THERE is an old Russian proverb that says: ‘The man who stole an altyn is hung, and the one who stole a poltinnik is praised.’
No, I haven’t a clue what a poltinnik is either. Or an altyn. According to my Russian dictionary, the phrase roughly translates as ‘The bigger the bollox you are, the better chance you have of getting away with it’.
If ever there was a politician to whom this proverb royally applies, it’s Vladimir Putin. Not that anyone is suggesting he’s a bollox. Criticism is not something the leader of post-Soviet Russia takes kindly to.
Today is the 96th anniversary of Russia’s first official May Day celebration. At the height of Communism, the workers’ holiday was a massive affair, with parades and party officials waving to the crowds from the top of Lenin’s mausoleum. Today, the president is more likely to be photographed frolicking in the snow with puppies than praising Comrade Ilyich and grimly nodding at passing tanks. Poor old Lenin. He must be spinning in his mausoleum at the antics of some of his successors, most notably Putin.
Vlad governs Russia with the panache of a vaguely likeable Bond villain. You could imagine him turning up at your wedding with a date half his age, dancing ‘Gangnam Style’, and then picking a fight with the best man. His most recent photo-gaffe occurred in Germany when he was accosted by a protestor with ‘Fuck dictator’ scrawled across her naked breasts. Vlad bore the expression of a pleasantly-surprised factory clerk doing a Benny Hill impression.
It was the latest in a line of mad photos stretching back to his succession to Boris Yeltsin in 2000. If Boris was all Russian bear, then Putin is all ‘bare-chested’ Russian. His most infamous snap was taken in August 2009, when he was ‘spotted’ shirtless, riding his horse in Siberia. In fairness, for a man in his late 50s, his moobs were defying gravity.
It’s not just horses he’s been photographed with. Putin is great with wild animals too — particularly journalists. He once shot a tiger with a tranquiliser gun after it ran at some hacks during a conservation photoshoot. Afterwards, he fixed a GPS transmitter to the tiger’s neck. In 2010, he was snapped sticking a radio beacon to a polar bear. Now he can track their every move. The bear and the tiger, that is. Not the journos. That’s the KGB/FSB’s job.
As a former spy, Vlad is a crack shot with a gun. He’s so good that he gave Russia’s Olympians a marksmanship display at the 2012 biathlon championship. He also donned his judo gear to demonstrate a throw-hold. He’s always at that: flinging people around the place. Word to the wise: don’t ever shake his hand.
Vlad frequently likes to remind us that he’s a strong-arm man. In 2011, he was photographed attempting to bend a frying pan and arm-wrestling a giant at a youth forum. Did he win? Does it matter? Who ever heard of Irish politicians arm-wrestling? Maybe with pints in the Dáil bar.
Remember the pictures of a pissed Yeltsin conducting the German police choir? Vlad has a musical ear too. In 2010, he was snapped playing ‘Blueberry Hill’ on the piano at a charity concert for children with eye diseases. One wag sniped that it would have been better if it had been a school for the deaf.
Yeltsin was a notoriously bad flier (google ‘Shannon, Albert Reynolds, 1994’). Vlad, on the other hand is king of the cockpit. He’s been pictured winging it in a motorised hang glider and, in 2000, flew over Chechnya in a two-man fighter jet. Imagine Enda Kenny doing that. It would be a good way to deal with dissident cabinet colleagues: strap them in and eject them over the Atlantic. (Watch out, Lucinda.)
Yeltsin liked to go hammer and sickle at the pies and the vodka bottle. Not so, Vlad. He’s superfit. In 2011, he donned skates and took part in a USSR Ice Hockey Legends training session. A few months later, he scaled a climbing wall without a harness at a youth camp. Conversely, Enda just has us climbing the walls.
SuperVlad performs as well under water as he does on land. He’s been snapped on a submarine and doing the butterfly in Siberia.
He’s hot on two wheels as well. Russia is not gay-friendly and Putin was careful not to look too bikerish (leather cap, etc) when he ‘Harleyed’ up for a meeting with motorbikers near Sevastopol. With his black shirt and rugged looks he looked positively Chuck, not David, Norris.
And it’s those looks and his He-man antics that still endear him to many Russians. Putin’s popularity is waning, but he’s still ‘got it’. According to one poll, 20% of Russian women say they would marry him. Not bad for a 60-year-old who may be going through the world’s longest public mid-life crisis.
Despite his vice-like grip on his image, Putin is prone to verbal gaffes. He once said that Africans had a history of cannibalism. On another occasion, he ‘quipped’ about the virility of his Israeli counterpart, Moshe Katsav, then facing trial on multiple sexual assault charges, saying he was a “mighty man” and “we all envy him”.
Afterwards a Kremlin spokesman said: “I don’t think that the proper translation is able to reflect the meaning of the joke.”
Maybe that’s the nub of the West’s problem with Putin. Maybe we don’t get the joke. Maybe he’s not a sexist, macho, self-publicist — as his photos would suggest. Maybe, like the proverb at the start of this piece, he’s just lost in translation.