Russian tabloids and TV channels had a field day this week with newly released pictures of President Vladimir Putin working out at a gym with his prime minister.
The president and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev are shown using the exercise equipment at Putin’s residence near the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, where Putin appears to mentor his workout buddy on the use of the machines.
Afterward, they grill a manly meal of steaks for breakfast and clink teacups in a toast. There’s an opportunity for symbolism, there, too. In Russia, tea is considered a more down-to-earth, more quintessentially “Russian” beverage than coffee.
The scene is in keeping with Putin’s well-burnished image as an active, athletic man who likes adventure.
Last week, the Russian media were also agog at rumors that Putin, 62, might be dating a former super-middleweight women’s boxing champion, Natalia Ragozina.
The 39-year-old blonde, known as “Sledgehammer,” sat between Putin and Medvedev at an international Sambo martial arts tournament.
Putin’s image is very carefully controlled, and all such photos must be approved and released by the Kremlin.
The latest photo blitz may be part of a government effort to boost the president’s approval ratings, which have dipped slightly as low oil prices and Western sanctions eat away at Russia’s prosperity.
Putin’s ratings, hyped by uniformly positive coverage on Russia’s state-run media, would still be the envy of most Western politicians.
A recent poll shows that 72 percent of Russians would have voted for him in August, down from 76 percent in May.
It’s noteworthy that Putin is being shown in such friendly and intimate relations with Medvedev. The two changed places from 2008 to 2012, when Putin was forced to leave the presidency because of term limits.
When the two men announced in 2011 that Putin would run for president again, the news triggered mass protests in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities.
After Putin was re-elected, the government cracked down on the opposition.
Because Medvedev was seen as a liberal, some analysts believed that he would quickly be eased out of his job as prime minister, but that no longer seems to be in the cards.
At least once a year, the Kremlin releases footage of Putin engaged in some new stunt.
Earlier this month, he and Medvedev rode a mini-submarine on a dive in the Black Sea to inspect an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Crimea.
The wreck, more than 270 feet below the surface, was reportedly discovered by Russian divers earlier this year.
The ship dates from Byzantine times, and Putin told reporters that he hoped the discovery would help in the study of Russia’s “historical development.”
After Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in March of last year, Putin has often referred to the idea that Russia’s connection to the region dates back to medieval times.
Many of these stunts were later criticized as being staged for publicity.
In 2011, for instance, Putin was shown diving in the Black Sea and emerging with two ancient amphorae that he purportedly discovered in about 6 feet of water.
Aides later acknowledged that the suspiciously clean clay jugs “may” have been planted for the president to find.