Everybody knows that when fishermen get competitive, they are prone to start telling whoppers about the size of their catches.
But when they happen to be the leaders of fraternal post-Soviet countries, those fish stories may threaten to take over news cycles, and the natural skepticism of those who hear such tales can take on unexpected political freight.
Something like this appears to have overtaken President Vladimir Putin's latest publicity stunt. When he embarked last weekend on a fishing trip to a remote region, it's likely the last thing on his mind was to fan political controversy, much less international rivalry. But he reckoned without the freewheeling Russian blogosphere, and the competitive macho instincts of his Belarussian neighbor, President Alexander Lukashenko.
Mr. Putin visited Tyva, a mountainous republic in southern Siberia, where he piloted a speedboat and, in his now familiar bare-chested style, landed a large pike with a spin-fishing rod. As usual, the Kremlin proudly posted a video of Putin holding up the massive fish and giving it a kiss, along with an entire photo album depicting that feat as well as the president's other vigorous activities.
The Kremlin announced that the fished weighed in at 21 kg, or about 45 pounds.
"I personally saw the scales and was present in the weighing. It was seriously more than 20 kg," Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted as saying by the independent Interfax news agency.
Russia's pesky blogosphere hooted with derision and also produced pretty convincing evidence that the Kremlin's claim was greatly exaggerated.
One blogger used the Kremlin's own photos of the 5'7" Putin to deduce the fish's length at just under 3 feet and then employed standard fishermen's tables to calculate the fish's actual weight a mere 15.4 pounds, or barely a third of what the Kremlin had claimed.
Another took the route of publishing photos of other fishermen with their catches – visibly bigger pikes that Putin's, yet somehow weighing half or less of what Putin's "golden fish" was claimed to be.
"The Kremlin probably weighs its fish by the same method it counts votes" in elections, one blogger sneered.
And then Mr. Lukashenko, the flamboyant president of neighboring Belarus, got into the act.
"I personally hauled in a catfish weighing 57 kilograms [126 pounds]! I caught three catfish: 57, 24, and 7 kilograms," during a recent outing on the Pripyat River, Lukashenko said in remarks carried by Belarussian state TV Tuesday.
The Kremlin did not respond. But many in Belarus must have shuddered: The Pripyat River flows from Belarus almost directly into the radioactive exclusion zone of the Chernobyl atomic power station in Ukraine, which suffered one of history's worst nuclear accidents in 1986.