Vladimir Lenin’s “useful idiots” were the Western intellectuals invited to the Soviet Union to witness and tell the world about the wonders of the worker’s utopia, which they obligingly did while turning a blind eye to the forced labour camps, the suppression of all political opposition, the destruction of Russia’s agriculture, and a working-class stripped of all power and rights.
Mr Putin is not Lenin, but he does run a corrupt, crony-ridden and authoritarian regime that uses the criminal law to keep his political rivals in prison or just quiet, and he understands the power of sport in winning friends and influencing people.
First, you outbid — or quite possibly out-bribe — rival contenders for an event such as the 2018 World Cup, then you ensure, as Mr Putin has done, that a well-managed and sensitively-policed tournament is a riot of nothing but convivial international fellowship and fun. And even after the last whistle has been blown, it’s not straight back to business as normal: the Pussy Riot protestors who interrupted the final match are to face charges, one of them being the more than somewhat laughable “violation of spectators’ rights”, that attract tiny fines or community service orders.
Perhaps he’s not so awful, after all? After a photo-opportunity with a smiling Vladimir, Conor McGregor, is moved to tweet: “Today I was invited to the World Cup final as a guest of Russian President . . . This man is one of the greatest leaders of our time . . . I was honoured to attend such a landmark event alongside him.” Mr Trump congratulated Putin on his World Cup triumph: “I watched quite a bit of it … it was beautifully done.”
Mr Putin is also not Hitler, but those with a greater command of 20th century history than that possessed by Mr McGregor and President Trump will remember how agreeable and hospitable foreign visitors in Berlin for the 1936 Olympics found the Third Reich. Brownshirt thuggery was halted for two weeks, street signs and public notices indicating the sub-human status of Jews and gypsies in German society were taken down, and newspapers were ordered to tone down racist propaganda.
Against this background, it’s no surprise that the highlight, which was also the low point, of the dismal press conference that followed yesterday’s agenda-free US-Russia summit in Helsinki came when Mr Putin gave Mr Trump a football — a moment of light relief in a question-and-answer session during which Mr Trump took the opportunity to yet again rubbish firstly the US intelligence services, all of which accuse Russia of trying to meddle in the 2016 presidential election, and secondly, Mrs Clinton. It was also no surprise to hear Mr Putin admitting that he wanted Trump in the White House. Looking at Mr Trump’s performances in Europe this past week, it’s not hard to see why.