International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde was last to speak at the plenary session of Russia's glitzy economic forum, the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, on Friday afternoon, bearing a responsibility she compared to being married to Liz Taylor. "At this wonderful moment, I am the fifth, and incidentally, the only woman," Lagarde told the large audience of mostly men.
Her signature silver locks flicked across her brow, Lagarde said she felt like the actor Richard Burton, who, as Taylor's fifth husband, "knew what was expected, but wasn't sure how to be original." This invited guffaws from Russia's political and business elite - and a sideways smirk from Putin. French President Emmanuel Macron, squirming in his chair, seemed hardly capable of suppressing his laughter.
After hours of onstage camaraderie by Putin, Macron, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China's Vice President Wang Qishan, the managing director of the IMF finally got her turn.
Lagarde was one of the few women to speak at the event, ostensibly Russia's answer to Davos, where all but a sprinkling of the 100 or so summits and sessions had an exclusively male lineup. At one panel, entitled "The future of journalism," the two women scheduled to speak didn't show up at all (One of them was Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who wrote on her Facebook page that she had taken ill). A single session at the forum was dedicated to women leaders in the Eurasian community.
This is not to say that other global investment forums are espousing the values of gender equality (Davos is notorious for its so-called 'manels,' panels of all men).
Controversy has tainted Russian business at international forums before. In 2012, a Russian telecoms company was booted out of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona for promising "champagne, caviar and a beautiful girl" to visitors who attended their business meetings.
That Lagarde spoke last and that each Russian firm had its crew of women on show is not surprising in Putin's Russia. After all, this is the leader who bragged to Donald Trump that Russia had "the most beautiful prostitutes in the world," according to former FBI director James Comey - a sentiment Putin also shared with reporters a few weeks earlier.
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