The largest country in the world can sit around a wooden table, although very large. Placed in a Kremlin meeting room, the 20-foot (six-meter) conference table rose to fame when a camera captured Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, seated at opposite ends during a a meeting. The photo spawned numerous memes, including one in which the two leaders played badminton across the table, and became a symbol of Russia’s growing estrangement from the West even as the French president was making a last ditch effort to prevent war in Ukraine.
A Kremlin spokesperson said the seating arrangement was necessary to protect Putin’s health as Macron refused to get tested for Covid in Moscow. Yet less than two weeks later, Putin was sitting at a small coffee table with Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister at the time and an ally of Putin.
The Kremlin’s most famous table has been linked to Putin since he became president of Russia, but it was actually made in Italy. When the photo of the Putin-Macron meeting was published, a Spanish cabinetmaker quickly claimed to have made the table, but the world soon learned that it had in fact been made for the Kremlin in 1995 by Oak, an Italian firm of furniture. Owner Renato Pologna produced sketches of the table and a certificate signed by Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation, along with documents revealing the dimensions of the table and that the top is made from a single piece of white lacquered beech decorated with gold leaf.
The large white conference table was not the only Italian-made furniture ordered by the Kremlin. Renato Pologna told Reuters news agency that shortly after the break-up of the Soviet Union, officials in the Russian Federation began researching what the Grand Kremlin Palace looked like before the 1917 Revolution in order to that he can regain his pre-Stalin glory. The furniture designs were sent to Oak, which billed the Kremlin $20 million for the commissioned reproductions. Pologna says Russian authorities scanned all the furniture with giant scanners to check for hidden microphones.
“Its magnificent!” Yeltsin said in July 1999 when he first saw the renovated palace, according to a report by EL PAÍS. Determined to restore the greatness of the tsars, the Russian president had spent a fortune on renovations to the Kremlin. The Grand Palace had been built for Nicholas I as the residence of the imperial family in Moscow. Important spaces like the Sainte-Catherine room have been scrupulously restored, but some have lamented the questionable aesthetics of other renovations. “It’s not just bad, it’s monstrously bad,” Russian architectural historian Alexei Komech told The Guardian. “The marble and malachite columns look like something you would see in a restaurant.”
The pharaoh-sized enterprise was also fraught with other problems. In September 1999, the BBC and other international media reported that Swiss and Russian prosecutors were investigating alleged bribes paid to Kremlin officials by Mabetex, the Swiss company responsible for restoring and furnishing the Grand Palace. and other Kremlin buildings. According to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Oak was also implicated when investigators suspected he had laundered money for Russian officials. The scandal affected President Yeltsin himself when it emerged that his daughters had used credit cards paid for by Mabetex.
By the time Russian prosecutors closed the case, Yeltsin had left his palace. On the last New Year’s Eve of the 20th century, the Russian president announced his resignation in a surprise televised address in which he introduced his successor, Vladimir Putin, a virtual unknown until his appointment as prime minister a few months earlier. “The state will stand firm in protecting freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press and private property,” Putin promised in his first speech as president of the Russian Federation. Russia, against the background of sparkling lights of Christmas trees.
Putin’s huge conference table and others placed around the Grand Palace are there for intimidation. Putin seats unwanted visitors like Macron in the Siberia conference room, a tactic he has used with other European leaders like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. But when Putin met Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, they were seated in the middle of the table rather than at opposite ends.
Whether or not the Kremlin uses conference table seats to send political messages is never accidental in the movies, where villains and heroes are always poles apart. In The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), after trying to throw him into a pool of sharks, the evil Stromberg places James Bond alone at the other end of a huge table under which he hides a gun. Other films have depicted two diners sitting at opposite ends of a table to represent a lack of communication. In Citizen Kane (1941), Orson Welles depicts the unhappy marriage of tycoon and wife showing them arguing over breakfast at a table that gradually gets longer over the years.