Yes, it’s Russia’s own action man Vladimir Putin enjoying his summer holiday in sunny Tannu Tuva. And, as is his wont, he’s brought along a camera crew to chronicle his swimming, fishing, bare-chested horse-riding and other rugged outdoor pursuits. In so doing, he also reveals why he enjoys pin-up status in Russia – and, though the News 24 report last night contained a fair amount of sniggering, Martine Croxall seemed rather taken with him.
There are echoes, I suppose, of Mao swimming the Yangtse. But then, politicians do like to project an image of themselves as vigorous and robust, often engaging in some desultory physical activity for the benefit of the cameras. (At least, male politicians do. Somehow, I can’t imagine Harriet Harman inviting the viewing public to watch her working out.) US presidents do it a lot. Reagan would pump a little iron now and again to prove that, advanced age notwithstanding, he was still capable; Bush-41 liked to go jogging with his secret service detail, as did Clinton; Barack O’Bama shoots a game of basketball every so often.
The Brits, with their more developed sense of reserve – or maybe sense of the ridiculous is more like it – are less prone to this sort of thing. Mr Tony Blair playing tennis has just about been the height of it. William Hague let it be known that, like Putin, he does a bit of judo, but was sensible enough not to make a big deal of it. The danger is that it just looks a bit like a mid-life crisis (think Kevin Spacey in American Beauty) if you’re not careful.
It’s rather different with Putin. He genuinely is an outdoor sports nut, is fit enough to make it look convincing, and is vain enough to not be self-conscious about the cameras. But of course there’s also the message it sends out. While Russia was being plundered by crooks in the 1990s (what western journalists now coyly call “the democratic experiment”), the occupation of the presidency by a shambling old drunk was emblematic, and a source of shame for many Russians. Putin, from this perspective, is an aspirational figure – as the man who’s restored Russia’s pride, assertiveness and functioning government after the Yeltsin kleptocracy, his personal vigour is clearly calculated to count towards that national self-image.
Like I say, western politicians aren’t quite as keen on this sort of thing, although there’s little reason to believe they wouldn’t do it if they thought they could get away with it. And of course, few could handle it physically. I was just thinking that, given the left’s propensity for personality cults, it’s a pity that so many leftists – and no less at the leadership level – are so patently unhealthy, the product of a cultural of beer, fags, late nights and Pot Noodles. It’s hard to imagine sitting in an audience at Marxism in years past, only to see a bare-chested Tony Cliff stride into the room, roll out a judo mat and start throwing Alex Callinicos over his shoulder. Although I’d have paid good money to see that.
Rud eile: On a connected note, we have Bertie Ahern signing up to write a sports column for the News of the World. One hopes he’s honed his skills since his disastrous turn as a TV football pundit. But why isn’t he specialising as a racing tipster? He should be great at it, since that’s where he made his money.