Why did Vladimir Putin go to work for the KGB? Same reason any of us do anything: He saw a movie.
The Russian president was reportedly inspired, at least in part, to get into the repression and spook biz after seeing Dead Season, a 1968 Soviet spy flick directed by Savva Kulish and starring the Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis as a James Bond-esque intelligence agent. When Banionis met Putin at the Kremlin, the actor asked if it was true that his character influenced his choice of profession. Putin laughed and said, “Yes, I suppose you can say that.”
The acclaimed Soviet-era actor died Thursday at the age of 90, and Putin expressed his condolences to Banionis’s son: “Russians sincerely share your deep sorrow,” he said in a message. “We all remembered and loved Donatas Banionis, valued his talent, amazing acting technique and personal charisma, and his inimitable theatric and cinematic works.”
Of course, long before Putin was the Crimea-annexing, Ukraine-invading, gay-rights-allergic leader we’ve come to know, he was a KGB officer. (Here is a photo that quite possibly captured a young Putin spying on President Reagan in 1988.) Putin still defends the Soviet intelligence service, even excusing its role in Josef Stalin’s purges.
As for Banionis, he appeared in more than 70 films, though he is best known to Western audiences for his starring role in Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic Solaris. In 2013, he was honored with the Lithuanian National Prize for his contribution to the arts.