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By John Helmer, Moscow

Once upon a time when the US Government used to plot the overthrow of allied European governments, Ronald Reagan was President, and George Shultz his Secretary of State. On March 25, 1986, Shultz arrived in Athens, intent on delivering an ultimatum for the Greek Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou; Shultz thought he would be a pushover. Either Papandreou would agree to accept an American scheme Shultz aimed to spell out – and humiliate Papandreou in front of his electorate. Or else the US would find a more direct way of removing him. It greatly amused Papandreou to know that Shultz had the Marine Corps insignia tattooed on his buttocks. He could be obliged sit on the vulgarity, Papandreou calculated — but not on Papandreou, and not on Greece. And so it turned out.

Tattoos, the seen and the unseen ones, flash powerful messages like that – even if their wearers don’t quite intend them the way they are interpreted. So what tattoos are worn by Elvira Nabiullina (left) and Ksenia Yudaeva (right), the two officials in charge of the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) this week as they try to stop the run on the rouble and on the state reserves.

Without their tattoos it isn’t easy to take the measure of the two Central Bank officials, or their preparedness for this week’s crisis. Here, for example, is Nabiullina explaining what she was doing last week. And the year before, here is Yudaeva explaining how she makes Russian economic policy to the New York Times.

Several encyclopedias are now available recording Russian criminal tattoos since the 1960s. With an estimated 35 million bodies having moved in and out of prison during the last two decades of the Soviet Union – an estimated 100,000 are in Russian prison at the moment – there has been an enormous stock of body art to record, and decode. For the comprehensive collection by Arkady Bronnikov annotated for meaning, click.

The eight-pointed star which Nabiullina is wearing in the illustration is generally to be found below the collarbone, and on the kneecaps. It symbolizes authority, often supplemented by tattooed epaulettes on the shoulders to convey seniority and rank. A display of stars on the knees means the wearer will submit to noone else’s authority, fall to his knees, etc.

g12The cat family are often depicted in Russian tattoos with grins on their faces, their teeth showing. Such creatures symbolize readiness to disobey, to confront authority, and bite back. In the illustration, Yudaeva is wearing a cat, not a tiger. Such a tattoo signifies resourcefulness. Often depicted wearing boots, the cat means the wearer is ready to make good his escape. It is also the insignia of the professional who operates in the dark, without being seen – a cat burglar. Cat tattoos can also be a warning to others to beware – the wearer is a double-crosser.

The bow tie signifies clandestine entry, clean getaway, no violence. The pipe also means brain over brawn.

On Monday and Tuesday veterans from the Central Bank; visitors to the office of First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov; central European bankers called to Moscow all reported the same thing. The government has lost control; the Central Bank doesn’t know what to do. “Nabiullina and Yudayeva”, judges the Central Bank veteran, “chose the most inappropriate timing to experiment with inflation targeting. The harm they have inflicted is countless. Russia has lost tens of billions of dollars in FX reserves. I do not know whether that was driven by naivety, incompetence, conspiracy, or a combination thereof. But this currency crisis was avoidable. There is not a significant expert who would approve the CBR policy. If the intention was to fill the pockets of the raw materials exporters and to generate revenue for the budget, that was attainable with a swift one-off devaluation, and a re-pegging of the exchange rate at a new, more realistic level. The current CBR policy, however, is lose-lose. Neither inflation control, nor currency stability, plus loss in reserves.”

The tattoo for someone who makes a bad mistake is often displayed where everyone can’t fail to see – on the face, the fingers or the hands.

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