Nigel Jones

    Is Putin using a body double?

    Is Putin using a body double?
    Vladimir Putin in Turkey last month (Credit: Getty images)
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    Ever since his invasion of Ukraine in February, the world’s media has been awash with rumours that Vladimir Putin is seriously – perhaps terminally – ill. There has been constant speculation that the Russian President has cancer, or Parkinson’s Disease, or both.

    Now Ukraine’s Head of Military Intelligence, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, has thrown another rumour into the swirling mix – claiming on TV that Putin regularly uses one or more body doubles, and may even have been impersonated by one of them at his recent summit meeting in Tehran with Turkey’s President Erdogan. As proof of his theory, Budanov cited the shape of Putin’s ears which he claimed has changed over the years, along with his height.

    Ukraine has an obvious interest in spreading stories that the Russian dictator, whose troops have ravished their country, is dead, dying, or unaccountably absent from the scene. The CIA’s William Burns has said there is no evidence to suggest Putin is ill

    But before we dismiss Budanov’s claims out of hand as wishful thinking or propaganda it is worth considering the history of body doubles of leaders, who have in fact been frequently employed – and not just in Russia.

    In 2008 a Russian WW2 veteran named Felix Dadaev published a book – presumably with Putin’s approval – claiming that he had been employed as one of four body doubles for Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Dadaev wrote that his resemblance to the tyrant was spotted when he was badly wounded in the war. Though still in his twenties, his wounds had aged him, and he was selected by the Soviet secret police as a suitable lookalike stand-in for Stalin, then in his sixties.

    He and another body double – known only as ‘Rashid’ – were rigorously trained by Alexei Dikiy, a Soviet actor who had played Stalin in several propaganda films. They learned to mimic the dictator’s voice, walk and mannerisms, and a little light plastic surgery made their appearance convincing enough to fool even some of Stalin’s close associates. Thus equipped, they stood in for him at tedious meetings and appeared at parades when he was only seen at a distance. After the dictator’s death in 1953, Dadaev and Rashid were retired and remained in obscurity until Dadaev broke his silence at the age of 88.

    I met and interviewed another murderous dictator’s double in 1992 while working as a journalist in Austria. An Iraqi man named Latif Yahia surfaced at a press conference in Vienna to claim political asylum with an extraordinary story. An exact contemporary and school friend of Uday Saddam Hussein, the equally brutal son of his dictator father, Yahia’s close physical resemblance to Uday had already been spotted at school. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s he had been hauled out of the army, forced to have plastic surgery to make him look even more like Uday, and employed as the body double of Saddam’s son and heir to impersonate him in his more dangerous public appearances.

    It was a hair-raising experience. Yahia claimed to have been shot and wounded during one of several assassination attempts on the hated dictator’s son, before he fled to join Kurdish rebels after being ordered to take part in a political killing. So successful was his subterfuge that the Kurds imprisoned him thinking he was the real Uday. However, he was finally freed and made his way to Austria. Though doubts were later thrown on aspects of Yahia’s story, I can only say that he convinced me. He also convinced the Hollywood producers who later told his story in the movie The Devil’s Double. He looked exactly like Uday, and I have never met anyone more obviously in fear for his own life than the chain smoking fugitive – he later left Austria for Britain after he was attacked.

    Britain, too, is known to have employed at least one body double of a famous figure. In 1944, an Australian actor named M. Clifton James was serving as a humble lieutenant in the Pay Corps. Many people remarked on his extraordinary resemblance to Britain’s leading Second World War General, Bernard Montgomery, at that time planning the D-Day invasion of Nazi occupied Europe.

    James was plucked from obscurity by MI5 and given a crash course in Monty’s movements, clipped voice and personal habits. Then he was flown to Gibraltar and North Africa in Churchill’s private plane and paraded in public as the General. It was all part of a successful deception operation to fool the Germans into believing that the Allies would land in southern France rather than Normandy. After his few weeks as Monty, James returned to the Pay Corps, only to briefly emerge again when he played himself on screen in the film I Was Monty’s Double.

    Alive and well, dead or dying, genuine or fake – the personal fate of Russia’s leader has as yet made little difference to the course of the grinding war of attrition that the real Vladimir Putin launched five murderous months ago.

    Written byNigel Jones

    Nigel Jones is a historian and journalist. His next book ‘Kitty’s Salon: Sex, Spying & Surveillance in the Third Reich’ will be published by Bonnier next year.

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