Amid a tidal wave of tearful farewells by Russian influencers on Instagram, which was banned on Monday by Moscow, it was easy to overlook the curious post of the praying woman.
Sitting in a window, hands joined and eyes closed, the iconic domes of St Basil’s Cathedral were clearly – deliberately – visible over her shoulder.
The woman praying for peace at Moscow’s Kempinski hotel was Soyeon Schröder-Kim, the fifth wife of former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The 77-year-old retired politician, now a Russian energy lobbyist twice over, was in Moscow to talk with his long-time friend Vladimir Putin.
Officially at least, no one in Berlin’s federal government knew about his visit, not even Schröder’s political protege Olaf Scholz, now chancellor.
Facing his own round of Berlin-Paris phone diplomacy over the weekend with Moscow, Scholz said of Schröder’s intervention: “No doubt we will hear the results.”
Very little is known about the trip: Schröder left his home in Hanover on Monday, held talks with senior Ukrainian officials in Istanbul and, after contacting a senior Putin aide on Wednesday, was whisked to Moscow on a private jet.
The two men held several hours of talks either that evening or Thursday, according to reports, the latest twist in a relationship going back more than 20 years.
Back in 2004 the then chancellor insisted Putin was a “flawless democrat” and that the two had a “fundamental trust . . . that one always tells the other the truth”.
So far he has kept to himself how much truth he told to power in Moscow. He and his wife returned to Istanbul last Saturday and then home to Hanover.
Opinion in Germany is divided over how much to expect from the most controversial diplomatic solo run since Hitler loyalist Rudolf Hess flew solo – on his own initiative – to Scotland in 1941.
Any chance of success?
The players and the politics are different today and, though hopes are just as low, Russia expert Hans-Henning Schröder – no relation – suggested it was worth a go. Gerhard Schröder is, he said, one of the few Europeans “who might actually reach Putin in his bubble, then show him what’s happening outside of it”.
With even German politicians now openly calling Putin a tyrant, that makes Schröder a tyrant’s stooge – or at the very least, his indirect employee.
Schröder pushed through Russia’s first Nord Stream undersea gas pipeline before leaving office in 2005, then joined the supervisory board of its state-controlled operator. He holds a similar position with one state-owned Russian energy giant, Rosneft – earning a reported €1 million annually for his efforts – and was reportedly in line for a another seat with Gazprom.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created considerable dilemmas for Germany’s so-called Putinversteher, or Putin apologists, led by Schröder and his ex-wife Doris Schröder-Köpf.
She is now a state MP in Lower Saxony for a constituency with a large Russian-speaking community. As part of her re-election campaign in 2017 she told propaganda outlet Sputnik that Putin was “an extremely differentiated, very clever man who is well able to take criticism”.
Questions are growing about her own Russian contacts, in particular to Russian honorary consul in Hanover Heino Wiese, and generous donations both he and she have made in recent years to her party, Lower Saxony’s ruling Social Democrats (SPD).
Gerhard Schröder knows his image is already severely dented but, with another Moscow trip reportedly planned, he appears to be pinning what’s left of his reputation on his diplomatic all-or-nothing mission.