For many people Yevgeny Primakov is a kind of guilty pleasure. They like him, all the while knowing they probably shouldn't. In a long and distinguished career, he has been Russia's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, and before that the head of its foreign intelligence service. In Soviet times he directed two prestigious Moscow think-tanks, was a "journalist" (wink-wink) for Pravda, and served as a special, sometimes covert, Politburo emissary to countless Middle Eastern leaders. To this unique set of experiences, add his genuine wit, his mischievous smile, his confident air of knowing how, beneath all its silly pretenses, the amoral world really works, and you've got someone who is, to say the very least, excellent company at dinner.
It's not for nothing, then, that Russians who know him like to compare Primakov to Henry Kissinger. He often left my old boss Madeleine Albright feeling as though she had been talking, in her words, to "Saddam Hussein's lawyer." But it was hard to stay mad at a guy who would then get up on stage before hundreds of diplomats in a grand old Manila hotel and join in a West Side Story take-off, singing "Madeleine Albright, Madeleine Albright, I just met a girl named Madeleine Albright!" I once even heard a senior Georgian official admit that, yes, Primakov might well have had something to do with assassination attempts against then-President of Georgia Eduard Shevardnadze-but, no, this didn't stop the two of them from exchanging warm birthday greetings. And why should it? In the lonely world of high politics, good dinner companions are hard to find.