Putin hunkers down

November 1, 2012

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin has retreated to his country house, and, no, it’s not because of his health, his spokesman said Thursday, but, yes, he has a lingering “sports injury,” but, no, it’s nonsense to think it’s forcing him to change his schedule.

Putin likes to be pictured doing vigorous things, and his seclusion for the past few weeks suggests that he has become a captive to his image. His last splashy photo op was in early September, when he climbed into an ultra-light aircraft to lead a flock of young Siberian cranes on the beginning of their winter migration. That episode drew a fair amount of derision here — and to top it off he was seen walking with a limp a day or two later at an international forum in Vladivostok.

Reuters reported a week ago, based on anonymous sources, that Putin has back problems and needs surgery, and pointed out that he had skipped some foreign travel. This contention was swatted down right away by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. But the rumor has stayed afloat, and Peskov announced Thursday that Putin is dealing with — but certainly not hampered by — a pulled muscle that he sustained before the meeting in Vladivostok.

“He was suffering from some muscle pain then,” Peskov said, as reported by the Interfax news agency. “Actually, we have never tried to conceal it because any athlete has lots of injuries, which, however, do not mean any restrictions of his activities.”

Athlete? Putin, 60, likes to unwind on the hockey rink, and he holds a black belt in judo, and Kremlin photographers have caught him on horseback (bare-chested), fly fishing, hunting and skin diving. But Peskov went a step further Thursday, on the apparent assumption that a sports injury is a badge of honor, and not to be confused with the ravages of age.

“All athletes have plenty of injuries, especially those who exercise actively and every day, like Putin,” he said. “Moreover, Putin became a semi-professional athlete a very long time ago. And he exercises seriously today.”

Semi-professional sports don’t really exist as a concept in Russia, the way they’re thought of in the United States. But Peskov wouldn’t be the first Putin spokesman to engage in a bit of hyperbole on behalf of the boss.

And as for working at home, Peskov said it’s simply to avoid tying up any further Moscow’s already jammed traffic. When Putin’s motorcade is in motion, main thoroughfares can be shut down for up to 20 minutes at a time. Motorists stuck in these jams have taken to leaning on their horns when the big black cars whoosh by — and it’s not in salute.

The Kremlin, at least, now acknowledges the traffic issue, if only to downplay the health question.

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