Did Ronald Reagan bump into future Russian President Vladimir Putin by chance more than 30 years ago?
Former White House photographer Pete Souza is letting Instagram users judge for themselves.
Souza, best known as the man behind the camera during Barack Obama’s two terms at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., posted the snap earlier this week ahead of President Biden’s summit meeting with Putin in Geneva.
The photo shows The Gipper extending his hand to a young boy while accompanying Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on a tour of Red Square in the spring of 1988. Behind the boy stands a blond man dressed in tourist garb and with a camera around his neck who bears an unmistakable resemblance to a young Putin.
Souza, who worked as an official White House photographer from 1983 until the end of Reagan’s administration, liked the photo enough that he included it in a book of his images of the 40th president called “Unguarded Moments,” which was published in 1993.
“Some ten years later,” Souza recalled on Instagram. “I received a random letter in the mail from someone who asked if I knew I had captured a picture of Regan and Vladimir Putin … I was astounded by this letter.”
According to Souza, he contacted the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California as well as a National Security Council official in the George W. Bush administration in an attempt to confirm the blond tourist’s identity, but could not do so.
Reports indicate that Putin was a KGB agent based in Dresden, East Germany, during the late 1980s. It’s unclear why he would have been summoned to Moscow, even for a major event like the Reagan-Gorbachev summit, when presumably there were enough KGB agents in the Soviet capital to carry out whatever work was required.
In 2009, shortly before Souza started in the role as chief White House photographer, he told National Public Radio: “As soon as you see the photo you go, ‘Oh my gosh, it really is him [Putin]’.”
“A big mistake,” Souza said on Instagram this week. “I never should have said that, because in fact it had never been verified.” The Guardian reported at the time that Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had bluntly denied the photo showed the future Russian leader, telling reporters: “It’s not him.”
The tale took another turn a month later, when Souza received a postcard of the Reagan photo at his home address. He recalled on Instagram that the Putin doppelganger was circled in red marker and someone had written the word “spy” with an arrow pointing to him. The photographer said he handed the postcard over to the Secret Service, but heard nothing more of it.
That dovetails with another memory Souza has of that long-ago Red Square excursion. As he recounted to NPR in 2009, the purported tourists Gorbachev introduced Reagan to asked the US president pointed questions about US issues. According to Souza, he turned to a nearby Secret Service agent and said, “I can’t believe these tourists in the Soviet Union are asking these pointed questions.”
“Oh, these are all KGB families,” the agent responded.
The mystery is likely to remain unsolved absent a full and frank statement from Putin himself, which seems unlikely to happen. However, the tantalizing possibility of a chance encounter between once and future leaders will ensure Souza’s photo is endlessly studied.