Russian President Vladimir Putin's bizarre displays of machismo may get more laughs than his efforts at humour. That, at least, was the case with the giant pike Putin supposedly hooked in the Siberian region of Tuva.
On July 26, the Kremlin released a video of Putin pulling a large pike out of a lake, lifting it by the gills and tenderly kissing it on the cheek. Presidential press secretary Dmitri Peskov explained for a long time Putin had no luck at Lake Tokpak-Khol in a remote corner of Tuva, bordering on Mongolia. Then a gamekeeper suggested he use a locally made spoon lure called the Czar Fish, and it worked.
The gamekeeper "said he had never seen anything like it," Peskov said. "Putin caught a pike that weighed more than 21 kilograms. It took him 30 minutes to pull it out." As Putin lifted his catch out of the water with a hoop net, the gamekeeper cautioned him that the pike could bite. "I'll bite it myself," Putin quipped, according to Peskov.
The fish story is clearly aimed at bolstering Putin's support in a country with an estimated 25 million fishing enthusiasts. It could backfire.
Popular blogger Andrei Malgin published a mini-investigation of Putin's fishing vacation. Pointing out the trip wasn't on Putin's official schedule, Malgin dug up old photographs from previous Putin trips to Tuva he claimed looked remarkably similar to the new pictures.
"Doesn't it look to you as if we are being fed canned food stored up some years ago?" Malgin asked his readers.
Others agreed, pointing out similar details of his outfit. "What if Putin has been dead for years and we don't know?" one reader commented. Other bloggers noted Putin is wearing a watch that looks exactly like the one he gave to a gamekeeper on a previous vacation.
"He gave away the original watch and then bought exactly the same kind for himself because he is attached to it," Peskov responded.
The giant pike was another matter. Experienced fishermen simply could not believe it actually weighed 21 kilos -- about 46 pounds.
"Here's what I think about the pike," pro-Kremlin columnist Maxim Kononenko wrote in his blog. "Any fisherman can see that it simply cannot weigh 21 kilograms. For one thing, fish of that size are extremely rare. For another, it would be up to two metres long and you'd be able to fit a bucket in its mouth." Kononenko suggested the scale used to weigh the fish was in pounds rather than kilograms. If it read 21, it would mean the pike weighed 9.5 kilograms.
Alfred Kokh, a deputy prime minister under former president Boris Yeltsin, took a more scientific approach. "Putin's height is 175 centimeters maximum," he wrote on Facebook. "Approximating the pike to a cylinder with a diameter of 10 centimeters and a length of 120 centimeters -- a complimentary assumption -- we calculate the volume of the pike to be 9420 cubic centimetres, or roughly 10 litres."
Kokh's post received almost 1,500 likes. Again, Peskov had to defend the president. "I was personally present at the weighing, I saw the scale, and it really was over 20 kilos."
By then, the fish's size and the circumstances of its capture hardly mattered: The Kremlin was on the defensive. In 2013, Putin is no longer a recent underdog turned leader. He is a dictator who has been in power for 13 years, and at least as many people mock him as admire him. He needs a change of public relations strategy no less than his country needs some change at the top.
Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View.