Uncovering Putin's anthropological roots

Issue Number: 
Matt Taibbi

I remember being in the Moscow Times newsroom many years ago and spotting an Itar-Tass photo of former President Richard Nixon, who at the time was visiting Russia, in what was doubtless some last quixotic tribute to his own eroding memories of the good old red-baiting days. For some reason, Nixon on that trip decided to visit an abattoir. The photo showed Nixon smiling in a row of soon-to-be-slaughtered pigs. The caption, in Russian, read: "Nixon s leva" ("Nixon on the left").

That was a quality piece of journalism that went unnoticed in this country, and it's too bad. Fortunately, the newer era of Russian-American relations now has its own scandal surrounding a presidential likeness: The Putin-Dobby scandal.

This story has been puttering around the edges of the mainstream media of late – scoring hits in the Globe and Mail, the BBC and Radio Free Europe, as well as Ekho Moskvy and Novaya Gazeta – but is not likely to go any further, unless one of the big American papers rescues its flagging momentum.

Basically, the issue here is that a certain elf in the loathsome Harry Potter movie called Dobby has been rendered to look more or less exactly like Vladimir Putin, except that Dobby is green and has huge bat-ears. According to some news reports, the Russian government is considering legal action against Warner Brothers, claiming they improperly used the likeness of Vladimir Vladimirovich as the inspiration for the character.

I can't stand the Harry Potter series, but I made it a point to take a look at Dobby, just to check this story out. That's because the issue of Putin's face has personal significance to me. I've actually spent nearly three years trying to figure out just exactly what it is Putin's face reminds me of.

I feel quite certain, in fact, that I have conducted the most elaborate examination to date on the question of who or what Putin looks like. Those who doubt me are free to look at my library records; I've withdrawn dozens of books in a frantic attempt to nail this question down.

There is no question that the Dobby discovery is an important advance in the study of Putin's facial identity, probably the most important since the (ultimately misleading) discovery of a likeness to Prince Mikhail Tverskoi.

Whether Putin looks like an elf, whether he looks like the Western understanding of the fictional creatures, or whether mankind simply wants its cinematic elves to look like Vladimir Putin is a question that scientists will ultimately have to resolve.

I, for one, am not hopeful that the Dobby incident will bear any real scientific fruit. I've long believed the key to Putin's facial ancestry lies elsewhere. For some time now, in fact, I've been focusing on four or five promising models.

Among contemporary figures, there are several who bear striking resemblances to the Russian leader. The Jewish-American actor Norman Fell, best known for his role as the creepy landlord Mr. Roper on the sitcom "Three's Company," is strongly Putinish in the eyes and forehead, and in his youth was, minus the mustache, almost a dead ringer for Putin. Famed prosecutor and true-crime author Vincent Bugliosi, the man who put away Charles Manson and wrote "Helter Skelter," once looked a lot like Putin – but only, oddly enough, for a brief part of his career, in between the Manson case (which aged him considerably) and the release of his more thoughtful second book, "And the Sea Will Tell." Last, but not least, a colleague of mine at Cambridge University assures me that data is currently being collected on the resemblance between Putin and Indian-diaspora cricketer Nasser Hussain. The results of that research are currently being peer-reviewed, but I feel certain that a strong correlation will be proven there as well.

All three men shared the same distinguishing features with Putin: Thinning hair, dark, crater-like eye sockets, a sloping face, a distantly gorilloid nose, pursed lips and an occasionally vacant expression.

There is a suggestion in the appearance and joint professional profile of the four men of a common human ancestor, a sort of armed-landlord-prosecutor prototype, but further investigation along those lines will likely prove to be an unusually ridiculous waste of time.

On the other hand, I think there are legitimate reasons to look for Putin's roots not in other human ancestors, but in the non-human hominids of prehistory. Indeed, I feel it is possible that Putin himself represents the evolution of an entirely separate, and not wholly human, species.

He may even be the sole living specimen. Perhaps only one lives at a time. There is almost no doubt in the paleo-anthropological world today that there was a period of Earth's history in which there were enormous numbers of creatures that looked like Putin. The fossil record shows sharply Putin-like characteristics in all of the ape-like hominids that existed during the evolutionary time frame between Zinjanthropus, a small-brained, semi-erect ape that lived some 3.5 million years ago, and homo habilis, the first homo species.

All of these animals had the low foreheads, deep eye-sockets, hunched shoulders and awkward upright locomotion of the current Russian president. The distinctive sloping jaw was the result of a dental structure that favored back-tooth grinding, as opposed to the ripping and tearing motion favored by modern humans, which have larger front teeth. The relatively small cranial vaults of these species were designed to hold brains that were anywhere from 450-800 cubic cm, or in the general range of the modern gorilla brain or Republican presidential candidate. There are no reliable estimates of the size of Putin's brain.

I personally believe Putin is a descendant of a recently discovered animal called Kenyanthro-pus Platyops, or "flat-faced man from Kenya." This animal was an evolutionary anomaly, having a much flatter face than the contemporary Australopithecus animals, as well as the small ear holes and molars of later homo species. However, it was extremely primitive in other ways, being much smaller and more unsure of itself upright than the australopithecines, which proved to be an evolutionary dead end.

In short, Kenyanthropus did not hear very well and could not see far beyond where he stood. It would have been powerful for its small size and would have needed its wits to maneuver around larger hominids. This sounds a lot like Putin.

There is something very basic and primordial about Putin's face. Like a horseshoe crab, he seems refined by millions of years of sculpting sea tides, which washed away everything but the most necessary features of a streamlined predator. Psychological literature is full of stories of people haunted by nightmares and visions of missing links, many of which, I think, looked like Putin. I don't think Putin is some new form of elf. I think he has always been with us, and I'm glad he's suing.