What a difference a quarter-century makes. When I covered my first Group of 7 meeting in 1997 in Denver, it was the beginning of a new era. President Bill Clinton, the host, invited President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia to participate and rebranded the meeting “the Summit of the Eight.” From that point on, Russia was part of the club, and the G7 soon became the G8.
Now, all these years later, it is the G7 again and Russia is nowhere to be found for this year’s meeting in Hiroshima, Japan. It was expelled nearly a decade ago for attacking its neighbor Ukraine, a symbol of Moscow’s isolation from the international community. Instead, it is Ukraine’s leader, President Volodomyr Zelensky, who is the guest of the world’s major democracies, sitting at the table where Vladimir V. Putin is no longer welcome.
That first summit meeting with Russia in 1997 was memorable. Mr. Yeltsin was a complicated character. A hero for standing up to Soviet hard-liners and introducing a form of democracy to Russia, however flawed, Mr. Yeltsin was also a heavy drinker and unpredictable guest. During a 1995 visit to Washington, he was found in the middle of the night standing in his underwear on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the Blair House guest quarters, slurring his words and trying to hail a cab so he could get some pizza.
My memory of the Denver summit is that Mr. Yeltsin skipped the evening concert that Mr. Clinton had so carefully orchestrated after the official meetings. Aides claimed he was simply tired. Remembering Mr. Yeltsin’s bouts with the bottle, others thought that maybe there was a little more to it than that. At one point, the local hospital was put on alert by the Russian delegation, although ultimately Mr. Yeltsin was not sent.
Escapades aside, it was a big deal for Russia to be included in the world’s most exclusive club, and even Mr. Putin, the K.G.B. veteran who succeeded Mr. Yeltsin, seemed to value it. Mr. Putin was so excited about hosting Russia’s first G8 meeting just outside his hometown, St. Petersburg, that he rebuilt a 1,000-room czarist palace started but never completed by Peter the Great. Mr. Putin added 20 additional mansions around it to house the visitors when they finally came in 2006. I toured it. It was spectacular.
Mr. Putin’s next chance to host, however, would never happen. Shortly before he was to preside over a G8 meeting in Sochi in 2014, he launched his first invasion of Ukraine, prompting the rest of the club to kick Russia out. Now Mr. Putin is on the outside looking in.