When Putin met 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. 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. 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.” Because he wore no ID badge, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater was pursued by security personnel on his way to a Kremlin dinner. The 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 the current Russian Prime Minister (and former president) 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 is the official chief White House photographer for Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama administrations. The Kremlin, however, had denied that it was Putin.

Yeltsin on a tank

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Diane-Lu Hovasse/AFP/Getty Images

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Itar / Tass / Reuters

On August 19, 1991, the hardliners of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, led by the then-Vice President Gennady Yanayev, put the pro-reform General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest. The party also sent tanks to suppress the people’s revolts for democracy.

At that critical juncture, Boris Yeltsin, President of the Russian Federation, defied the hardliners. He made a speech from the turret of a tank, calling on the military to refrain from firing on the people. The Communist hardliners originally planned to occupy the Parliament at 3 a.m. on August 20, 1991. The plan was aborted after the Alpha Group, an elite unit of the KGB, refused to follow orders. In the defeat of the August Coup, the consciences of KGB agents played an important role–some KGB agents had their weapons aimed at Yeltsin on the tank but refrained from firing.

From the moment he scrambled atop the tank, it was clear Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin knew how to seize the day. Russia’s first freely elected leader in 1,000 years, he was the man who consigned the Soviet Union to history’s dustbin, and one who drove Russia’s chaotic transformation into a fledgling democracy during the ’90s. To cope, Yeltsin turned to vodka. After lunch during an official visit to Germany in ’94, he snatched the baton from a conductor and began to lead the band. A 1996 bypass operation seemed to check his drinking, but his health remained precarious. Public opinion turned against him as crime flourished and tycoons took control of state assets. By the time he resigned in 1999, the elements of suppression he fought were already returning. When he died in 2008, Bill Clinton remembered, “Fate gave him a tough time in which to govern, but history will be kind to him.”