Putin the modest
Here we see Putin’s gift for politics in the widest sense, as in the ways in which you convince other people to like and cooperate with you. Confronted with the equation, Putin plays everyman—he doesn’t understand mathematics, advanced or not; and so he humbles himself—far from his own equation, as you might, barely, think he will do at first, Putin draws a small cartoon. Self-deprecation and humility before the mathematicians, no false claim to parity—Putin bows to the academicians.
Yet so humble is Putin that he even bows to the artists—he is no cartoonist either, not even a doodler (on Kremlin-headed notepaper). So the doodle is signed with a long and elaborate signature, more artistic and beautiful than the doodle itself—“a Putin original, a first print!”, such ironic self-deprecation; it’s two-fold. There is no suggestion that Putin, as “Tsar”, will lord it over the minions. He is applauded…for the joke, for his humility (he allows himself a small smile at the well-executed joke at his own expense); it’s not like when Stalin picked out a tune on the piano and Shostakovich was expected to say, “An excellent rendition…subtle, and quite moving.”
It is inconceivable that Kim Jong-un, for example, could undertake a similar act. The Kim family cannot afford ironic self-deprecation—it would be more likely that the equation on the computer whiteboard would be claimed as an invention by “the eternal genius of Kim Jong-il”, something that Kim père knocked out in between directing an epic war film, fixing the national economy, and repulsing Yankee imperialism.
It’s how you know Putin is no tyrant—he is willing to engage in ironic self-deprecation, he doesn’t take himself *that* seriously; and tyrants take themselves as a serious proposition at all times—“paramount leader”—because it’s how their legitimacy is built (to risk an ironic crack at themselves would break the whole facade—it would suggest the Kim family isn’t “the eternal and undying genius of the Korean nation”; and, once one crack appears, the whole myth is in jeopardy).
The face is Putin’s. What do we see? We see, I think, a rather nervous and unhappy face, with somewhat shy eyes, that has decided, nonetheless, to smile. This is Putin. The whole act is somewhat a mistake—to me it says that Putin is, as the kids say, *shook* (due to the Prigozhin putsch). Putin feels a bit bashful, a bit ashamed he slipped up so badly—he’s not in a confident mood. Really, the whole scenario, while he can risk it, points to a man who is out of his groove and a bit uncertain—a bit coy and reticent (not his usual confident self).
However, I would also say that this reflects Putin’s natural personality (spy). He is a bit bashful and coy—a wallflower, I think. Somewhere there is a collection of clips where Putin is “socially awkward”, goes in for a handshake but finds no hand to reciprocate—or is left to wander, like a hapless teenage romantic at a school disco, alone at an international conference. Despite being president of Russia, he’s somehow overlooked by the popular kids.
Compare Putin to Lukashenko—the automatic designation for Lukashenko is “uncle”; and he is avuncular to the core, this bear-like man is huge and exuberant—we have the impression of a man who enjoys large sausages and bouncing his nieces on his knee. There is no way you could ignore him at a party because he is a mountain of a man who would seek you out and offer a crushing handshake (he is as large as the staple Belarusian export, the tractor—nay, a combine harvester).
When Putin plays “Davey Crockett” in the wilderness he emulates in a clumsy way what Lukashenko is naturally—Lukashenko would naturally gather together “the boys” to go on a fishing expedition with a cooler of beer (perhaps a balalaika to play by the campfire—he’s not afraid to play and sing; no self deprecation, because Uncle Luka can pick out a tune, in his competent rough way, and you feel you have to go with it; even if you don’t like campfire songs).
Putin, meanwhile, would be too awkward to know how to begin—would go alone, or with one other carefully chosen companion. Although forgotten now, at one point Putin was compared in popular media to “Dobby the House Elf”—a melancholic and self-pitying creature from Harry Potter, with slightly watery eyes. The comparison has fallen off—yet there is more than a scintilla of truth to it, Putin the melancholic greyhound.
The incident reveals that Putin is off his stride, to even do it shows that he wants to demonstrate weakness (show us his wounds, he is melancholic but he has to smile; it goes with the territory)—not a positive sign in a leader (other than the fact, not being a tyrant, he can risk it).
Post-putsch, Putin has been engaged in efforts to bolster his authority—he spoke before the army on Red Square (pissing on the Moscow lamppost—since he fled as Wagner approached, he needs to refresh his scent); and, around the time this “equation” incident took place, he held a public rally—surrounded himself with screaming post-menopausal fans waving flags (because there were people on the streets for Wagner, even when it was a risk—because Wagner has genuine popularity).
Overall, this is an insight into Putin’s normal personality—which is far from domineering—but also an indication that he feels insecure and wounded after the Prigozhin betrayal (because Prigozhin can do what he wants, even kill Russian soldiers and get away with it—which means he is the real Tsar now).