Recently (and dubiously), re-elected Russian strongman Valdimir Putin has long endeavored to paint himself as a tough–even thuggish–macho man. It’s probably the strongest element of his public persona. This is in no small part due to an ongoing PR campaign in which the Russian leader is photographed doing extremely macho things–riding motorcycles, flying a plane, hunting, fishing shirtless, riding horses shirtless, bending frying pans with his bare hands.
The most recent publicity stunt involved a photo of Putin assisting conservation researchers by subduing a tiger with a tranquilizer gun. Only, as it turns out, the photo was completely staged, using a docile captive tiger. Surprisingly, this isn’t the first instance of Putin’s flacks cooking up a stunt like this. In her exhaustive new biography, The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, Russian journalist Masha Gessen recounts another similar incident, in which he was photographed after retrieving two pieces of valuable ancient pottery from the Black Sea. Only it turns out the pieces had been retrieved and cleaned up previously and placed in his hands for the photo. His press secretary admitted the whole thing and was surprisingly casual about it.
In an interview with Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies, Gessen noted that the incident, and specifically the press secretary’s response, is quite telling about the current state of Russian politics.”What he was trying to say, and actually here’s an important point here, what he said when he admitted that the vases had been planted, was that it was a perfectly normal photo op. OK, so we planted the vases for the photo op. And I think that this is actually one of those rare moments when the Russian regime sort of shows how warped its view of the world has become.”