March 5, 2014

On that 26-Year-Old "Putin" – Reagan Photo in Moscow

Putin. Putin. Putin. Because, like a bad penny, he’s emerging again, it seemed worthwhile to dust this off.

If you’ve never seen or heard of it before, this photo surfaced in 2009, Obama’s first year in office. Taken by Pete Souza, Obama’s official photographer and Reagan’s at the time the picture was made, the photo shows Reagan meeting Russian tourists in Red Square in 1988 on the occasion of his fourth summit with Gorbachev. There’s a twist though, and it’s a big one. During a long interview after being named Obama’s chief photographer, Mr. Souza insisted incontrovertibly to NPR that the man, far left in the photos, was actually Vladamir Putin. Citing a source in the Secret Service, Souza related that KGB families, pretending to be random Russian citizens, were laying in wait to confront Reagan about the Gipper’s human rights record. Souza claimed that Putin, as a still youngish KGB agent, was part of the ruse, and that Putin’s identity was verified to him, too.

Of course the Kremlin denied that the figure was really Putin, insisting instead that the new Obama administration, given Souza’s encore and the opportunity to rummage through his archive, was just looking to score some cheap points. The “gotcha” is pretty clear, isn’t it? It’s evidence of people who can’t be trusted, their leader not just a phony but a nefarious one.  I wonder if anybody has really thought about the visual symbolism much beyond that, though. It seems disparaging of Putin on still deeper layers. In alignment with the child (both on a physical angle, in terms of facial features and also color tone and dress), there’s the sense he’ll be permanently wet behind the ears, ever the tourist, or perpetually on the periphery as compared to a giant like Reagan.

On the other hand, the photo also reminds me, in an oblique way, of the Clinton/JFK “Boy’s State” photo.  I understand the Clinton image was completely uncomplicated, the plot line there about a youthful admirer inspired toward a high calling. Not exactly a fake tourist undercover in the presence of the legendary antagonist, is it? Still, the photo can be read as placing Putin symmetrically, early in his career, in balance with Gorbachev on the opposite side of the photo (and not nearly overshadowed). It’s interesting too, by the way, how the guy off Reagan’s nose also seems to be looking toward Putin. That guy, I’m petty sure, is Sergey Lavrov. Holding a job with the government in ’88 in international economic relations, he moved on to become Russia’s UN representative. Curiously, sixteen years after the photos was taken, he ended up as Putin’s minister of foreign affairs. In the great tradition of Russian literature, call it foreshadowing.

Another element here, and it plays to Putin’s strength (or, at least, his strong DNA) has to do with Putin’s enduring vigor. Most twenty-six year-old photos would leave a person a little dispirited for the loss of their youth and/or their looks or vitality. If anything, this photo suggests how minor a factor age seems to play when it comes to Putin. This timeless quality (given Putin’s ability to keep coming back through the revolving door) can actually lend some mythology. Finally, the subterfuge of playing the tourist might be classically Putin. That he’s actually acting here in the presence of the famous American actor, and the fact it’s obscured because Reagan sucks up so much oxygen, seems spot on. Where Reagan played his movie star charm and charisma to the hilt, perhaps Putin’s act is about being enigmatic.

But then, the most ingenious thing about the photo involves the question of whether that really is Putin or not. Along with the news stories in ’09, there was some skepticism. (Along those lines, you don’t have to know Greek to find these other sightings rather hilarious.) Referencing an actual photo of Putin in the same era (Putin would have been 36 in the Reagan photo), many cite that “the Putin” in the Reagan photo has too much hair. Others point out how remote it would be that the real Putin, a mid-level functionary tucked away in Dresden at the time, would be either be here in Red Square or even plucked for the role. All told however, the photo is compelling for reasons that have little to do with its underlying accuracy. What it still picks up about the man is endurance, star power, skulduggery and the lens close at hand.

(photo: Pete Souza/White House. 1988. Moscow)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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