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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Trudeau's Motorcycle Caper Defined Russia-Canada Ties

When Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau grabbed a motorcycle from his Soviet police escort in 1971 and rode it around the Kremlin grounds, he struck a blow in favour of diplomacy by middle-ranking countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's three days of talks in Canada, starting on Sunday, will pick up on a tradition of decades of good ties rooted in Canadians' drive to be different from their U.S. neighbours.

But with post-World War Two relations between the world's two largest -- and arguably coldest -- countries dogged by mistrust, it took a figure like the audacious Trudeau at the height of the Cold War to put matters on track.

A shared passion by both nations for ice hockey also helped.

Trudeau's caper in Ivanov Square inside the Kremlin walls raised more than a few eyebrows on a ground-breaking visit, part of his bid to improve ties with both the Soviet Union and Cuba.

"The security guards were aghast," said Georgy Arbatov, former director of the USA and Canada Institute. "But when they saw he was driving it safely, they stood by and enjoyed watching him. They thought it was great to have such a leader."

The trip by Trudeau, whose death in September at 80 set off a wave of grief among Canadians, was matched six months later by a return visit by Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin.

Kosygin was knocked down in Ottawa by a Hungarian-born anti-Soviet refugee, but experts said the rapid exchange of visits was unprecedented between Moscow and a NATO country.

Arbatov said the trips were on a par with detente-era visits to Moscow of the late 1960s by French President Charles de Gaulle and West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, and by U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1971.

"It was the outstanding leaders of smaller, perhaps less influential countries that saved the world as time went on and the elites of the superpowers lost their intellectual capacity," he said, citing other leaders like Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky and Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme.


The other defining event in Soviet-Canadian relations of the time had nothing to do with foreign policy but rather a 1972 ice hockey series which captivated millions in both countries.

Canada won the series with 34 seconds to play and virtually every Canadian or Russian remembers where he was when the final goal was scored. For many, the event went beyond sport in ending the demonisation of each country by the other.

"The series amounted to a revolution in the way people behaved. Sometimes hockey players managed things politicians could not do," Vladislav Tretyak, the Soviet goaltender in the series, now a coach, said by telephone from the United States.

"There was huge tension. Players didn't dare speak to each other and we had no idea how they lived in the other country. Now hockey brings us together. If we can get visas."

The relationship survived both a 1978 spy scandal in which Canada threw out 11 Soviet diplomats and Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan.

It was bolstered in the mid-1980s by one of Trudeau's last acts as prime minister, a "crusade for world peace" which proved fruitless but was applauded by Moscow against the backdrop of U.S. President Ronald Reagan's calls for military buildup.

Another key figure was Alexander Yakovlev, Soviet ambassador for a decade, who became the "father of glasnost", the policy of openness under Mikhail Gorbachev's "perestroika" reforms.

Some Russian experts say perestroika was conceived in Canada when Gorbachev met Yakovlev for the first time during a 1983 visit as Communist Party Secretary responsible for agriculture.

"Perhaps this was true in part," Ed Schreyer, former Canadian Governor General who struck up a friendship with Yakovlev, said by telephone from western Canada.

"Yakovlev said he and Gorbachev spent a lot of time in intensive discussion. He said it was of special importance."