Putin strips for stardom, again

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with a horse during his vacation outside the town of Kyzyl, Siberia, on Monday.  AFP

Two state-owned Russian television channels launched the frenzy Tuesday night, broadcasting video of Putin’s gym-toned arms chopping through the water in a butterfly stroke and others showing him riding bare-chested on horseback.Within hours, everyone from the BBC to the tabloids seized on the story, apparently grateful for a bit of middle-aged beefcake in August, the slowest of news months. Moscow invented the cult of personality, and Putin has long been touted as a kind of post-Soviet superman here.
But what did the rest of the world find so mesmerising about pictures of a 56-year-old politician stripped to the waist, rowing a raft, fishing, snapping bits of wood and going for a swim? After all, Putin is not nearly as buff as Barack Obama, who made headlines of his own in December when he was snapped shirtless in Hawaii. Perhaps it was the notion that a former KGB lieutenant colonel regarded as the shadowy power behind President Dmitry Medvedev’s throne would bare much, if not all, for the cameras. “I know what Vladimir Putin did last summer,” Canada’s National Post crowed in its headline.

“Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sure does love the spotlight,” the Post declared. “... There are enough photos here that the former KGB agent could easily put out a calendar.” “Rootin’ Tootin’ Putin,” the New York Post trumpeted, alluding to Putin’s resemblance to the grizzled cowboys in Marlboro cigarette ads. The Guardian in Britain edged toward psychoanalysis in an article headlined online: “Vladimir Putin’s tough-guy swimming technique.”

Putin’s butterfly stroke, the Guardian scribe wrote, evoked the fragrant atmosphere of the locker room.

“It may have a fug of raw, sweating masculinity about it, but it’s also the most irritating of all strokes. It’s splashy and unsociable, an uncompromising stroke that pays no heed to the elderly gentleman choking on chlorinated backwash in the neighbouring municipal lane.” The photo extravaganza was only the latest stunt intended to keep Putin in the Russian public eye.

It wasn’t even Putin’s first topless wilderness photo op: Similar pictures were produced during a 2007 summer fishing trip to Siberia with Prince Albert II of Monaco.

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