Putin's doubles and the empire's musician
by Stefano Caprio

Many people merge and mix with the figure of the president in economic, military, religious, and social affairs, but also for ideological and cultural reasons.


Over the past few days, Russian President Vladimir Putin has travelled to the Middle East, showing up in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, travelling to countries not bordering Russia for the first time since an international arrest warrant was issued in The Hague, after his first cautious trips to Kyrgyzstan and China.

During his meetings with the leaders of Muslim countries, including his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi, Putin stressed Russia's support for the Palestinian people, battered by the Israelis, despite Russia’s historical connection with the Jewish people.

In addition to boosting economic ties with all the states that are not part of the hated West, Moscow’s main interest remains that of keeping war tensions high everywhere, since the great Victory, which Russia celebrates in ever more enthusiastic ways, does not consist in the defeat of the enemy, but in the continuation of the endless war.

Another reason for Putin's trips, who in the coming days will meet directly with his subjects in a big press conference for the first time in two years, is to reaffirm his physical presence, refuting claims that he has been replaced or “frozen”. This will also give him a chance to personally launch his election campaign three months before his semi-deification on the Kremlin throne.

That Putin uses doubles is nothing new, even though the two years of war have further fuelled this B-movie plot. The story goes back to the start of his presidency, when as early as 2000 the then director of Russia’s Federal Protective Service, Yevgeny Murov, had to convince Russians that Putin did not use human masks.

In 2004, journalists from Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that a "Putin doppelganger" living in Pominovo, a village in the Tver region (where Putin's parents hailed from) offered to sell the "birthplace" of the head of state. The resulting article fuelled the rumour mill.

The doppelganger theory resurfaced regularly in the following years with other journalists, political observers, and social media users, especially when Putin disappeared for a few days, and images of previous meetings appeared on the Kremlin's website.

On several occasions, the president behaved strangely, speaking with unusual intonations, or with a look that was sometimes more emaciated, sometimes too healthy, or even just looking at his watch on his left wrist, when he always wore it on his right.

In 2015, an image of the "original Putin" with six doubles went viral, which journalist Oleg Kashin, who published the pictures, dubbed Govorun (the talker), Udmurt (from the Uralic region, the worst successful), Banketny (receptionist, shaking hands with everyone), Kuchma (for a resemblance to Ukraine’s first president), Sinyak (bruised) and Diplomat (for the ambassadorial pose, with a hint of a goatee).

By 2021, with the spread of the coronavirus, public doubles became almost official and necessary, and in-person meetings took place on opposite sides of very long tables.

Putin's visit to occupied Mariupol last March, talking on the street with the remaining residents, baffled many, even more so when he went to the Caucasus town of Derbent after Prigozhin's uprising, amiably hugging people who huddled around him, an attitude not only against distancing rules, but quite unusual for Putin given his personality.

Denying the existence of doubles is now routine in the weekly statements by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who repeats every time how Putin "smiles and laughs" when he hears such theories.

On several occasions, the president has also stated that the security services have offered him to use look-alikes in dangerous situations, "but I have always refused".

There is no way to verify these conspiracy theories about Putin's doubles, whether he is dead or alive, and it would change nothing to Russia’s current system of power, which is based on a "collective Putin" even more than on an individual one.

The president has many more political and ideological than physical "doubles", from the "dauphin" Dmitry Medvedev, who was president 2004 to 2008, to the head of the security services Nikolai Patrushev, who replaced Putin as head of the FSB in 1999, and has watched over the fate of the country as the leader’s shadow since 2008.

Many other people merge and mix with the figure of the president in economic, military, religious and social affairs, but also for ideological and cultural reasons, making up for the tsar's obvious shortcomings in various domains, like the theological-political rhetoric of Patriarch Kirill, without which Putinite dogma would risk slipping even further away from Orthodoxy than the patriarchal proclamations themselves.

Recently, as the new artistic season got underway in Russia’s great theatres, the star of Maestro Valery Gergiev, another great "Putin double", shone brightly. Director of the Marinsky Theatre in St Petersburg since 2013, he has now realised his dream: becoming the director of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, thus uniting the two main temples of music, creating a kind of imperial directorate of theatres in Russia.

Indeed, not since tsarist time has there been such high-level patronage, projecting Russian politics in the world of the arts. In 2022 Gergiev asked Vladimir Putin for the post, and in just two years he got what he wanted, getting rid of director Vladimir Urin, who is embarrassingly critical of the war in Ukraine.

Maestro Gergiev's imperial vibes are expressed in various ways, not only in music, revealing great synchronicity with the man in the Kremlin. Known for his love of land, Gergiev has acquired large properties around the world.

His possessions are considerable in Russia and elsewhere, but as a true lover of the Bel Canto, his passion is mostly for Italy, a favourite place for Russian oligarchs and Putin himself, who delighted in conversing in Italian with Berlusconi in the latter’s Sardinian villas.

When he comes to Rome, Gergiev stays at a beautiful villa in Olgiata on a five-and-a-half-hectare property, but, depending on the seasons, he might choose to spend time by the sea, at his estate in Massa Lubrense near Naples.

Or he can go to Rimini, where he owns another 30 hectares of land, which is farmed, but also has a baseball field, a large car park, and a theme park for young and old, along with the United Tastes of Hamerica's restaurant bar. Then there is Milan, the city of his beloved La Scala theatre, with 88,000 square metres on the outskirts of the city.

Gergiev also owns the Palazzo Barbarigo in Venice, a 15th century building with an adjacent hotel, as well as a restaurant on St Mark's Square in business since 1775.

These Venetian properties are part of the bequest of harpist Yoko Nagae Ceschina, a countess who had a great passion for the Russian master, so much so that she asked him to scatter her ashes after her death on Lake Baikal, which Gergiev did together with pianist Denis Matsuev.

Yoko was famous for her patronage, and contributed to the development of Russian classical music for decades, so much so that Gergiev always mentions her as his sponsor in every playbill of his performances, and celebrated her in his highly successful book The Symphony of Life.

Gergiev often repeats that "we don't sell opera and ballet like gas and oil", words taken from Putin's election campaign, even though he turns out to be a big turkey and duck producer with his company, Evrodon, through various trademarks.

Putin's most beloved musician-cum-oligarch, and his operatic sublimation, is one of the most representative figures in today’s neo-imperial Russia, forcing the whole world to dance to the beat of his universal baton.