Portrait of a Predicament: Putin's Face, or Medvedev's?

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

MOSCOW -- During an eight-year presidency, a portrait of Vladimir Putin hung in the office of just about every Russian official, from the Kremlin to the smallest town hall. The president is the boss, and loyalty demands that a picture of the top man be prominently placed on the wall just over the shoulder of the bureaucrat, who sits at an impressive desk.

Boris Yeltsin was summarily de-framed when Putin moved into the Kremlin in 2000. So the ascension of Dmitry Medvedev to the presidency should have seen a mass mounting of portraits of the new man.

But with Putin as the new prime minister, and Medvedev's standing in the power tandem uncertain, officials across the country are stricken with anxiety. After all, they never had to display the picture of a prime minister before.

And who would dare take Putin down?

"More than 1.5 million Russian officials and state company bosses are confused," reported the Russian daily Vedmosti, shortly before Medvedev's inauguration in May. "If there have to be two portraits, how should they be arranged? Who should be on the left and who on the right? And if they need to be hung vertically, who should go above whom?"

Putin has been of no help to the befuddled bureaucrats.

Asked at a news conference before the presidential elections whether he planned to have a portrait of President Medvedev in his office, Putin swatted the question aside.

"To build relations with Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev, if he is elected president, I don't need to hang his portrait," said Putin, who moved to the prime minister's residence, known as the White House, when he took his new post in May. "We have many other means to build relations, working relations."

Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, said in an interview that the new prime minister has not put up a picture of his protege, but he noted that Putin's "permanent office is under construction in the White House, and right now he's working in a temporary office."

"I've never seen any portraits in his working office," said Peskov, suggesting, diplomatically, that Medvedev is unlikely to make an appearance even when the refurbishing is complete.

The newspaper Izvestia, after checking with officials in different parts of the country, concluded that many have made the not-exactly Solomon-like decision to hang both men -- either pictured together or in frames of equal size.

"It's important to keep size parity," noted the newspaper, which quoted a factory director saying "It's not good to enlarge or reduce anyone too early."

Ordinary Russians are also snapping up pictures, according to Maria Valiyeva, who works in a photo shop in central Moscow. "People are buying them for their offices, for presents and for themselves," she said. "We had a couple who bought a portrait of Medvedev and Putin together and the wife said, 'It's for our bedroom.' "

The phenomenon prompted a reporter and photographer at the newspaper Kommersant to put on an exhibition of joint portraits of Putin and Medvedev. The show, which closed this month, was called "Duplication of Identity" and featured 106 shots of the power couple.

Kommersant reporter Andrei Kolesnikov offered some advice to the country's mandarins via an interview on the television channel NTV. "Whose portrait should they hang? Putin's or Medvedev's? Medvedev's or Putin's?" asked Kolesnikov, a consistently wry observer of the new prime minister. "So as not to make a mistake, such a portrait should be . . . one picture and two people."

Some Russians bristle when asked what adorns their walls.

"I am not a teenager," sniffed Sergei Markov, a member of parliament in the pro-Kremlin United Russia party and a longtime political analyst. "There is no obligation to put up a portrait. That is for people who feel they need to prove that they work for Putin and Medvedev. I have no reason to prove this."

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