When Trump Met Putin
An Eyewitness Report of the Helsinki Summit
The evening before the Trump-Putin “summit” in Helsinki, I got on my white Finnish Jopo bike and went to see what was happening at the Hilton Kalastajatorppa in the seaside suburb of Munkkiniemi. It was extremely weird that Trump & Co. would be at my favorite hotel, just up the road from my friend Ulrika’s apartment where I stay when I’m in Helsinki researching Russian matters (in the wonderful Slavonic division of the National Library of Finland).
I was stopped at the bottom of the steep little road I always ride up when biking to Kalastajatorppa (which means Fisherman’s Hut — I hope nobody translated this for the Trumps) to have a glass of wine or dinner. The hotel was built in 1969, and it’s the essence of the severe, beautiful, Alvar-Aalto-derived Finnish modernism of that time — just three semi-circles of low-slung rooms perched on a granite outcropping above the sea. On summer evenings you can eat an unusually crisp Caesar salad (or a menu of other things) on a long outdoor balcony above a bay with a beach, where someone is always swimming, and your white wine will refract that sun that turns gold around 9:30 pm.
That evening there was gold sun too, which was very restful, since Helsinki is in the middle of an unprecedented heat wave and the day had been white-hot. (In fact, Finnish Greenpeace had put up a huge banner on a church tower downtown that said: “Warm Our Hearts Not the Planet!”) A helicopter circled, but the consensus was that the Trumps were not in it but coming in cars from the airport. The guys who stopped me wore neon-green vests and had rifles — they were military police — and told me to move on.
They weren’t as friendly as the regular police I’d met downtown that morning who’d said they’d gone home the night before at 3:30 am and now were back and their full gear was really hot. I’d asked them, in Finnish, whether they could possibly just take him out (that part in English). “Ok guys, you heard the lady,” one of them said buoyantly in English, as I walked away, as if they had intended to start planning an assassination right then.
Now to the left of the street where I couldn’t go were people with kids and bikes, so I rode toward them and found a crowd lining another part of Kalastajatorppa’s entranceway, with white vans marked Poliisi parked all around. I asked what was happening, but just then came a sort of exhalation, and some waiting cars started to move and a stream of people headed back towards us.
The convoy had passed and I’d missed it.
But why had I even wanted to see Trump and Melania behind dark glass? Besides the fact that shiny black cars sweeping by in a line usually seem compelling. Did I still have this unreasonable expectation that the pomp and circumstance might end in something? The next day found me still expecting. I descended the library’s granite hill to watch, in a little street next to the President’s Palace, through four or five rows of raised iPhones, the Finnish President Sauli Niinistö’s convoy pass by, then Putin’s, then Trump’s. I even snapped the correct car in my picture, the one sporting the tiny American flag.
The Finnish people around me had come only because they worked in an office nearby. A female Chinese tourist in a sun visor hat was enthusiastic in a general way. A little cluster of people to my left raised American and Finnish flags and shouted “God Bless Trump! God Bless America!” when “our” convoy passed. They were Finnish evangelicals, and their white-blond ten-year-old boy twins were born in Tampa, Florida.
Later that evening the press conference came on TV in the bedroom of a grand Finnish lady terminally ill with cancer but still living full-throttle. There were three of us, drinking prosecco. The sun outside had turned gold again. The Finnish voiceover drowned out Putin’s Russian and Trump’s English, so I watched Trump’s face with that scowl of mock-dignity as he listened to Putin, and Putin, half the size, standing lizard-like and unmoving as he listened to Trump.
Then we abandoned the TV and went to dinner in a seaside cafe on the shore near Kalastajatorrpa. “In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance,” writes Auden, “how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may / Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry / But for him it was not an important failure.”
This summit was a disaster for Americans. Our guy went on stage without learning his lines. The other guy stood aside inscrutably and let him blunder. Elsewhere in the world, even in this land between Russia and the West, most people have just stopped taking us seriously.
Elizabeth Kendall is a professor at Lang College (Literary Studies/Writing track) and NSSR Liberal Studies. Her most recent book is Balanchine and the Lost Muse . She is currently working on a short, unconventional Balanchine biography.