R.
Beyond that though, Durrant was reluctant to give away much about his conversation with Russia’s president, suggesting it may be “breaking protocol” to do so.
Nor would he reveal how political things got.
Canada, Russia should be ‘close neighbours’
Durrant said he’s a strong believer in engaging with Russia, to “develop trust through positive and effective collaboration.”
“I profoundly believe that because of so many basic similarities — too many to list — Canada and Russia should be very close neighbours and loyal friends,” Durrant later wrote in an email to CBC News.
The official policy of successive Canadian governments has been more or less the diametric opposite.
Since 2014, Canada has frozen most high-level governmental contacts with Russia in response to Putin’s annexation of Crimea and its role in fuelling the war in Eastern Ukraine.
Both Liberal and Conservative governments have sanctioned scores of Russian companies and individuals linked to the conflict, as well as in response to the poisonings of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in London last year and Russia’s alleged role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which killed 300 people.
For its part, Russia has banned a number of senior Canadian officials with ties to Ukraine, including Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.
In an emailed statement, Freeland’s spokesperson Adam Austin stated: “Attempts by Russia to destabilize the rules-based international order and the multilateral institutions that underpin it require firm and strong condemnation and concrete action by all countries that believe in a stable and prosperous world.”
Durrant said he doesn’t see those measures as being effective.
“If you look at the Russian reactions to sanctions, I think it only means — as they say in Russian — ‘If you hit the nail, it just sticks even harder.'”
However, Canada’s hardline approach to dealing with the Kremlin has been widely praised by Russian human rights activists, including Vladimir Kara-Murza, who told CBC News in an interview Oct. 30 that Western governments must constantly put pressure on Russia over its treatment of those who oppose the regime.
Kara-Murza claims there are 314 political prisoners in Russia at the moment — more than in the 1970s under the Soviet Union.
Durrant said while he accepts there are serious “points of contention” he tries to stay focused on his role helping individual Russians when they’re in Canada.
Other Canadians to receive the Order of Friendship included former prime minister Jean Chrétien and former governor general Adrienne Clarkson. Chrétien received his award in 2014 just prior to the deep freeze in relations.
Durrant said he takes heart from experiences, such as when the Russian tall ship, Kruzenstern, last visited St. John’s before the sanctions.
“At the end of the evening, the Russian [crew members] returned to the ship, each with a Canadian officer’s hat, and on the way back in the bus, they sang their favourite Russian song, which expresses love for Russia, adding Canada-Russia to the lyrics,” he recalled.
“Russia has an entirely different set of chromosomes — cultural chromosomes — than countries in the West. It’s a matter of working out the differences.”