It was a blustery October morning when the Queen touched down at Vnukovo Airport, on the outskirts of Moscow. Clad in a fur coat and clutching a bouquet of flowers, she walked down the rows of Russian soldiers, marching under the banner of their newly-independent republic. This was 1994, and the Soviet Union, that had dominated a sixth of the world since before she was born, had collapsed just three years earlier.

The trip was the first time a British monarch had visited Russia in almost a century, since the murder of her first cousin twice removed, Nicholas II, and the Romanov family by the Bolsheviks. “We realise that she would never have visited a Communist country,” a spokesman for then-President Boris Yeltsin said. For the crowds who turned out to greet her, some leaning over the barricades to shake her hand, the visit would have seemed to draw a line under an era of isolation and class struggle.

As a teenager, Elizabeth II saw fascism drag Europe into the bloodiest war in history. After it ended, for four decades of her seventy-year-rule, Communism cast an iron curtain across the continent. During her reign, Britain gave up or lost control of its colonial possessions, from Africa to East Asia, and entered a twilight era in which it has struggled to work out what its role really is. 

And yet, even while anti-Royal sentiment has at times gained traction in the UK, she has often been admired far more abroad than she was at home. During her decades on the throne, the Queen was head of state of 32 separate nations and, as head of the Commonwealth, the ceremonial leader of 56 states. From Canada to Cyprus, Kiribati to Kenya, she drew flag-waving crowds wherever she went, becoming a unifying symbol that countries wanted to associate themselves with long after the days of empire.

However, it isn’t just the countries touched by British imperialism where she held sway. “I was always told to mind my manners at the dinner table in case I ever had the chance to eat dinner with the Queen,” one Russian friend recalls. “She seems almost like my grandmother – very sweet and kind.” Pop-art portraits of Elizabeth II adorn the walls of bars in places like Moscow and Istanbul, while Netflix series The Crown saw more than a hundred million people glued to the drama of her uniquely eventful life. 

In Russian, she is known as “Baba Liza” – or “Granny Liz” – a mark of endearment that shows just how many felt like they almost knew her. “She looks very cool. She is a symbol,” one Moscow student told Reuters during the Platinum Jubilee celebrations earlier this year. “I respect her for everything she has achieved.” Meanwhile, Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has even previously said he wanted to model himself after the perennially-popular Royal, who drew massive crowds onto the streets during several visits.

It seems paradoxical that a hereditary monarch could become synonymous with freedom and liberty in countries that have long since ousted or executed their own kings and queens. However, Elizabeth II’s appeal was precisely that – a living testament to the possibility of having power and giving it up for the good of the people. In places where politicians seek to consolidate their holds on the levers of the state, controlling more and more of their citizens lives, the idea of a sovereign who was born to rule refusing to overstep the boundaries is a unique occurrence.

Likewise, the fact that she was a woman, and an elderly woman in her later years, added to her status as an example of what power could be, if only it weren’t so often synonymous with force, terror and corruption. Republics like Russia, Turkey and China are no more democratic for having gotten rid of their own royal families, while Britain is often seen as synonymous with freedom and human rights. To have presided over that, in the eyes of many outsiders, makes the Queen exceptional.

For those who, often understandably, don’t trust politicians, Elizabeth II was also a symbolic leveller. No matter how big your mandate, no matter how many legions of spies or armies of tanks you command, you would have to bow or curtesy to this 5’4 great-grandmother, a reminder that nobody truly ever has a monopoly on power.

Tributes following her passing have quickly poured in from around the world, with leaders rushing to praise her decades of service. In an age where democracy seems increasingly under threat around the globe, her seventy years of wielding power with deference, responsibility and an abundance of caution may be an unfashionable example, but it may ultimately prove to be a powerful one.

Write to us with your comments to be considered for publication at letters@reaction.life