Was Russian President Vladimir Putin spying on former US president Ronald Reagan as a KGB agent when he was in his 20s? Social media users have been left puzzled and asking the question ever since a man resembling Putin was spotted shaking hands with Reagan from 1988 photograph resurfaced and went viral a couple of days ago.
The photograph in question was posted by none other than former White House photographer Pete Souza earlier this week who left it to his millions of Instagram followers to judge for themselves if Putin was spying on Regan. Unable to find out the truth behind the claim, users have now been flooding Souza's Instagram account with the same question.
What the Photograph Shows
The photograph posted by Souza, who worked at the White House under the Reagan and Obama administrations, was taken during Reagan's visit to Moscow in 1988 and appears to show a young Putin posing as a tourist to get close to the US leader. It was posted earlier this week ahead of President Joe Biden's summit meeting with Putin in Geneva.
The photo shows Reagan extending his hand to a young boy while accompanying Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on a tour of Red Square in the spring of 1988. Behind the boy stands a blond man dressed in tourist garb and with a camera around his neck who bears an unmistakable resemblance to a young Putin.
Soon after the photograph was posted a story supporting the photograph started getting circulated. Well, it's common knowledge that Putin was long-serving KGB agent during the former USSR, but it was also being claimed that Putin was actually spying on Reagan during that visit.
This is not the first time the photograph has surfaced. It was seen as recently as in 2018 but at that time not too many people raised the question.
Writing alongside the striking image, Souza detailed the story behind it and the reasons that have led him to believe the man pictured is, indeed, Putin. In fact, the debate has its roots in Souza's book. Souza liked the photo so much that he included it in a book of his images of the 40th president called "Unguarded Moments," which was published in 1993.
"Some ten years later," Souza recalled on Instagram. "I received a random letter in the mail from someone who asked if I knew I had captured a picture of Regan and Vladimir Putin ... I was astounded by this letter."
Although, Souza wrote a detailed note, social media users still failed to get a clear idea about the authenticity of the claim. Fact is that, the photograph is real and is also quite renowned now but everything about Putin being in that photo remains in doubt.
According to Souza, he contacted the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California as well as a National Security Council official in the George W. Bush administration in an attempt to confirm the blond tourist's identity, but could not do so.
However, to some extent Souza too has to take the responsibility behind people questioning if Putin was spying on Reagan. In fact, in 2009, shortly before Souza started in the role as chief White House photographer, he told National Public Radio: "As soon as you see the photo you go, 'Oh my gosh, it really is him [Putin]'."
But he cleared the doubt to some extent this week on Instagram. "A big mistake," Souza wrote. "I never should have said that, because in fact it had never been verified." The Guardian at that time had reported that Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had bluntly denied the photo showed the future Russian leader, telling reporters: "It's not him."
That said, Souza too has a valid reason for doubting the person in the to be Putin. A month after enquiring about the photo at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Souza received a postcard of the photo at his home address.
He recalled on Instagram that the Putin doppelganger was circled in red marker and someone had written the word "spy" with an arrow pointing to him. Souza then handed over the postcard to the Secret Service, but heard nothing more of it.
Moreover, official records further clear the doubt. Going by records, Putin was a KGB agent based in Dresden, East Germany, during the late 1980s. It's unclear why he would have been asked to go to Moscow, even for a major event like the Reagan-Gorbachev summit, when there were already other senior KGB agents in the Soviet capital to carry out whatever work was required.
However, even then there is still no clarification from the Secret Service about the person in the photograph.