A horse’s shadow is cast on a fence along the track. (Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg) 

A Tale of a Turkmen Stallion, Large Melons and a Dead Parrot

(Bloomberg) -- At this time of year, we remember that it’s better to give than to receive. And as files released by the British government reveal, that’s especially true if the gift is a Turkmen horse.

In 1993, Saparmurat Niyazov, President of Turkmenistan, which had just become independent from the Soviet Union, paid a visit to the British prime minister, John Major. Keen to thank his host, Niyazov presented Major with a framed picture of a horse. He explained that this wasn’t any horse. His name was Maksat, a pure-bred Akhal-Teke stallion, and it now belonged to Britain.

A Tale of a Turkmen Stallion, Large Melons and a Dead Parrot

There was one small problem. Maksat was in Turkmenistan, and Britain was expected to arrange his travel to his new home. His journey became the subject of a Foreign Office dispatch released on Friday at the National Archives in London.

“The Turkmen horses’’ -- there were two, because France was also getting one -- “have arrived in Moscow,’’ wrote Laura Brady, a diplomat at the British Embassy.

Their journey thus far, by train, had already been eventful. Armed bandits had tried to steal them as they traveled through Kazakhstan, but the horses had refused to leave their carriage. Now they were at the mercy of something much more dangerous: Post-Soviet bureaucracy.

Dead Parrot

Brady and her French counterpart made an appointment to meet customs officials at 1 p.m. When they arrived, they were told that everyone was at lunch, and they should return at 3 p.m. The diplomats explained to the receptionist that they were worried about the horses, which had now been standing in a carriage for four and a half days.

“This elicited in response the sad tale of the Finnish ambassador’s parrot, the only other living thing that had fallen into the hands of the Twelfth Diplomatic Customs Post during her memory,’’ reported Brady. The receptionist, “close to tears at the thought of the parrot,” led the pair to a warehouse, where they found the customs staff playing poker.

Having completed formalities, the British and French attaches headed to the other side of Moscow, to the station accounts office. Arriving at 4.45 p.m., they presented their paperwork, only to be told that staff had stopped working in preparation to go home at 5 p.m. Hearing the story of the horses, the clerk relented. But not for long. Looking at the documents, she told the diplomats that the Turkmens had underpaid the railway fees, and the embassies owed the Russian railway the difference.

The quick-thinking attaches suggested that, as the Turkmens had provided their own railway carriage for the horses, and did not want it back, this could be set against the debt. The railway officials agreed. “But it was now after five o’clock. We would have to return the next day.’’

The following morning, the pair presented themselves once more, where the railway officials explained that their paperwork was now out of date. The horses would need to be re-examined by the railway vet. After an hour, the vet, without leaving her desk, produced a certificate saying that she had inspected the animals and they were fit.

Yellow Melons

At 10 a.m. the diplomats finally met the horses. But the battle wasn’t over. Out of the railway carriage emerged three grooms, who had traveled with the horses, carrying around 200 large yellow melons. They explained they had brought wares to sell in Moscow in order to raise the cash to buy their return tickets.

Having loaded the animals -- and the melons -- into a horse box, the diplomats thought they were on the home straight. They weren’t. To leave the station, they needed another piece of paper. And to get that piece of paper, they needed a sticker stuck on the horses’ railway carriage marking it as empty. It was now 11:40 a.m., and so the officials were getting ready to begin their lunch break at 12 p.m.

They persuaded someone to come to the carriage, but she refused to stick her sticker on it. It was, she protested, full of horse manure. “We would have to remove it and no, we were not allowed to put it in the station dustbins. By this time the French horse attache was getting hysterical.’’

Brady, too, was becoming desperate. “I contemplated putting the manure in the boot of my car and taking it back for the roses at the residence,’’ she said. Fortunately, a passing engine driver was bribed, with several “particularly large” melons, to shunt the carriage down the track, where the manure was scraped onto the line.

Having sent her charges safely on their way, Brady ended her memo on an optimistic note. “I have made some useful contacts over the last few days, so the next time we want to import a horse to Russia it will be a doddle.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.