Did Putin's Piano Playing Carry A Secret Meaning?

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During his time as a leader in Russia, President Vladimir Putin has proven his musical talents on more than one occasion. When he sat down in front of a baby grand while waiting to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Sunday, however, Putin's piano playing was probably more than just a way to pass the time, and it's heightened the interest of people all over the place.

There are a number of signs you can see in the video — the way he negatively (if subtly) reacts to an off-key instrument; his choice of songs, which were all Soviet classics; and his little whisper before shutting the piano and walking away. All of these together, plus the fact that he was playing piano at all, have sparked a number of theories about his choice to give this little recital.

For example, it could have been a veiled challenge to the new French President-elect, Emmanuel Macron, who is also a piano player. Putin also could have been taking the opportunity to make fun of China for having such a poorly tuned piano as a decoration. The Soviet throwback songs were perhaps the most interesting element of the recital, though.

The first, “Evening Song,” is an unofficial anthem of the city of St. Petersburg, although the song's lyrics refer to it as Leningrad, which was its name during the Soviet period. The second was "Moscow Windows," a song about friendship. Both became popular during the late 1950s, soon after Stalin died, when Putin was a child, when the Soviet Union held dominion over many of its surrounding countries, and before the USSR and China started to disagree on the direction that communism should go. The Sino-Soviet split, as it's often called, happened in the early 1960s.

Putin has showcased his musical talents before, most famously when he played "Blueberry Hill" at a charity gala. This was quite a bit less formal, but it still caused quite the ruckus on Chinese social media, as some felt that the Chinese president had been somewhat put to shame. Although it was filmed and then posted online soon after by Sputnik, one of Russia's international propaganda outlets, Putin talked about it as an informal and unplanned appearance.

"It's a pity that the piano was out of tune," Putin said at a press briefing. "It was quite hard to play, even for me, someone who plays with two fingers. I cannot say I played, I was just pressing the keys with two or three fingers."

Even in his brief words on the subject, then, he managed to criticize China on their failure to take care of the instrument while at the same time humble bragging about his ability. When trying to decode Putin's actions, it makes sense to consider the way his predecessors, the leaders of the Soviet Union, acted: Everything was planned, and nothing was without symbolism. So while he may not say up front what he actually meant by playing this piano, it was almost certainly more than just a spontaneous recital.