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Vladimir Putin's latest animal trick: Flying with cranes

Russia's leader has tranquilized a tiger and tagged a whale. This week he played imprintee to endangered Siberian cranes learning a new migration route.

September 06, 2012|By Khristina Narizhnaya, Los Angeles Times
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin flies in a motorized hang glider with Siberian white cranes. His latest adventurous feat drew ridicule in the Russian blogosphere.
Russian President Vladimir Putin flies in a motorized hang glider with… (Alexei Druzhinin / RIA Novosti )

MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin, Russia's macho president, is at it again.

The head of state has famously tranquilized a tiger, attached a tracking device to a whale and rode a horse bare-chested, feats that helped boost his popularity. This week, dressed in a white coverall, he flew a motorized hang glider to teach endangered Siberian cranes a new migration path.

A report on state-run television showed the usually icy Putin looking exhilarated as he soared Wednesday with a co-pilot around a field near the Siberian town of Salekhard, about 1,200 miles northeast of Moscow. Several cranes flew behind and alongside the president.

Visibly moved, Putin said it was hard to describe what he felt while gliding side by side with the birds. "It was a pleasant, kind, good feeling," he said.

His critics enjoyed it too, but for different reasons. The flight was widely ridiculed in the Russian blogosphere, especially amid speculation that Putin would wear a beak along with the coverall to make the birds think he was their parent.

"The Kremlin press service doesn't know what other signal to send to the citizens so that they would finally understand that the national leader has lost it," a popular blogger who goes by the moniker Perzident Roissi — a takeoff on "President of Russia" — said in a Twitter post.

A later, more serious post said, "Putin has given cranes the freedom that he has been taking away from citizens of Russia all these years."

And Masha Gessen, editor of a Russian travel magazine and author of an anti-Putin biography called "The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin," said she was fired Monday after refusing to send a reporter to cover Putin's flight.

Russian media, citing Kremlin sources, said Putin bought the motorized hang glider himself and had practiced on it before the event, which was part of an initiative called Flight of Hope aimed at reviving the endangered Siberian white crane population, which a few years ago dipped to fewer than 20.

Maria Goncharova, a biology student training at a nature reserve, wrote on her social networking page that two cranes died and one damaged its beak as a result of the flight. She later removed that entry, said the flight went well, and said she would have no further comment about it.

Russian scientists hope to alter the cranes' usual migratory path, which goes through Afghanistan and Pakistan — where hunting the birds is popular — to India. The cranes will be guided by a pilot in a hang glider — not Putin — to the border of Kazakhstan, where they will join the more common gray cranes and continue migrating with them to Uzbekistan.

Young cranes can be taught to follow humans, dressed in white and flying small aircraft, as they do a lead bird in a migrating flock.

Digitally altered images of a shirtless Putin superimposed on a whale and a crane have gone viral on social networking sites. So has a photograph of two bottles of vodka — the Putinka and Zhuravli brands, Russian words for cranes — with a caption reading, "It's more fun together."

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny posted a video of a song "Hang-gliding," by Valery Leontyev, a pop musician from the Soviet era famous for his greasy curls and colorful tight clothes.

Filmmaker Yuri Grymov wrote on his Livejournal blog that he wanted to make a sequel to the classic Soviet film about World War II, "The Cranes Are Flying."

"But if the birds are white, what is it? Opposition," Grymov wrote, referring to the white ribbons worn at anti-Putin rallies. "It wouldn't be so funny, if it wasn't so sad."

Narizhnaya is a special correspondent.

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