A Revealing Sign of Our Problem

Did no one in the Kremlin see the connotation of inaccessibility represented in this image?

Aleksey Nikolsky/Sputnik

It is hard to comprehend the scale of Russian Army atrocities committed in Ukraine. Most of the world has been shocked at this former superpower’s ruthless barbarism. But the signs of Vladimir Putin’s cruel and medieval view of politics now seem everywhere.

I keep going back to the above photo of Putin meeting with subordinates. The original image taken by Russian journalist Aleksey Nikolsky perhaps two weeks ago was put out by the Kremlin and the nation’s Sputnik news agency. Most news platforms ran this strange curiosity at some point, stunning many in the free world with what first seemed like a visual joke. But the photo is apparently all too real: a vivid representation of what it looks like to live in isolation. Only those in the Kremlin seemed to miss its tragic/comic absurdity. They had what Kenneth Burke called the “trained incapacity” to not notice.

Presumably Putin and his flacks at the other end of the enormously long table were still in the same time zones. But its sheer length makes it clear that this small man wishes to sit alone, communicating his need to remain separate, special, and not to be trifled with. The idea that he could have implicitly sanctioned the use of the image must have sent cold chills down the spine of anyone who understands the nature of leadership in contemporary terms, where the goal of managing others means appearing to be first among equals: someone willing to listen, but not the voice of God. No wonder online memes had fun with several outrageous backstories to explain the scene’s ludicrous proportions: perhaps Putin was at a very long sushi bar on a slow night, or perhaps he was seated at the front of an entire bowling lane that had been refurbished as a table. I imagine the space as a good representation of a waiting room outside one of the Circles of Hell.

It was funny when movie mogul L. B. Mayer set up his office desk on a platform a considerable distance away from where people entered. It is classic Hollywood lore that he apparently wanted actors seeking more money to be humbled by the long walk. But this is obviously more consequential and disturbing.

Pathetically, this seems to be how Putin understands the nature of his ‘leadership.’

Did no one in the Kremlin see the implication of inaccessibility represented in this image? Were they culturally blind to modern notions of leadership, which typically emphasize meeting peers in the same intimate space? Some wag suggested that the distance was intentional in case someone at the other end had a firearm. I suspect the truth is more mundane. Pathetically, this seems to be how Putin understands the nature of his ‘leadership.’ Mixing with others is clearly not his thing; nor does he apparently feel the need to share even a nominal public distance with others that interpersonal communication researchers tell us is about four feet. At times Donald Trump had the same creepy instincts, presumably to avoid having to touch another person.

True, in organizing meetings it is customary for a leader who wants to control the flow of information to sit at one of the two heads of the table. Leaders who wish to dominate will want to own the geography at one end. Notice that in this image, the bureaucrats have mostly seated themselves in the ‘inferior’ positions along the table’s length, and far away. It is easy to fantasize a trap door near Putin’s chair in case anyone dared to join him by sitting up close.

In short, the photo shows us how an authoritarian mind is blind to the ideas of inclusion and shared decision-making. What we see in the photo is the bureaucratic face of the men in the palace planning atrocities to be carried out on Ukrainian streets.