MOSCOW—Last summer, Russian president Vladimir Putin, who was then still technically prime minister, put on a wetsuit and diving gear, and dove into the Black Sea, where he stumbled upon an ancient urn. It was the beginning of the end for Putin, image-wise. His previous stunts—personally putting out forest fires, tagging whales with a crossbow—were ridiculous, yes, but his deep sea discovery smacked especially of a light insanity. It didn’t help when Putin’s press secretary flippantly admitted the obvious: The urn had been planted. This stunt was not Putin’s standard macho fair; this was the stuff of informationally isolated, slightly off-kilter Central Asian dictators. (“What’s next?” a friend of mine wondered. “Is he going to go into a planetarium, and discover a planet?”)
Those concerns for Putin’s mental health were quickly drowned out by matters of high politics—by his bold announcement that he would be coming back for a third term as president, by marred parliamentary elections, and by a wave of unprecedented protests and a resurgence of civic activism. On May 7, against a backdrop of violence, Putin was inaugurated a third time and seemed to fade from public view. No bold pronouncements or policy roadmaps, no shirtless stunts.
Until yesterday. Moscow awoke to news that their president was going to don a white coat, a helmet and a beak, get in a hangglider, and lead a pack of endangered Siberian cranes (Grus leucogeranus), bred in captivity, on a test flight.
It’s hard to recall a time when a Putin stunt produced such widespread, hysterical laughter. The Russian-language internet, still the main forum of public discourse, crackled with laughter at the president’s expense.
“Let’s get one thing straight: I’m the alpha crane,” quipped the political cartoonist Sergey Elkin. (It was a reference to the Wikileaks cable where Putin was described as an “alpha dog.”)
Gleb Pavlovsky, who helped Putin win the 2000 presidential election and was spotted among the protesting masses on May 6, posted this image on his wall, archly noting that the planned stunt looked like the painting of Russian primitivist Pavel Leonov, called “Brave Russian Icaruses, in Alliance with the Eagles, Save People of Good Will From Predators.”
Victor Shenderovich, once a kind of Russian Jon Stewart, wrote the following on his Facebook wall: “A few journalists have already called me for comment, but when they get to the subject on which I am to comment, ALL of them started cracking up. And that, I guess, is my comment.”
KermlinRussia, the wildly popular Тwitter parody of the Kremlin, quipped: “The Kremlin press service doesn’t know what other signal to send to Russian citizens so that they finally understand that the national leader has finally gone batshit crazy.”
Most of the other jokes are hard to translate or would take too long to explain, but it should tell you something when a major Russian news portal reports on its own staff trying to make up witty limericks about the presidential flight.
This morning, on his way to the APEC summit in Vladivostock, Putin arrived at the aviary in Yamal, had some tea with the ornithologists, donned a white suit and a helmet. In the end, there was no beak, and the images were quite sedate. There was a strange video of the president sitting, arms folded, and warmly eyeing the cranes to the awkward sound of the creaking hangglider.
But the damage had been done. Putin, who is known to think these stunts up himself, was once a man feared and reviled—for his KGB background, for his posh lifestyle, for his vindictive, aggressive style. Now, even as his state turns the screws on the opposition, he is seen as a ridiculous man, deeply out of touch not only with the political reality, but with reality in any wider sense of the word. If it is better to be feared than loved, it is definitely better to feared than laughed at.