At times, it seems like Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is vying with the guy from that commercial for the title of "most interesting man in the world." Whether its bare-chested horseback rides across the steppes, fishing in icy streams, diving to the depths of Lake Baikal in a tiny submersible or tranquilizer-darting a 500 pound Siberian tiger for research purposes, there's little he won't try.
But last week the powerfully built former judo champion and KGB agent went well outside his comfort zone, clapping along and handing out awards on Russian Muz TV's "Battle for Respect" contest for Russian rappers, graffiti artists, and break-dancers. (Russia's Ria Novosti has video of Mr. Putin grooving to Rick James's "Super Freak.")
The former Russian president made a surprise appearance on the show to promote a drug-free lifestyle among youth. A visibly stiff Putin seemed out of his element (he was one of few over 20 years old in the room) but smiled as the event wore on. He got a round after round of applause from the crowd – especially after he invited the winners of the rap, graffiti and break-dancing contests to the Olympic games in Vancouver.
But Russian and Western media covered his TV appearance quite differently. When reporters from Western news organizations saw Mr. Putin standing with teenagers, they could not get beyond what he was wearing. Surrounded by long-haired rappers with baggy pants, earrings, and t-shirts, Putin ditched his suit and tie for a turtleneck.
“The Russian prime minister’s latest foray into the unlikely milieu of rap, break dancing and graffiti art has left him looking less than slick,” declared Britain’s Daily Telegraph. “Dressed in a polo-neck jumper and a sports jacket, Mr. Putin, 57, looked distinctly awkward among a crowd of head-bobbling hand-waving teenagers.”
ABC News was similarly blunt about Putin’s attire: “Dressed in a decidedly unhip-hop white turtleneck and zip-up jacket” is how the writer started his second sentence.
Western news organizations, including Reuters, ABC, and the Telegraph, considered the event from the point of view of Putin’s ratings - and their conclusions were negative. ABC News notes that, while still popular, Putin’s approval rating has fallen slightly in the past few months, and says his TV appearance may have been an attempt to boost his sagging ratings.
The Telegraph described the Russian leader as “embarrassed looking” and said he “was doing his best to show he knew what he called 'mass youth culture.’ ” It quoted a news source that called his appearance on the show “a desperate move.”
But Russian newspapers could not have disagreed more.
The Russian news agency RIA Novosti said that young people greeted Putin with “deafening applause” and quoted the prime minister thanking the audience for “such a warm welcome.” Russian news website MIGnews.com stated that Putin impressed those gathered in the room with his wide knowledge of hip-hop. The Russian government’s Rossiyskaya Gazeta said that Putin “understood the language” of youth. It called his appearance on the show “a mind-blowing success.”
Russian stories did not mention Putin’s popularity ratings, but described in detail the prizes that he bestowed on contest winners – a backpack with spray-paint for the graffiti artist, a boom box for the best break-dancer, and a microphone for the rapper, in addition to invitations to the 2010 Olympic games in Vancouver so they can continue using popular music to promote a drug-free, alcohol-free, and smoke-free lifestyle. These details were absent from Western stories, but were in the tops of several Russian articles.
The Russian press also had a different opinion about Putin’s attire.