The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy

These, however, are parsimonious days… The telegraph has made a difference in the position of Ambassadors. When men can and do receive instructions hourly about the smallest details, and, indeed, ask for them as if anxious to escape responsibility, it is easy to conceive that the Foreign Office will not again insist on the Treasury behaving with boundless liberality. 

“The Times”, reporting on the debate about rebuilding Pera House, British Embassy in Istanbul, after the fire of 1870.

Diplomacy has been in flux for centuries. Are diplomats and their tradecraft redundant in today’s world? Or are they more vital than ever for humanity’s survival?

When I started this book, the simmering Russia-Ukraine conflict, launched in 2014 by President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Russia’s peaceful neighbour, had already claimed 14,000 lives. Yet it seemed remote and obscure to many in Britain, the European Union, and the United States. Putin’s decision in February 2022 to launch a full-scale war of annihilation against a sovereign country larger than France with a pre-war population of over forty million transformed the world and upended diplomacy.

The hitchhiker's guide to diplomacy: Leigh Turner in Istanbul

In Istanbul, 2015

This book explores the background to the conflict: what the world did wrong, what it did right and what Vladimir Putin does not understand. It puts twenty-first century diplomacy in context by digging into the Berlin Wall, the rusting of the iron curtain, terrorism, espionage, women in diplomacy and how British politics prepared for Brexit – from 1987 onwards.

How, where and why does diplomacy happen, and what can it teach the rest of us? What can Jonathan the tortoise on Saint Helena tell us about institutional stability? Why is diplomatic immunity a necessary evil?  I explain why you can’t cure international terrorism; how unknown enemies are scariest; and why you should never over-estimate authoritarian leaders, from Putin to Saddam Hussein. On the way, we meet extraordinary people, from The Queen, Vivienne Westwood and Jane Goodall through Paul McCartney and the wisdom of Deep Purple to US former C-17 pilot Brigadier General Lyn Sherlock – and Satan, whom I met one night in Moscow. More on him later.

Moscow 1993

On Sunday 3 October 1993, a group of expats gathered at the British embassy dacha in north-west Moscow for a child’s fifth birthday party. Families huddled around tables in a garden of pale autumn sunshine, sipping Tuborg and munching crisps. Well-wrapped toddlers stuffed with jelly, scones and chocolate cake played hide and seek.

I was helping the birthday boy and his friends assemble a pirate ship when a diplomatic colleague strode up. Shooting had broken out at the Russian Parliament, where riot police had for days hemmed in armed rebels seeking the overthrow of President Yeltsin. Our party included journalists and diplomats. As children played football and ate more cake, adults agonised about what to do.

Reports grew of killings, militias heading for the TV centre at Ostankino, and armoured vehicles joining the demonstrators. We decided to form a convoy, led by the flag car of a Latin American ambassador, and drive into town. If we saw violence or crowds, we would turn back…

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy – Wie Diplomatie die Welt Erklärt will be published in German by Czernin Verlag, Vienna, on 12 April 2023.

Leigh Turner and Boris Johnson

With Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in Vienna, 2016

Leigh Turner Russian driving licence

1993: my Russian driving licence. Soviet photographers tended to make subjects look… a bit Soviet

Leigh Turner and Lady Diana

1986: photobombing The Princess of Wales 

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The Hitchhiker's Guide to Diplomacy: Leigh Turner at the rocket museum

2010: the Ukrainian Strategic Missile Forces Museum

Something to read today

Need something to read today?  See the summaries of my published books below.

P.S. Until The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy comes on sale, the “buy now” buttons on the left link to my author pages for the UK, US and Germany.

Leigh Turner Hitchhiker's Guide to Diplomacy

From “How to drink wine and know things”

Galsworthy, Tolstoy and other Russian Classics

Foreign writers, too, can reveal new worlds.

When learning a language I always seek out easy fiction to build fluency and vocabulary. On my first visit to Moscow in 1992 I was delighted to find in a bookshop a single copy of “The Lord of the Rings”. In the apparent absence of any Russian-language thrillers, a story I liked and knew well would be just the thing.

I took it to the counter. The grumpy saleswoman[1] said I could order the book. Delivery would take six weeks. Instead I bought a copy of “Day of the Triffids,” which for some reason was available at once.

The scarcity of consumer goods and rigid control of culture and information in the Soviet Union are the subject of much black humour. The authorities vetted all literature, banning and mounting campaigns against works such as “Doctor Zhivago” that did not present the communist one-party system in the “correct” light[2].

One by-product was that many Russians owned a complete library of “the classics” – Russian and foreign literature approved by the authorities. The list included many masterpieces, such as Dickens; but also works by authors who had fallen out of fashion in the west – such as Nobel Prize-winner John Galsworthy’s “The Forsyte Saga”, which happens to show that owning things does not lead to happiness. An intellectual[3] could reasonably claim to own, and to have read, all important literature.

Censorship and authoritarianism mean a finite quantity of literature.  Just as some children are said to benefit from clear rules about bed-time, some citizens might feel comforted at the idea of having explored every corner of the literary landscape, rather than wandering in an endless jungle of world literature stretching to the horizon in every direction. Others might be appalled at the thought of being allowed to read only pre-approved books.

How you feel about either option may be a good guide to how well you would cope with living in an authoritarian state.

[1] Tautology. In the early 1990s all Russian sales staff were beyond grumpy.

[2] “The Zhivago Affair”, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, details how the authorities banned the book and hounded Pasternak to his death.

[3] In Russia, unlike in the United Kingdom, no-one is shy of calling themselves an intellectual. In the 1990s a “Union of Intellectuals” even existed.

More Books

Eternal Life by Leigh Turner

Eternal Life

“Eternal Life: a “what if?” satirical thriller about inequality, migration, drugs, politics, organ trafficking and the limits of capitalism. Reviews:

– “hardly ever have I found staring into the depth of human depravity more entertaining… I laughed out loud”

– “the time is the twenty-third century, but the events are rooted in our very age: the yearning for immortality… a great read for those who enjoyed Orwell’s 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, Lem’s Solaris or Huxley’s Brave New World”.

Book Details
Palladium by Leigh Turner


British ex-spy John Savage was thrown out of MI6 in Moscow for gross misconduct. Now, haunted and vengeful, he finds his lover has been kidnapped by terrorists who threaten to kill millions. A white-knuckle ride to save a great city from destruction.

Book Details
Blood Summit by Leigh Turner

Blood Summit

The leaders of the eight most powerful countries in the world, and one hundred schoolchildren, have been taken hostage by the terrorists from hell at a summit in the Reichstag in Berlin. Then the executions start, streamed live on TV.

You’re in charge. What do you do?

Book Details
Leigh Turner Seven Hotel Stories

Seven Hotel Stories

A black feminist comedy featuring seven tales of the glamorous, petite Ms N, the world’s deadliest hotel manager, and her ally the beautiful but naive Tatiana.

Book Details

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