Shortly before Christmas, the photographer Daniel Herron and I were invited to the Russian embassy for an interview with H.E. Ambassador Mr Kirill Barsky PhD the current Russian Ambassador to Thailand.
The embassy and residence are located in Silom and fortunately, we found a friendly taxi driver who immediately knew exactly where the embassy was located. This is a medium size embassy with approximately 20 – 30 diplomats and with a staff of around 55 people.
As we were a bit early (due to public transportation and lack of a vehicle with driver) we were greeted by Mr Deni Antonyuk, First Secretary Political Affairs and Press. This polite, young man escorted us into the reception room and offered us coffee, tea and cookies and kept us company. At exactly 10am Ambassador Barsky entered the room. He gave us a warm smile, spoke English fluently and had a very pleasant and down to earth attitude.
I had forwarded some questions in advance to the Ambassador, but we forgot about them and started to chat like old friends. What a charming, cultivated, experienced, human and talented man. He told us about this special year 2017 with all the big happenings, part of the 120 year’s celebration of Russia’s and Thailand’s diplomatic relations. You could hear the pride in his voice, when telling us about Russia’s participation in several big events like the “Dance and Music Festival”, art exhibitions, lectures, you name it. More than 30 different events have taken place during 2017 to underline the deep friendship between Russia and Thailand.
I had to ask; how does it come that the friendship has become so deep between these two countries and was told;
Russia is seen as a very powerful friend to Thailand mainly due to the time back when both Great Britain and France were trying to colonise Thailand. King Rama V Chulalongkorn and Nicholas II Emperor of Russia, met in 1891 when Crown Prince Nikolaus made a stopover in Siam, during his trip to Asia. In 1893 Siam was on the edge of “breakdown” as the country faced a difficult time politically and with foreigners. It appeared that Thailand may end up divided between France
and Great Britain. The King of Thailand travelled to St Petersburg to meet with then already Tzar Nicholas and asked
him to protect Siam, which he did and so Thailand survived and remained a free country.
When we listen to the National Anthem of Thailand today, we should also send a thought to Russia as the Royal Anthem of Thailand (Sansoen Phra Barami) was written in 1888 by the Russian composer Petr Shchurovski. This was known since Dr Sugri Charoensuk of Mahidol University’s College and Music found out 35 years ago. “We knew every bit of the history of this song from the first time it had been played for His Majesty King Chulalongkorn the Great, but very little of how the music had been commissioned and written. From the very start I wanted to find a way to verify Shchrovski’s authorship, not only by the analysis of the melody, but direct historical research in Russian archives,” Khun Sugri Charoensuk said in an article, published in the newspaper “Russia in Asia” on December 7th, 2017.
So, who is Mr Kirill Barsky? Mr Barsky’s family comes from a relatively small city of Vladimir, located east of Moscow. In ancient times Vladimir was the capital of Russia. Mr Barsky spent his childhood in Moscow, where he attended school. As a young boy, he was very interested in travel and languages. He wanted to become a teacher. He read many books by Jules Verne and the British explorer James Cook and dreamt about working outside Russia.
He studied oriental languages at the University of International Relations and became fluent in Mandarin. He graduated in 1989 and at the same time China and the former Soviet Union, normalised their relations and Mr Barsky was sent to China as an exchange student. He became a highly appreciated translator to many high officials, from President Gorbachev to Vladimir Putin.
For 6 years he worked in Beijing, China and then moved to New York for 3 years, a time he loves to look back on. He worked for the UN in Human Rights (a perfect task for him if you ask me) and after he returned to Moscow and stayed 3-4 years, as Chief for the China desk.
His next destination in Asia was Jakarta, Indonesia. From the years in Jakarta, he also says that he has plenty of great memories and he plans to take his family back there for a visit soon. Today he and his family have been living in Bangkok for a little over 3 years. I asked him of his impression of Thailand and he answers “it was such a surprise to find the Thai people so friendly and welcoming”.
“Unfortunately many people have the wrong perceptions about Russia, thinking of the old Soviet Union, but today everything has changed and has become much different. Thai people don’t know much about Russia. I can see that this is starting to change now; people are willing to listen and learn about Russia and the Russian people.
It’s a country with many traditions, a great history, beautiful heritage, important literature, well-known music, ballet, the arts and much, much more.” In Thailand today, you will find 11 Russian Orthodox Cathedrals, amongst them the beautiful St Nicholas Cathedral in Bangkok.
