Thursday, December 7

Putin’s massive table: powerplay or paranoia?

For those at the top, decor and furniture can be tools to impress, charm, and intimidate.

The terrifying seat of power in Game of Thrones is a towering iron chair, forged from the melted swords of defeated enemies. In the James Bond series, villains are known for decorating their headquarters with shark aquariums.

In real life, however, there is Vladimir Putin and his confusingly massive white table.

Russia’s leader has started hosting one-on-one meetings with foreign dignitaries at a gargantuan oval table, roughly five metres long and held up by three thick pillars. A sole bouquet of flowers rests in the middle.

He is not alone among world leaders when it comes to showy furnishings. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has enough bookcases to rival a small library.

Kim Jong-un at Workers’ party meeting in 2019
Kim Jong-un at a Workers’ party meeting in 2019. Photograph: KCNA VIA KNS/AFP/Getty Images

And during the pandemic, China’s Xi Jinping has taken to hosting video calls in front of an imposing painting of the Great Wall of China.

The former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi held meetings with other leaders in a large and colourful tent, perhaps as a ploy to win them over with hints of his humble Bedouin origins. Gaddafi travelled the world with his tent and pitched it in several cities, including at the Villa Doria Pamphili park in Rome and Donald Trump’s estate in suburban New York.

Hugo Chavez sits with Muammar Gaddafi inside his tent before a summit in Doha in 2009
Hugo Chávez (left) sits with Muammar Gaddafi inside his tent before a summit in Doha in 2009. Photograph: epa/Corbis

The former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad also had an impressive office with an imposingly large desk, although that may have been for other reasons – he is said to have taken afternoon naps underneath it.

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But what is the message behind Putin’s table, if there is one?

On Monday, he hosted Emmanuel Macron at the three-legged colossus. The French president had flown to Moscow with a puffed chest, promising an “intense” talk with Putin, where he said he would seek a “historic solution” to the impending threat of war between Russia and Ukraine.

Yet after five hours of talks at the white table, Macron failed to extract any public concessions from Putin. Speculation has risen that the table was a show of power to subdue Macron, perhaps even the physical expression of a snub. However, it is also possible the mega-table is not making a political statement at all, or if there is one, it is of secondary relevance to Putin’s primary aim: avoiding Covid.

Earlier this month, Putin hosted the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, at the same table. At that time, the message Moscow sought to portray was of close and friendly ties between the two leaders, even if they were sitting shouting distance apart.

A very similar table also appeared pre-pandemic but with several people sitting at it. Today, Putin is clearly using the table to socially distance from foreign leaders, as he does in press conferences afterwards where their podiums are kept unusually far apart.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban give a press conference during their meeting at the Kremlin in the Moscow on February 1, 2022.
Putin and Orbán at a press conference in Moscow on 1 February. Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/AFP/Getty Images

The 69-year-old president is notoriously paranoid about Covid-19 and has largely remained in an isolated cocoon throughout the pandemic, taking measures far beyond his global counterparts.

The Kremlin continues to require those meeting with Putin to quarantine for two weeks despite claiming that the Russian leader has received his vaccinations and booster shot. The requirements can be disruptive. Before the opening of a major art centre in Moscow, the director and main financier were said to have quarantined for two weeks in order to give Putin a short tour of the building.

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There is one person Putin has got close to, despite his Covid concerns. At the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing this month, he and Xi Jinping stood for the cameras within hugging distance of each other, a symbol of their powerful alliance as tensions rise with the west.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Photograph: Alexei Druzhinin/AP

Still, for their sit-down meeting, Chinese officials had arranged for an extremely large dark wooden table to be in place – one even bigger than Putin’s.

The two leaders hold talks in Beijing
The two leaders hold talks in Beijing. Photograph: EyePress News/Rex/Shutterstock

Additional reporting by Andrew Roth in Moscow

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