Putin eyes trip to Antarctica, shuns elder image

The Russian president has insisted on a full slate of his traditional macho stunts this year, including scuba diving and possibly a trip to the way down under.

Mikhail Klimentyev/Presidential Press Service/RIA-Novosti/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting on economic issues in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Friday. The Russian president eyes a possible trip to Antarctica.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is rejecting the advice of some of his PR specialists to dial back his trademark action-hero persona and instead cultivate the image of a "wise patriarch," according to the pro-government Moscow daily Izvestia.

President Putin, who's now over 60, has insisted on a full slate of his traditional macho stunts this year, including scuba diving, hockey playing, actions to protect endangered animal species, and a possible visit to a science station in Antarctica, Izvestia says.

"Vladimir Putin will continue his active hobbies. Maybe he will go scuba diving in the summer. He continues the fight to preserve endangered species," the paper quotes Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, as saying.

"As for a more 'patriarchal' style? Well, he has his own style, and that's his personal choice," he added.

Putin has been plagued with rumors of ill-health ever since he was seen limping at last September's APEC summit in Vladivostok. The Kremlin reacted indignantly to journalists' questions about his condition – which only seems to have inflamed the rumor-mill – and at some point Mr. Peskov conceded that the president was suffering from back pains.

Some pollsters argue that a recent dip in Putin's public approval rating, to about 62 percent from his usual 70 percent or so, might have been due to the uncertainties about his health.

"Putin's rating is down a bit, but it's a small fluctuation and doesn't spell a stable trend," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the independent Levada Center in Moscow.

"These fluctuations occur for various reasons, and we attribute the latest dip to rumors about Putin's health. It's logical, because his image has always been based on his robust health and capacity for extreme actions.... I think he will repeat such actions because they confirm his own view that he controls his health much as he controls the country," Mr. Grazhdankin says.

Until recently, Putin had been regularly practicing at nights on a Moscow ice rink with Russian hockey pros – and occasionally with journalists – in preparation for what some Moscow sources whisper might be an exhibition game Putin was hoping to hold with other world leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Past stunts

Last September Putin took to the skies in a motorized hang glider to guide a group of endangered Siberian cranes onto their correct migratory flight path.

At other times he has shot a Siberian tiger with a tranquilizer gun, harpooned a grey whale with a crossbow, and tagged a captured polar bear on an Arctic ice flow (all in the interest of science).

According to Izvestia, Putin accepted an invitation from Chilean President Sebastian Pinera during a meeting in the Kremlin last September to visit Chilean and Russian science bases in Antarctica sometime early this year.

Peskov told the newspaper that the date has yet to be decided, "but since Putin is occupied with ecological issues, he will work with this question."

Some professional spin doctors argue that Putin would be wise to go with the flow of advancing age and cultivate a different, more realistic image for himself. 

"A good PR specialist should not concoct beautiful lies, but find some merit in the client to focus on, tell people about, to show him in the best possible light," says Stanislav Radkevich, director of PR-3000, a Moscow think tank.

"In Putin's case, it should be connected with positive changes in the country that he has championed.... He needs to develop the image of a wise reformer, a competent leader, who is thinking about the fate of the country," he adds.

Elder image? Nyet.

But other experts argue that Putin will never accept the image of an aging, sedentary leader.

"At the beginning of his new term there was a lot of talk about how Putin might now be positioned [in the media], because of his age, as a wise man sitting in his study and handing down advice," says Leonid Polyakov, a political scientist with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

"Then Putin had a spinal trauma during a training session, and his spokesman confirmed that. His response to that appears to be that he is definitely not going to become the old man in the Kremlin....  I'm absolutely sure we're going to see more of Putin on horseback, jumping by parachute, taming tigers, and so on," he says.

"The explanation is simple. He just likes it. Sport is a way of life, Putin's still in good shape, and he simply can't stop."

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