Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bizarre displays of machismo may get more laughs than his efforts at humor. That, at least, was the case with the giant pike that Putin supposedly hooked in the remote Siberian region of Tuva.
On July 26, the Kremlin released a video of Putin pulling a large pike out of a lake, lifting it by the gills and tenderly kissing it on the cheek. Presidential press secretary Dmitri Peskov had a whole story to tell the public about the catch.
According to Peskov, for a long time Putin had no luck at Lake Tokpak-Khol in a remote corner of Tuva, bordering on Mongolia. Then a gamekeeper suggested he use a locally made spoon lure called the Czar Fish, and it worked a small miracle.
The gamekeeper “said he had never seen anything like it,” Peskov said. “Putin caught a pike that weighed more than 21 kilograms. It took him 30 minutes to pull it out.” As Putin lifted his catch out of the water with a hoop net, the gamekeeper cautioned him that the pike could bite.
“I’ll bite it myself,” Putin quipped, according to Peskov.
That may explain the kiss in the video.
Peskov said the pike was made into a delicious meal.
The fish story is clearly aimed at bolstering Putin’s support in a country with an estimated 25 million fishing enthusiasts. It could also easily backfire.
Popular blogger Andrei Malgin published a mini-investigation of Putin’s fishing vacation. Pointing out that the trip wasn’t on the president’s official schedule, Malgin dug up old photographs from previous Putin trips to Tuva that he claimed looked remarkably similar to the newly released pictures.
“Doesn’t it look to you as if we are being fed canned food stored up some years ago?” Malgin asked his readers.
Others agreed, pointing out similar details of his outfit.
“What if Putin has been dead for years and we don’t know?” one reader wrote in the comments.
Other bloggers noted that Putin is wearing a watch that looks exactly like the one he gave to a gamekeeper during a previous vacation.
“The clothes are new, and the watch is exactly like the one he had back then,” Peskov responded. “He gave away the original watch and then bought exactly the same kind for himself because he is attached to it.”
On the clothing and the watch, it was Malgin’s word against Peskov’s: The press had not been invited for the unscheduled Tuva trip.
The giant pike was another matter. Experienced fishermen, even those sympathetic to Putin, simply could not believe it actually weighed 21 kilos — about 46 pounds.
“Here’s what I think about the pike,” pro-Kremlin columnist Maxim Kononenko wrote in his blog. “Any fisherman can see that it simply cannot weigh 21 kilograms. For one thing, fish of that size are extremely rare. For another, it would be up to two meters (6 feet, 6 inches) long and you’d be able to fit a bucket in its mouth.”
Kononenko suggested that the scale used to weigh the fish was marked in pounds rather than kilograms. If it read 21, that would mean the pike actually weighed about 9.5 kilograms.
Alfred Kokh, a deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin, took a more scientific approach.
“Putin’s height is 175 centimeters maximum,” he wrote on Facebook. “Approximating the pike to a cylinder with a diameter of 10 centimeters and a length of 120 centimeters — a complimentary assumption — we calculate the volume of the pike to be 9420 cubic centimeters, or roughly 10 liters.”
Kokh’s post received almost 1,500 likes.
Again, Peskov had to defend the president.
“I was especially amazed at blogger Kokh, who, if I am not mistaken, wrote that the fish could not have weighed 20 kilograms,” he told the Russian News Service. “I was personally present at the weighing, I saw the scale, and it really was over 20 kilos.”
By then, the fish’s size and the circumstances of its capture hardly mattered: The Kremlin was on the defensive. In 2013, Putin is no longer a recent underdog turned national leader. He is a dictator who has been in power for 13 years, and at least as many people mock him as admire him. He needs a change of public relations strategy no less than his country needs some change at the top.
Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View.