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Did Vladimir Putin party in Alaska during Exxon Valdez spill cleanup?

In this Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to the media after his talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk, Belarus.

ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO, POOL, FILE/AP

By ALEX DEMARBAN | Alaska Dispatch News, Anchorage (TNS) | Published: April 27, 2015

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Tribune News Service) — A recently published account of an Alaska sea captain's extraordinary life is filled with tales from a man involved in some of the 20th century's most historic events. Among them: an account of Vladimir Putin, future Russian president and then-member of the KGB, coming ashore in Seward after arriving to monitor a Russian crew involved in the Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup in 1989.

But is the tale of Putin's Cold-War-era trip to Alaska just a fable from the sea, spun by a captivating raconteur? A Russian expert, for his part, says he’s not convinced. But the captain's wife, a co-author of the book, insists the tale is true.

“The Adventures of Captain Jack Johnson” unfolds in rich detail in self-told accounts of Johnson’s eventful life, including the Alaska sailor’s voyage as a young crewman in 1947 on the Exodus ship considered key to Israel’s birth.  

Several decades later, that trip led to an exhibit about Johnson in the Alaska Jewish Museum, and personal thank-you's from Benjamin Netanyahu that made the news when the mariner visited Israel in 2007.   

But the meeting with the Israeli leader was just one of several accomplishments for the beloved globe-trotter from Kodiak, who first went to sea at 13 in 1939. Johnson died last March at the age of 87, shortly after the book was published.  

In one of his vivid stories, Johnson describes meeting another man destined to become a world leader — a young Vladimir Putin. After the book was published, that story attracted the attention of the FBI, who sent an investigator to Seward to learn more, said Johnson’s wife, Iris, a co-author of the book with Pamela Doerr.  

As Jack Johnson told it — a story accompanied by photos in the book — Vladimir Putin came to Alaska in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, a decade before the eventual Russian president appeared on the public stage.

A KGB agent at the time, Putin’s cover into the country -- Johnson contends -- came thanks to a Soviet recovery vessel, the largest used in the cleanup. The Vaydaghubsky was a 425-foot skimmer the USSR offered to assist with the troubled response in Alaska.

Thanks to Cold War tensions, the Soviet crew and the Vaydaghubsky -- its mouthful of a name takes various spellings in historical accounts — faced an extensive review by federal officials, including the U.S. Coast Guard, before it entered the country. It didn’t arrive in Alaska to help until nearly a month after the March 24 disaster, with Seward as its staging area, according to the federal on-scene coordinator’s review of the spill.  

Johnson says he became a pilot on the ship because of his knowledge of the Russian language, something he began learning as a child born to Russian Orthodox parents. He describes the ship’s initial struggles to suck up the thick crude, and his own efforts to counter portrayals in the media that the Russian ship offered little help to the cleanup cause.

The story takes a dramatic turn after the skimmer fills up with crude recovered from Wide Bay west of Kodiak Island. That’s when word spread among the crew that a KGB agent was coming aboard to “monitor things.” Morale sank like a rock, Johnson said.  

Sure enough, a plane landed nearby on calm water. The ship sent a vessel to pick up the man, who was Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, according to Johnson.

“When Putin came aboard, he introduced himself to the captain, the engineer, and me,” Johnson told the authors. “I introduced myself in Russian, but he spoke very good English, so it wasn’t difficult to carry on a conversation with him. We got along famously, but the crew never did recover its cheerfulness.”

With people on the ship avoiding Putin, the eventual Russian president spent much of his time on the bridge, talking with Johnson and others there, Johnson says in the book. The two men connected over Johnson's service in the Soviet Army at age 18 during the end of World War II. “Putin thought it was outstanding I was in their Great Patriotic War,” said Johnson.   

When the ship returned to Seward to discharge its crude, Iris Johnson, the ship’s agent, offered to host a party for the foreigners at the Johnson home.

It was at that party that Iris Johnson took pictures of the guests, including the alleged KGB agent. Party-goers noticed that the man had “charisma” and even “sex appeal,” the book recalls. Two photos of the man are included in the book, including one where he’s smiling charmingly at the camera, cocktail in hand.

Iris, who read palms at the party for fun, was surprised to hear herself telling him: “You are going to advance to high places.”

Reached by phone in Seward, Iris said the guest was “polite, smiling and attentive” and very happy when she told him he was headed for great success. “Whether you believe in such things or not, I was listening to myself talk as though it were someone else," she said, describing the palm-reading. "I had never had that experience."

The man was coy. “I spoke to him and said, oh, something to the effect, 'what do you do?' He was immediately evasive, so I dropped it.”

The encounter took on new meaning 10 years later, when Boris Yeltsen appointed Putin as acting prime minister, a step on his way to the Russian presidency.

Jack Johnson, seeing news accounts of the new leader, immediately recognized the man he’d interacted with at length on the bridge, said Iris Johnson.

But was it Putin?  

Unlikely, says Paul Robinson, a Russian scholar with the Center for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa in Canada. 

Putin was a German language specialist with the KGB in Dresden in 1989 when the Berlin wall fell, said Robinson. The Soviet Union had several agents in East Germany at the time. While Putin was not top-ranking, it’s hard to imagine he would have been asked to travel to Alaska that year, he said.

“I’ve never heard anything about it, or any suggestion he went anywhere near Alaska,” said Robinson.

Today, commercial flights from Germany reach Alaska in fewer than 10 hours over the top of the globe. But in East Germany, a quarter century ago, the path to Alaska likely would have been across the USSR behind the Iron Curtain before crossing into Western Alaska, an extensive trip, Robinson said.

“How he would have gotten from Dresden to Alaska and back again, and in that particular year, it doesn’t seem probable,” Robinson said.

And what about the black-and-white photos, sent by Alaska Dispatch News to Robinson?

“To me it didn’t look like him,” Robinson said. “(Putin) had sort of a skinny face when he was younger.”

Johnson’s story attracted the attention of an investigator from the Alaska State Troopers. Lt. Michael Duxbury visited the Johnson house last year after the book was published, Iris Johnson said.  

Duxbury returned a second time with an FBI investigator. The men were concerned that perhaps the KGB agent had entered the U.S. illegally, said Iris Johnson.  

They took photos of the inside of the house, to line up details to help ensure the photos were taken there, she said.

“They said, 'can we see the room where you took the photos,' ” Iris Johnson said. “They snapped pictures, which I realized after the fact, was done so they could line up the doors.”

What impressions did the investigators leave with?

Duxbury did not return phone calls seeking comment.

"Troopers do not have any information or commentary to provide on the book claiming Putin was in Alaska," said Megan Peters, public information officer for the troopers.

Iris Johnson said the story of Putin’s visit is true. Her husband had a photographic memory and spent a lot of time with the agent.  

“It’d be completely inane for Jack to invent this story,” she said. “It is true. For instance I think I’ll make up a story. You just don’t make up the story with world leaders, they were either there or were not there.” 

©2015 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska)

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