Adorned in white overalls - to resemble a bird - Vladimir Putin spent some of Wednesday leading in a different capacity, heading a flock of crane birds in flight from a hang glider. The stunt already has the Russian blogosphere alight.
The Russian President was visiting an endangered bird sanctuary in Yamal, Siberia, on his way to the APEC summit in Vladivostok. It breeds Siberian cranes, only 3,000 of whom remain in the wild. The sheltered birds have been trained to navigate the sky ahead of their winter migration to Central Asia. Vladimir Putin, rarely camera shy, was deemed the perfect candidate to take the flock of cranes on their last practice flight before they're released.
The project is called Flight of Hope.
“I am just relieved it went well,” said Putin after disembarking from the motor-powered glider, which he controlled with a co-pilot. “I saw the birds following me on either side. They are beautiful creatures.”
The image of Russia's head of state, leading of a flock of birds by dressing as one of them and even playing an instrument to imitate their parents, (it was initially reported that Putin would have to wear a prosthetic beak for maximum likeness, though in the end he did not use one), proved irresistible for Russia’s online community, which exploded with thousands of instant jokes and comments about the symbolism of the flight.
Some posted that the cranes had been personally vetted by the President’s security force and would be promoted to government posts depending on their performance. Others speculated which leading politicians would be given of what species next. Most agreed that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, whose surname means “Bear” in Russian, would be assigned his own personal lair.
Such stunts have become a trademark of Vladimir Putin since he first became President in 2000. He once shot a rare tiger with a stun dart before putting a tracking device on him, and two years ago shot a whale with an arrow containing a tracking device from a crossbow.
Journalists and bloggers have often jumped on such moves as publicity stunts, but many in the scientific community appreciate the attention. Scientists complained that the majority of funding for similar programs had previously come from abroad, but say that the President’s interest in their cause should bring more resources from inside Russia.
“All the preservation programs we have started are still working,” said the President. “I don’t know what animal will be next. I will let the scientists decide – I am not just doing this for fun.”