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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Heads of State




A gray, lumpy, tortured, gouged clay head, with a drooping face that resembles acting President Vladimir Putin's, sits impaled on a spike in an old kindergarten in Western Moscow.


The clay eyes stare with fixed bitterness at the scene around them. Across from the head lay the body parts, which resemble the waxen and clay leftovers from a recent dismemberment - legs, arms and fingers so real you're sure you've stumbled across a murder scene - that populate every corner of the workshop for Moscow's Museum of Wax Figures.


Putin's wax head and body will be ready within the next two weeks, hopefully in time for the presidential elections on March 26. Prior to that, the exhibition will be moved from the workshop to the museum, at 14 Tverskaya Ulitsa.


The exhibit will feature Putin in full judo tackle, in defensive stance in front of what is supposed to be a presidential throne. At his side, Yeltsin will gesture toward the seat he has left vacant for his anointed successor. It promises to be as awesome a paean to Putin's raw power as any we have seen on election-crazy-for-Putin television.


Oddly, however, the statue's makers did not originally intend to dress Putin as though he were getting ready to bust some skulls.


"Judo kimonos are cheaper than the suits Putin wears," said Alexei Afanasov, the museum's jocular, quick-witted and, above all, practical director.


Boris Yeltsin's wax double, too, has suffered from the museum's tight budget - when Yeltsin refused to provide one of his old suits for the dummy, Afanasov dressed the doll in a hospital gown, which it wore for years, although it is now clad in a dark suit.


"Yeltsin's family wouldn't even give us a suit, and we're a little afraid to approach Putin, so put him in the cheaper judo gear, right?" Afanasov said.


Meanwhile, Putin's clay head on a spike, which has so far been inaccessible to photographers, is eerily reminiscent of news footage depicting beheaded and mutilated Russian soldiers who have died in the war that has brought the model for this clay head such popularity.


But Afanasov waved that suggestion away.


"We don't do politics - we do history," he said, adding that the spike is just a skeleton for the neck.


In an age of raw patriotism, Afanasov's assertion might have resembled a smoke screen. But somehow listeners can't help believing this guy. Striding through his workshop in leather motorcycle pants, Afanasov talks of wax figures not as the greenish-blue wax Elvises and Jesuses melting in the sun at some Nashville truck stop, but as high art.


An economist by training, Afanasov visited the world-famous Madame Tussaud's wax museum in London 10 years ago. And things have never been the same since.


"I had to bring this [art form] back to Russia and recreate Russian history in this way," he said."


Indeed, with only 450 figures to Madame Tussaud's several thousand - to say nothing of his budget per figure relative to that of the London museum (Afanasov spends $5,000, Tussaud's $30,000) - he has some catching up to do. Nevertheless, nearly 400 pieces put together by Afanasov's artists have already seen the world as part of a traveling exhibit.


"I think Russia can really show the world how fine wax art is done," he said. "I was not at all impressed in the United States or Europe. Their wax figures have blue skin."


Over the next two months, the rough clay model of Putin's head, which, in all fairness, looks a lot like Putin, will become more and more refined, more like a human being. And the artists will not even require the acting president for a sitting.


"He's running the country, and, you know... ." Afanasov said.


Instead, the artists collected just about every Putin press clipping photo published since his rise to power. The clips cover the workshop's walls floor to ceiling - one included an obviously doctored portrait from Versia of Putin dressed up like an SS officer.


An average head takes about one month to complete, from clay to final makeup, although Peter the Great's flowing mane took more than two months to finish, Afanasov said, adding that it took the museum's hairdressers less than a week to attach Nikita Khrushchev's scant strands.


"Putin's nose is the hardest, and it's impossible to get an angle [on the nose] in a lot of these newspaper shots," Afanasov said. "And he has this weird twisted face - we're not sure if the nose is causing the problem or if it's the bone structure."


After the acting head of state's clay skull has been molded by the museum's sculptors, it will be covered with a special epoxy and dumped into the casting press, which will make a perfect negative image of the head.


Then, molten wax will be poured into the hollow left by the clay in the cast.


As Afanasov's artists let Putin cool his head, it will be put in a glass storage cabinet with other heads, like Putin's, awaiting new bodies and old heads awaiting reunions with old bodies for display at future exhibitions.


At that point, Putin will need glass eyes and hair - real human hair often donated by the museum's fans - that will be sewn onto his scalp follicle by follicle. This process, especially when night falls, can have dire effects on the artists, Afanasov said.


"One woman was sewing hair on the head of Lavrenty Beria, the head of Stalin's secret police, and as night fell and the lamps in the workshop began to dim, she said the head began to talk to her," Afanasov said.


"It told of prophesies regarding Russia and all kinds of things she didn't want to hear," he said. "We switched her with another sculptor."


And it's not hard to see how someone would get the heebie-jeebies.


Among Putin's bedfellows in the cabinet Tuesday were Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Beria, Vladimir Lenin, Ivan the Terrible and Genghis Khan. For good measure, Leo Tolstoy and Alexander Pushkin were also on hand.


But, according to Afanasov, the dictators have their advantages.


"Dictators tended to be short, so it's easier to find clothes for them - a hem here, a tuck there," he said.


"And Putin is no taller than any of these people," he added, letting the question hang in the air for a moment.


Afanasov, however, remembers one time when he and his group went a little too far in taking up the diminutive Stalin's hem-line.


"We were putting up this exhibition of Stalin," Afanasov said. "He was to be in the standing position and we were working under extreme deadline pressure."


The day the exhibition opened, Afanasov recalled, Stalin's left pant cuff was several centimeters too high.


"We could all see his ankles - something that would have got us all shot a few years back."


The Moscow Museum of Wax Figures is located at 14 Tverskaya Ulitsa. Metro Pushkinskaya, Tverskaya. Tel. 229-8552. Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.