Is anybody here in charge?

One of Washington’s odder practices, redolent of the Third World and its autocratic leaders, is having standard-issue portrait photos of the current president plastered all over federal government buildings and offices.

It smacks faintly of political idolatry, but more to the point: Do the people who place these photos think that federal workers might not know who is president or what he looks like? And it’s not like the photo is an enduring honor because, when the administration changes, the old guy is gone and the new guy’s face is up over night. Somewhere, in an Indiana Jones-like government warehouse, there have to be huge crates of Bill Clintons and Ronald Reagans gathering dust.

We can see the point of having the portrait of the current Cabinet secretary hanging in the departmental lobby. Millions of people, including perhaps the people who work there, have no clue who is running the place. Be honest: With the exception of a super-celeb like Condoleezza Rice, you and I couldn’t pick the Bush Cabinet out of a police lineup.

In Washington, playing musical photos with outgoing presidents is a harmless way of marking our changes in leadership, but in other parts of the world this is serious business, one might even say deadly serious business.

Russian bureaucrats are facing an excruciating dilemma, affecting about 1.5 million offices, according to Peter Finn, The Washington Post’s man in Moscow. When Boris Yeltsin departed the Kremlin, his photo, much like the American custom, was gone the next morning and up went the hard stare of his successor, Vladimir Putin.

Now Russia has a new president, Dmitry Medvedev, but Putin stayed on as prime minister and perhaps is the power behind the throne or a large leather swivel chair or whatever.

What is a bureaucrat to do? Hang Medvedev and risk offending Putin? Cop out and hang both? But Finn quoted a Russian newspaper, "If there have to be two portraits, how should they be arranged? Who should be on the left and who should be on the right? And if they need to be hung vertically, who should go above whom?" Entire careers are riding on this.

Russian leaders have a way of falling in love with power — certainly Putin did — and Medvedev may decide he doesn’t need help governing the country. His minions might come hunting for bureaucrats who hung Medvedev’s photo in an inferior position or on the wrong wall.

A hint of trouble to come is that Putin has not hung a photo of Medvedev, the former president basically saying he already knows what his protege looks like. The official explanation given to Finn is that Putin’s office is still under construction.

We might snicker at the plight of an apparatchik perspiring in indecision, but official photos played a significant and sinister role in the old Soviet Union and the country does appear to be reverting to those autocratic ways.

Under Stalin, officials who had fallen out of favor were airbrushed out of official photos. They were erased from not only the photo but from this mortal coil as well. After Stalin it wasn’t quite so bad. The missing official would occasionally turn up later, perhaps working in a remote Siberian power plant.

The interim solution seems to be to hang a picture of the two leaders together and these photos are proving suddenly popular. Finn talked to a clerk in a Moscow photo shop who said, "We had a couple who bought a portrait of Medvedev and Putin together and the wife said, ‘It’s for our bedroom’. "

President Medvedev, I think we may have a lead on what’s behind Russia’s plummeting birth rate.


(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)