President Putin with fish, on the Kremlin website

In the latest in his series of daredevil he-man stunts, Russian President Vladimir Putin has appeared on prime-time news landing an enormous pike during a fishing trip in Siberia.

As usual, bloggers were quick to poke fun at the president's antics and to suggest that the landing of the monster fish was another piece of PR fakery like his "discovery" of a pair of ancient urns in the Black Sea in 2011.

But even as they attempt to ridicule Putin are bloggers unwittingly playing the Kremlin spin doctors' game?

Putin bare-chested on horseback; Putin at the controls of a light aircraft dowsing forest fires; Putin in wetsuit exploring the sea bed for hidden treasures; Putin the birdman shepherding a flock of cranes at the start of their migration to warmer climes - each summer the Kremlin PR machine brings the masses a new Putin adventure.

This year's instalment featured him on board a raft on a lake in the remote Siberian republic of Tyva reeling in a huge pike and helping to subdue it as it thrashed about on the deck.

True to form, the president matched his physical exploits with some quick repartee.

"Watch out, it might bite," warned a fellow angler.

"It will get a biting from me," riposted Putin.

The struggle over, the president raised the pike aloft and planted a kiss on its head.

It weighed in at a massive 21kg, a voiceover from a state TV reporter announced.

As the citizen journalist site Global Voices observed, the TV coverage of the fishing trip and the gallery of photos posted on government websites "sparked off a wave of netizen derision".

One blogger captioned a photo of Putin holding up the dead pike "Lyuda, come back" - a reference to Putin's recent public split from his estranged wife, Lyudmila.

Another made a photoshop mock-up of Putin at a religious ceremony accompanied by the pike dressed in a veil.

Blogger and former TV executive Alfred Kokh took issue with the alleged size of Putin's catch. He calculated the volume of the pike, multiplied this by the standard density of fish flesh and concluded that it could not have weighted more than 10 or 11kg - not the 21kg claimed.

There were also suggestions that the whole trip was fake, with various bloggers pointing out that it did not appear in the president's advertised schedule and that Putin appeared to be wearing the same trousers and watch he wore during a similar jaunt in 2007.

His press secretary, Dmitriy Peskov, rejected the accusations during a radio interview, saying that the watch may have been old but the trousers were new.

Nor was this kind of speculation confined to the blogosphere. An article in the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta wondered how come TV reports of Putin landing the pike did not appear until 26 July, whereas the trip itself had taken place five days earlier.

So, does all this satire and scepticism show the limitations of the Kremlin PR machine and its inability to come to terms with the anarchic world of the internet?

By no means, thinks communications expert and former TV news editor Ilya Kuzmenkov. "The tens of thousands of Moscow humanitarians with nothing better to do than rush to check out the newness of the trouser legs, judge the weight of the fish or disseminate Photoshop mock-ups clearly haven't the faintest idea that this is precisely what this caricature-like episode was designed to provoke," Kuzmenkov wrote in an article on liberal news site Slon.ru.

Moreover, the reason why the story had been kept back a few days, he said, was so that it would remain the centre of attention on Saturday and Sunday when the newswires tend to go quiet.

If this was the Kremlin spin doctors' plan, they appear to have succeeded. The website of the Russian version of the magazine GQ said the fishing trip had indeed been the "main talking point of the weekend".

This may be propaganda, said Kuzmenkov, but it is also "creative and well organised" news-making.

The Kremlin appears to be increasingly relaxed about the how these stunts are viewed by the politically savvy classes. Both Peskov and Putin himself have admitted that some of them (including the ancient urns "discovery") were staged.

But, suggests Kuzmenkov, Putin's PR men are acutely aware that they cannot rest on their laurels: "You need to have new hits every season."

The ‘Putin, the he-man’ series looks set to run and run. 

Putin’s inspiration? Pictures of Prime Minister Harold Wilson on holiday in the Isles of Scilly were a regular feature of the British summer in the 1960s

Comments

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Craig Smith

    on 2 Aug 2013 14:24

    Stephen, very interesting article! And here I thought just the local president in South Africa, Jacob Zuma, faced an unusually high load of satire - e.g. http://www.wonkie.com/tag/jacob-zuma/ - it's seems his PR team may well need to take lessons from Putin's!

    I'm curious to know whether there is any repercussion for local bloggers/ Photoshop enthusiasts in Russia for producing such content. The South African government tends to be a touch over-sensitive on such content (consider, for one, the example of artist Brett Murray's rip-off of Lenin's campaign poster last year - http://www.wonkie.com/2012/05/24/the-spear-of-jacob-zuma-photo/ - government actually pressed charges against the art gallery for displaying the painting). It seems, from your article, that Putin is more inclined to take it in his stride.

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