At first sight, things look very different now. When President Xi Jinping of China took pride of place next to Vladimir Putin of Russia on Saturday, they looked like any other modern world leaders: pragmatic men-in-suits, full of smiles, temporary possessors of power rather than dictators-for-life. Back in 1949, when Chairman Mao Tse-tung paid his first visit to Moscow to celebrate Comrade Joseph Stalin’s 70th Birthday, it was a paean of old-school Communism. Children in Young Pioneer uniforms paraded through the Bolshoi Opera House telling of their ambition to become tractor drivers.

Mao wore a “Mao suit” and Stalin military uniform. Both men looked grumpy.But the two events, six decades apart, have a clear parallel. Once again, the Russia-China axis is the main threat to the West’s vision of peaceful and prosperous international relations. The line-up of leaders alongside the two men was a walking representation of a new anti-American alliance that has formed bit by bit since the invasion of Iraq demonstrated the frightening ease with which Washington could destroy hostile leaders far away. Alongside Mr Xi were Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Raúl Castro of Cuba, Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela: standouts against what Mr Putin called a unipolar world, his code phrase for the spread of western-style democracy. MORE