Mr Barsky is married to his loving wife Olga and they have a 13 year old daughter. He also has a 28 year old son from a previous marriage. Their daughter is a student in the Russian school at the embassy and she is dedicated to acrobatics and physical education. His son is a journalist working for the “Russia Today France” TV Channel.
His wife Olga is, of course, a member of SHOM (the organisation of spouses to the ambassadors) and the Chairperson of the Red Cross Committee. Mr Barsky is rightly very proud of his wife, who was recently recognised by the Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and now she works as Chairperson of the Diplomatic Committee of the Thai Red Cross patronised by the Princess.
“She is a lovely woman the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn” he says. The Princess has paid a visit to the Russian school, and spent some time talking with them. The school has around 70 students and 10 teachers. Half of the teachers are from Moscow and the other half locally employed. The school offers classes from Grade 1 to 9.
One of the most popular teachers is Mrs Julia Tutarskya, the dance teacher. She is also a ballet dancer and has performed extensively in and out of Thailand. The school is focusing on keeping up with Russian traditions; they have excellent math, science and languages teachers as well as sports, dance, acrobatics etc. The pupils are also taught how to reach out to the
community, very important Mr Barsky points out.
I also got to know that Her Royal Highness, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, was a teacher at the Royal
Military Academy and that she had visited Moscow last October, presiding over a performance at the 300 years old
theatre “Mariinsky” during her stay.
The 29th of November 2017 was “A great historical day” for us Mr Barsky says, the Princess came to visit us at the embassy, met the students and tried all the Russian specialties that Russia provides us with. We have never served so many Russian dishes as on that day, he says with a big smile.
I was a bit curious to hear how many Russians visit Thailand as tourists and learned that in 2013 and 2014 there were about 1.6 to 1.7 million. I was a bit surprised as I thought Sweden had more with the 400,000 to 500,000 tourists arriving to Thailand during November/December months.
In 2015 the number dropped 50% due to the falling oil prices that impacted the Russian economy, but picked up again in 2016. This year we have an increase of 24%. There are 80 flights weekly between Thailand and Russia. Russian tourism is a gold mine. Towards the end of the 1990s Russians made a lot of money and started travelling and discovered Thailand as a
warm and pleasant destination. Today you see more educated tourists visiting the Kingdom. The trend is to come and discover the historical sites in Northern Thailand.
Medical tourism has also increased and we find Russians coming to find out about the religious situation here and to visit our Russian Orthodox Cathedrals. There are no political problems to face between Thailand and Russia. Trade is raising, investments are increasing, and we are discovering new territories like IT, security, food production and jewellery to mention just a few.
For many years Pattaya had been the favourite destination for the Russian people, but nowadays they are discovering the islands of Phuket, Koh Samui, Ko Pi Pi as well as the northern cities such as Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
Thai people are also travelling to Russia much more than in the past. It is one of the most important goals for the Ambassador to teach the Thai people about Russia today and to change preceptions towards the Russian people. If someone can do it, it will be this man.
I could write a book after our meeting, which we unfortunately had to finish after almost 2½ hours. Before I finish this article, I will reveal a few more things Mr Barsky told us; President Putin will be running for another term as President in March 2018 and if he is reelected, the Ambassador wants to bring him to Thailand. It was long ago, in 2003, that the Russian President last visited Thailand. So the Ambassador feels it is time again for a visit.
When the Ambassador has time off, which is not often as he usually works 7 days a week, he likes to devote his time to family and friends. I can also tell you that this man is talented in many other ways, not only a dedicated family man and diplomat, he is a painter and writes poetry. He has had books published in the Russian language and one more soon to be published.
I couldn’t resist telling him he should organise an exhibition with his drawings and sign his books and sell them, giving the funds to charity. I said; Daniel and I would with great pleasure become his agents.
We received a big warm smile and a “thank you for believing in me.” I had one last question; if you could choose one person to dine alone with, anyone in the world, who would this person be?
I expected the Ambassador to say Queen Silvia of Sweden, Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain or maybe someone like the opera singer Botticelli or President Donald Trump’s beautiful wife Melania, but no, the answer was the tennis player Maria Sharapova.
“That woman has absolutely everything” was the comment but he added, don’t tell my wife though please. I’m sure that his wife would enjoy a dinner for two with maybe, Roger Federer?
Before we bid farewell, we were told that the World Cup will be played in Russia next year in June/July and that 12 new stadiums have been built in 11 cities. A testament for football fans ….
Both Daniel and I found this morning incredible interesting and we left the Ambassador and Mr Denis with a promise to be back as soon as they have a wish to see us again!
My last sentence can only be; from Russia with love!
Thank you Ambassador Barsky for your valuable time.