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To what extent is it possible for us to see what lurks behind the faces of Russia’s power elite?

Among the exhibits of the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci on display at the Louvre since May, there is a selection of four grotesques by the master.

It is said that Leonardo’s keen ability to see unusual faces led him to arrange parties for villagers. He would ply them with alcohol, food and entertainment, and, as they enjoyed themselves and grew less inhibited, he would sit down to make his sketches. Although Leonardo denied any intention of exhibiting these faces for derision, the subjects would hardly have felt complimented. There they are, with bulbous lips over toothless gums, protruding jaws, rotting teeth, deformed noses, humped backs, misshapen breasts, cauliflower ears, unkempt hair and leathery skin.

These days, we are able to see in Leonardo’s freak show the combination of genetic traces, organic pathologies, inadequate nutrition and premature aging, not to mention poverty, that were the causes of what Leonardo observed. Five hundred years later, of course, we are better off. Thus, in a recently issued calendar photomontage of Russia’s leading citizens, their portraits selected for their birthdays, day by day, no one should make a comparison between what Leonardo saw and what is depicted in Maximov’s calendar.

Still, one is bound to admit to something like the curiosity that impelled Leonardo, as well as to something like the old-fashioned idea that physiognomies reveal character. Perhaps, if we study the faces of Russia’s oligarchs, we may get an insight into what inspires them.

President Vladimir Putin has had more of an opportunity than most of us to study the mug shots. But, when he was asked at his June 20 press conference what he understood about them, he replied that he wasn’t sure and that he needed help to be certain of what can be seen.

“You know, I don’t really like the word ‘oligarch’ used to describe big-business representatives in Russia,” the president said. “In the sense in which we usually use this word, an oligarch is a person with stolen money who continues to plunder the national wealth, using his special access to bodies of power and administration… I do not see anyone who acts in this way.”

The key word is “see.” We all know what it is to look. But to interpret, recognize, understand -that is what is meant by “seeing.” According to Putin, he is confident that he can see behind the visage: “Perhaps some of them try [to plunder]. Probably everyone involved in business always looks for ways to earn more money and to do this as effectively and cheaply as possible. Society’s task, our common task – because both the state and the media should keep a very close eye on this – is to make sure this situation does not arise in the country.”

Naturally, we can’t claim to have Leonardo’s eye. What is there to say, for example, about the portrait of Unified Energy Systems CEO Anatoly Chubais for June 16, hands clasped in front of his face in a gesture of reverence and prayer, neck buried in his shirt, lips pursed nervously, eyes straining to see ahead? Is he still trying to plunder the national wealth, using his special access to bodies of power and administration?

Leonardo would doubtless acknowledge an interest in the balding cranium of the head of the Presidential Administration, Alexander Voloshin. But, apart from the tracing of a carefully groomed beard, what marks him as out of the ordinary? Should a close watch be kept on him? Or is that what he is doing to us?

Then there is Alexander Khloponin, ex-Norilsk Nickel chief executive and currently governor of Krasnoyarsk, staring modestly, shirt open, tieless and chinless, on March 6. And, on March 16, we have Pyotr Aven, frontman for the Alfa Bank group, whose distinguishing features are a pair of large spectacles and immaculate teeth. All these men lack the grotesque features that would have attracted Leonardo. The same can be said of the other well-known Russian oligarchs. So, what is it about their ordinariness that should attract our attention?

Not much, the president intimates, so long as their power to extract wealth is regulated by the state, under observation by the media. “Concerning the influence of big business on the country’s life,” the president added, “it’s difficult, really, to imagine how it could be any other way in a country that has a market economy and has large companies… If we look at the question from an optimistic angle, the big companies that work within the law are working for the good of the country… They could be an example for many other sectors of the economy. In this sense, of course they have an influence on the economic and political life of the country.”

But what protects the state and the media from the effects of the concentration of such wealth? How is it possible to defend against plunder? To this, the president replied that “This is why we have democratic institutions such as the parliament and the courts that act in accordance with the Constitution. This is also why we have the mass media.” And, to emphasize that he was not talking about future goals, Putin added, “It is my deep conviction that over these last years, this much-talked-about idea of keeping the various representatives of business at an equal distance from the political authorities has become reality. As for those who do not agree with this position, it’s like they used to say: There’s neither sight nor sound of them now.”

It isn’t clear whether the president’s last remark means that those who disagree are blind or deaf to the new reality, or whether the president cannot see or hear what they are doing. Seeing into this system and not simply looking at its physiognomical results is a more complicated task than Leonardo could manage. But, then, who can tell if the grotesque has become so normal that we can no longer see it?

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