The other day I was watching a video of an old American jazz TV programme, first shown in the early 1960s, in black and white. It was a group from the West Coast, in California. The only famous musician in the group was tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, though I did recognise all the other musicians except the drummer. Vince Guaraldi on piano. Monty Budwig on bass. But the drummer? Well, the camera took its time about focussing on him, and when it did, I got the shock of my life. It was the young Vladimir Putin on drums. I watched the whole thing through and it seemed very like Putin to me, even if the end credits claimed it was someone called Colin Bailey.
Since then I have seen Mr Putin’s face in some very unexpected places. He turned up last week as an extra in the very funny film “Best In Show”. I have seen him playing football for Estonia against England. And I spotted him briefly in the French Open tennis crowd at Roland Garros Stadium. Those flat-topped, slightly Slavic features are hard to mistake, though how he gets to so many different places is beyond me to understand.
At the start of June I even saw him getting out of a big plane in Germany to attend the G-8 summit, and even though the commentator assured me that this was the man himself, I was beginning to lose confidence by now. The other times I had seen him he had looked quite sure of himself, even smiling occasionally. Here, on state duty, he had looked rather uncertain of his role. He did not smile. He made no attempt to meet people’s eyes – indeed, standing at the top of the plane’s ramp, he had cast his eyes down and would not even look out for a quick panorama of the place he had just come to. How unlike our own Tony Blair, who was pictured next bustling out of his plane, spraying eye contact all over the place, smiling fit to bust and shaking everything that looked like a hand.
It was round about that time that I looked up a brief biography of Vladimir Putin on the Internet. I was also toying with the theory at the time that Putin might have had something to do with Princess Diana’s assassination, and wanted to see if the date of his coming to power matched with her death. (It didn’t.) But while I was at it, I read the resume of his life and was surprised by one or two things.
His fluency in German, for a start.
His fondness for judo, even more. He has always, it seems, been active in the sport and has now reached the level of Black Belt, which always sounds pretty good.
His religious convictions, inherited from his mother.
And a rather fishy episode, in which the suspicion of plagiarism passed over him. He had to complete a dissertation for some diploma he was working towards, and it now seems likely that a good chunk of this dissertation was lifted, word for word almost, from an American essay already in print (and in Russian translation). However, adds Wikipedia, although such a theft of first hand material would be considered a great crime in the USA, The Russian attitude to plagiarism is much more relaxed.
(I have never completely understood the thinking behind the wickedness of plagiarism. If you steal a person’s words, I am told, you are heinously guilty, but if you just steal their ideas, that’s fair enough. Hmmmm . . . I had not realised till I read the recent obituary of comedy writer Dick Vosburgh that his brilliant pastiche of the Marx Brothers in the play “A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine”, had been sued by the Marx Brothers estate for plagiarism. It was a hopeless case, because Vosburgh had not used any Marx Brothers material at all. He had made up all his own dialogue and jokes in their style. What he had NOT made up was the idea of three brothers called Groucho, Harpo and Chico. But they couldn’t get him on that . . .)
I expect you are wondering by now just what I am leading up to. Am I going to suggest that Mr Putin all down the years has held down a great many different jobs to keep things ticking over, from film extra to jazz drummer? Am I going to suggest that in order to safeguard the bodily health of the Russian president, a great many Putin look-alikes have been circulated in the world? Am I going to propose, perhaps, that a great many people in Eastern Europe look a lot like Vladimir Putin without even trying?
You don’t trap me that easily.
I know what happens to people who criticise Mr Putin.
I’ll leave it to you to speculate.
I’m going back to the French Open tennis to watch the men’s semi-final between Federer and the Russian player Davydenko.
Who, come to think of it, keeps reminding me of someone . . .
The Oldie June 2007