When Putin met Reagan

Did this photo show Putin, as undercover KGB officer, meeting Ronald Reagan?

In May 1988, President Ronald Reagan travelled to Moscow for his 4th summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviets prepared a grand welcome; buildings across from the Kremlin were repainted, streets repaved and trees and flowers planted along the boulevards. The president’s schedule included attending the Bolshoi Ballet, speaking to students at Moscow’s State University and visiting Danilov Monastery, while First Lady would tour Leningrad.

The visit was not without its own share of diplomatic incidents. When the president’s advance team asked the Russian Orthodox Church to pave the way to the Danilov Monastery so that the president could arrive in the limousine, a clergyman retorted that “One does not ride to see God. One walks either upon his feet or upon his knees.” The First Couple took an unscheduled walk through the Arbat, a Moscow shopping pedestrian street, when security police rushed in and roughed up a throng of onlookers, including children. “It’s still a police state,” Reagan was heard to say. Because he wore no ID badge, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater was pursued by security personnel on his way to a Kremlin dinner. Reagan gave Gorbachev a copy of the movie Friendly Persuasion, whose screenwriter was blacklisted in the 1950s for suspected communist sympathies, and the 77-year old president dozed off during the performance at the Bolshoi and Secretary Gorbachev had to wake him with a tap on the shoulder as the curtains were coming down.

The most telling incident was only revealed 20 years later. In the above photo, the man with the camera around his neck standing behind the boy was presemed to be the Russian leader Vladimir Putin. He was pretending to be a tourist on his capacity as a KGB agent. On that day, on the Red Square, Gorbachev introduced Reagan to various tourists, who asked the American president pointed questions about subjects such as human rights in the United States. The photographer of this picture, Pete Souza, turned to the Secret Service and commented, “I can’t believe these tourists in the Soviet Union are asking these pointed questions.” The agent replied, “Oh, these are all KGB families.”

Pete Souza, the official chief White House photographer for Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama administrations, remembers:

“In 1993, I published a book of photographs (’Unguarded Moments’) from my tenure at the White House during the Reagan administration. Some ten years later, I received a random letter in the mail from someone who asked if I knew I had captured a picture of Reagan and Vladimir Putin as shown on page 145 in my book. (Putin had by then become the president of Russia). I was astounded by this letter.

No one could definitively say whether it was Putin. In 1988, Putin was in fact in the KGB, though he was apparently stationed in East Germany.”

The Kremlin, however, had denied that it was Putin.

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