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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Politics, Destiny, Naked Charisma

"Charisma: a special magnetic charm or appeal," reads Webster's dictionary definition of that most indefinable of political qualities. But in whom is charisma personified in the murky field of Russian politics? Does Vladimir Zhirinovsky spring to mind? Or Viktor Chernomyrdin? Or, for that matter, Yury Luzhkov? For photographer Yevgeny Gabrielev, creator of the "In Search of Russian Charisma" at the Tropinin gallery, they clearly do.

His photo-portraits of all the above, and of worthies such as Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party of Russia, Yekaterina Lakhova, leader of "Women of Russia," and filmmaker and politician Stanislav Govorukhin, are the centerpieces of an exhibition devoted to formal portraits of the charismatic over the last two centuries. Zhirinovsky, bull-necked and imperious, rubs pictorial shoulders with Sergei Kushnikov, feared prosecutor of the Decembrist rebels in 1825. Irina Khakamada, president of the Liberal Womens' Foundation and member of the Duma foreign affairs committee, gazes at Empress Yelizaveta Petrovna, the daughter of Peter the Great who waged the Seven Years' War. Alexander Suvorov, the undefeated generalissimo who fought Turks, Italians and French in the late 18th century, glares at Vladimir Lukin, head of the Duma's committee on foreign affairs. The juxtapositions, say the curators, are coincidental.

"I wanted to introduce the living to the dead," said Gabrielev, who took the photos during the run-up to December's parliamentary polls. "Once politicians have been rehabilitated by time on the walls of a museum, what matters then is not whether they were good or bad, but how they looked."

Gabrielev's portraits have been shot with deliberate gravitas, the subjects all trying, some more successfully than others, to look statesmanlike. The common theme is a plain bentwood chair on which all the politicians sit or lean.

"The exhibition is about distance," explained Gabrielev. "Politicians are often distant from the people. That distance is what I wanted to capture. I wanted to take them out of the context of their immediate time and capture their spirit of charisma. A portrait is, after all, a contact with immortality."

Not all Gabrielev's sittings were trouble-free. Zhirinovsky, for instance, was wearing a casual check jacket and his shirt cuffs were too long, both unbecoming sartorial qualities for a portrait of one of Russia's most prominent statesmen.

"He's not really a check sort of person," said Gabrielev. "We had to borrow a suit from one of his bodyguards to make him look more serious."

Zhirinovsky was also the only politician to have makeup, albeit only a little powder. Chernomyrdin had the shortest sitting, but Gabrielev was told that even 35 minutes out of a busy prime minister's day was quite an honor.

"We chose pictures of people who have contact with historical destiny," said the exhibition's curator, Yulia Volgina, who chose the oil portraits of charismatic figures of the late 18th and early 19th centuries from the Tropinin museum's permanent collection to juxtapose with their modern charismatic counterparts. "Any portrait is incorporated into ... a sort of gallery existing in our consciousness. The genre carries with it some recollections of its own evolution and mythology of one's double acting on its own. The portrait has an independent existence."

The main difference between the oil portraits and the photographic ones is that the splendid outfits and trappings of authority which figure prominently in the former are reduced to the common denominator of plain suits in the latter. "I wanted them to shed their accoutrements," said Gabrielev. "So that I could get to see their charisma naked."

The Tropinin Museum, 10 Shchletininsky Pereulok, metro Polyanka. Open daily noon to 7 p.m., closed Monday. Entrance 5000 rubles ($1.05).

He was helped by contacts with the Duma foreign affairs committee.