The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin’s vaccine puzzle: Why the secrecy over his jab?

Russian President Vladimir Putin is pictured during a holiday in the Siberian taiga on March 21. (Sputnik/Via Reuters)

MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin isn't exactly camera shy.

The Russian president has been photographed shirtless, atop a horse and while fishing. He has displayed his sporty side, from hockey to judo. And there is Putin the animal lover, posing with tigers, pups and a koala.

But one picture Putin refused to take? That of him getting vaccinated.

The Kremlin announced that the 68-year-old Putin received the first dose of one of the country’s three domestically made coronavirus vaccines Tuesday. It was an opportunity to try to boost Russians’ low trust in immunization. A poll from the independent Levada Center last month found that 62 percent were not willing to receive the Sputnik V vaccine, the first Russian-made coronavirus vaccine offered to the public.

Russia expected a surge for its Sputnik V vaccine. But many skeptics still stayed away.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and defense minister Sergei Shoigu drove a cross-country vehicle and took a stroll in the Siberian mountains on March 21. (Video: Reuters)

But the secretive handling of Putin’s vaccination — including not revealing which of the three vaccines he received and not releasing photos or video of him getting the jab — may have further undermined Russia’s lagging mass-vaccination campaign.

When asked why Putin wouldn’t get vaccinated on camera, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said cryptically: “He doesn’t like that.” Peskov didn’t elaborate. Later, Peskov released a statement noting that Putin was feeling well and would have “a full workday” on Wednesday.

Journalist Andrey Zakharov cracked on Twitter that Putin didn’t actually get vaccinated. “It was sugar in there,” he said. Opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov wrote on Facebook, “They say that there was a vaccination in the bunker today” — riffing off a quip by jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny that Putin was holed up like a “grandpa in a bunker” during the pandemic.

“But,” Gudkov continued, “their promises sound like a joke: in total secrecy, far from the cameras, won’t say which vaccine.”

Other world leaders were quicker to get vaccinated and much more public about it, rolling up their sleeves during live broadcasts to help reassure the public about vaccines’ safety. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted a photo of himself shirtless, being injected with the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine. (President Donald Trump received a vaccine in January before leaving office without making the news public at the time, an adviser said earlier this month.)

Putin’s behind-the-scenes approach has left many Russians stumped. Earlier this year, state media released video of Putin in blue swim trunks, submerging himself in icy water for the Russian Orthodox Epiphany tradition. Even Putin’s excursions are carefully staged for public consumption.

Over the weekend, photos and videos of Putin behind the wheel of a camouflage all-terrain vehicle donning a caramel sheepskin suit in the Siberian forest made the rounds on social media.

The Putin-as-outdoorsman pictures feed a macho brand that has been two decades in the making. When it comes to the pandemic, Putin has told Russians to abide by preventive measures and get vaccinated. But he hasn’t backed it up with public displays.

Putin has never been shown wearing a face mask. (He did once visit a Moscow coronavirus hospital in a full Hazmat suit, delighting Russia’s meme-loving Internet community.) The Kremlin has been sensitive to reports of Putin sealed off from possible infection “in a bunker.”

What to know about Navalny’s protest movement in Russia — and why it unnerves Putin

Levada’s February polling found that 56 percent of respondents said they didn’t fear contracting the coronavirus. Outside of the restrictions on international travel, very few measures related to the coronavirus persist, and the country’s mask mandate is loosely enforced.

Lev Gudkov, Levada’s director, said people’s willingness to get vaccinated has dropped eight points in the past three months.

“In the growing reluctance to vaccinate, there is a general distrust of the government, especially intensified in times of propaganda campaigns such as this one,” Gudkov said, adding that Putin’s long wait to get vaccinated, as well as the sparse details, won’t help to encourage people.

This isn’t the first time that the Russian government’s attempts to promote vaccination may have backfired. Putin declared victory in the global vaccine race in August, announcing that Sputnik V would be the world’s first registered vaccine despite incomplete trial data.

The hasty rollout was widely criticized internationally, and created skeptics at home. The hesitancy remained even after the British medical journal the Lancet published a study in February showing Sputnik V with an efficacy rate of 91.6 percent after more trial data. Putin said Monday that 6.3 million people in Russia have received at least the first of one of the country’s vaccines.

Aside from Sputnik V, Russia has registered two others — one from the Vector lab in Siberia and another from Moscow’s Chumakov Center — although there is little data published about their efficacy.

As to why the Kremlin won’t say which of the three vaccines Putin picked, spokesman Peskov said that was a deliberate decision because “all three Russian vaccines are absolutely reliable.”

Even Peskov doesn’t know which one Putin received.

“It is known only to him and the doctor who administered the shot,” Peskov said Wednesday.

How Russian biotech trampled protocols — and challenged the West — in race for Sputnik V vaccine

Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine may be made in Italy as Europe seeks to expand options

Tales from the jab: How people in 6 countries got their vaccines