MOSCOW – Eat your heart out, Sarkozy. Stand back, Barack.
Vladimir Putin proved this week that even a gimlet-eyed Russian politician can rise to the status of global celebrity in the multimedia age, as pictures of his bare chest and manly deeds on Siberian holiday caused tongues to wag worldwide.
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 mesmerizing 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.
In recent years he has scolded skinflint oligarchs, rescued doomed factories, flown in a jet fighter, dived to the bottom of the world’s deepest lake and shot a tiger with a tranquilizer dart.
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.
His feats play differently at home and abroad, drawing admiration from an adoring Russian public and scorn from skeptics here and abroad.
“These days, hardly a month goes by without Mr. Putin pulling such a stunt,” Britain’s The Independent harrumphed.
“But while these latest photographs were clearly once again designed to boost the prime minister’s macho image, the cynical observer might wonder if the poses that he strikes aren’t rather more Brokeback Mountain than Jason Bourne.”
The Sydney Morning Herald, perhaps to brighten the Austral winter, focused high in its story on Putin’s wardrobe. “The 56-year-old former president was kitted out in green military fatigues, impenetrable black sunglasses and a green slouch hat,” the paper reported.
The celebrity gossip Web site TMZ went straight for the jugular, in a manner of speaking, commenting cattily on the prime minister’s chest.
“The 56-year-old showed off his weapons of mass destruction – aka his moobs – by riding a horse shirtless while on vacation in Siberia.”
In contrast, some of the coverage of Putin’s trip by Russia’s state-controlled media seemed straight-faced.
The official government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported, without apparent irony: “The river was fast-flowing and full of rapids, but this didn’t scare Vladimir Putin one little bit.”
Coincidentally or not, the trip coincided with Putin’s 10 years in the upper echelons of power.
He was first appointed prime minister by President Boris Yeltsin in August 1999, later elected president, and named prime minister last year by his successor, Medvedev.