MOSCOW: Start with manly ventures – flying, hunting, scuba-diving. Add an element of danger – polar bears, tigers, fighter jets. Throw in a bare chest here and there. In Russian politics, President Vladimir Putin is both the star of the show and the stuntman.
Putin’s flight this week in a motorized hang glider purportedly helped young white Siberian cranes learn how to migrate. But it also was the latest in a dozen-year series of telegenic escapades.
Only one crane followed Putin on his first flight, which he attributed to high winds that caused the hang glider to travel faster than usual, the RIA Novosti news agency reported. On the second flight, five birds followed Putin, but after a few circles only two had stuck with him for the full 15-minute flight.
The media events portray him as both exceptionally bold and just a regular guy who enjoys proletarian pastimes like hunting and fishing. Although critics say Putin is tremendously wealthy, his stunts are careful to avoid any suggestion of riches. Putin – unlike John Kerry – will never be filmed going windsurfing.
Putin is even willing to show a vulnerable side. He confessed that the hang glider’s veering and yawing “gets the adrenaline going” and once was filmed being thrown to the mat by a 10-year-old Japanese girl who was a judo expert.
Some of Putin’s notable stunts:
Putin and George W. Bush may have had little in common, but they both understood that showing up in a fighter jet makes a dramatic entrance.
Putin did it first, in March 2000, by flying into war-torn Chechnya in the rear seat of a Sukhoi-27 advanced fighter jet.
Coming just a few days before Russia’s presidential election, the stunt aimed to bolster Putin’s image as the man who could wipe out the Chechen separatists, in contrast to predecessor Boris Yeltsin, who had allowed Chechnya to become virtually independent and gruesomely lawless.
The low point of Putin’s stunts may have been his 2011 scuba dive in the strait connecting the Black and Azov seas. He came up from the dive holding fragments of what were said to be 6th century B.C. Greek jugs, saying “the boys and I found them.”
Critics snorted. The seabed was just over 2 meters deep and the likelihood that the fragments had hidden in plain sight for more than 2,500 years seemed slim. Some joked that Putin’s staff had bought the pottery at IKEA.
A few months later, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov admitted the jug fragments had been planted.
Whatever sleight of hand or outright fakery may be involved in a Putin media moment, he obviously does a lot of the work himself.
That was never clearer than in a 2009 photo of Putin swimming in a Siberian river. He chose to do the butterfly, swimming’s most visually dramatic stroke. Photographers caught his head and torso surging out of the water, his well-muscled arms extended and a look on his face that seemed to express both the joys of exertion and the coldness of the water.
Putin has described himself as being something of a hooligan as a youth and even at the pinnacle of power likes to show a raffish side. He’s made several visits to motorcycle rallies, consorting with brawny and bearded leather-clad bikers.
It doesn’t seem to undermine his street cred when he rides with the posse on a three-wheeler instead of true hog.
Putin appears to have a genuine affection for animals, even being shown cuddling a puppy and getting a kiss from a poodle.
He managed to combine sweetness and toughness in a 2010 trip to the Arctic where he accompanied scientists tracking polar bears.
Kneeling next to a tranquilized bear, he stroked the animal, helped measure it and roll it onto its side.
On his departure, he shook the bear’s paw and uttered: “Be well.”
Like some of Putin’s other stunts, Wednesday’s flights on a flimsy hang glider in Siberia aimed to portray the Russian leader as being concerned about ecological issues.
Critics were unconvinced.
“He’s been ruling this country for 12 years, but a list of his fantasies never ends,” wrote Anton Orekh, a commentator for Ekho Moskvy radio. “This makes me think that he’s made all of his dreams come true and is now merely struggling with boredom.”
But Putin did sidestep a possible photo debacle. Initial reports said he would likely don a fake beak so the storks being trained would think he was one of them.
Huh? No chance.