Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Good, the Vlad and the Ugly

(Dedicated to E Muraskin, Purveyor of PR)

Back in the days of the Cold War, he would have been the man dangling James Bond over a pool of hungry sharks. Today, he drives Formula One race cars, rides a Harley Davidson motorcycle, fights forest fires, saves tigers, plays the piano and croons to audiences at children’s benefits. Is this the same Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin who worked as a ruthless KGB agent, was associated with many shady business dealings and is thought—but not proven—to secretly hold more wealth than any other man in Russia? Is it possible that this Bond villain has turned a new leaf?

Putin lives dangerously, riding his Harley without a helmet.

Who knew, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) back in 1952 that little Vlad would grow up to rule Russia. Not bad for the son of a naval man who worked for the forerunner of the KGB and a mother who worked in a factory. Before Vlad grew up and made good, the only claim to fame his family had was that his grandfather was the cook for Lenin, and later, for Stalin. While Vlad is no longer President of the Russian Federation, due to term limits, he is still considered by many to be the most powerful man in Russia. These days, I guess you could call him the man behind the scenes.

At some point, ambition gives way to wanting to develop a legacy. So if you’ve directly or indirectly been associated with kidnapping, murder, corruption and other not-so-great stuff for many years, how do you clean up your image? Why through the miracle of public relations, of course!

If anyone can create revisionist history, then someone at the head of a communist propaganda machine should be able to make it happen. And the general public's lack of attention span is there to help him out. His “gotta-love-me” photo opts have included driving a Formula One race car to speeds of 240 kph (dare-devil Vlad), fighting for the endangered species of the world (environmentally conscious Vlad) and performing for charities (humanitarian Vlad). Perhaps in recognition of this media-darling coup, in 2007, Time magazine named Putin Person of the Year.

Despite that honor, I think that I, and many other women, first noticed a more human and accessible Putin during his fishing trip in 2009. That is when news outlets worldwide pictured our man stripped down to his waist, fishing pole in hand. There he stood, as nature intended, revealing previously undivulged biceps and washboard abs that would have easily qualified for the cover of any romance novel. Hubba, hubba.

Russians thought so, too. So they released a plastic model of the half-naked Putin tugging on his fishing line. This was a sexier, outdoorsman Vlad, but was he more accessible? President George Bush thought so, years earlier in 2001, when he said that looking into Vlad’s deep blue eyes left him with “a sense of Putin’s soul.” How many women would have liked to have shared that experience?

Vlad-gone-fishing plastic model.

More recently, a kinder and gentler Vlad came to the rescue with endangered felines. He won the heart of many environmentalists including celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio when he attended the International Tiger Conservation Forum which met in his hometown of St. Petersburg. There, he professed his love of the natural world and sense of immediacy for preserving it, making many climate-change believers and Sierra Club advocates weak in the knees. Ah, Vlad.

Just the other day, I saw a video of Putin playing the piano and singing at a children’s cancer charity benefit in Russia. It was attended by many U.S. celebrities such as Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Paul Anka, Sharon Stone, Kevin Costner and Mickey Rourke, as well as European actors Alain Delon, Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel. As he sang a questionable rendition of Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill in thickly accented English, they all smiled adoringly at him. What better international press endorsement?

In real life, Vlad is married to Lyudmila, a former flight attendant and language teacher. They have two daughters who are in their twenties and a black Labrador Retriever named Koni. The family accommodatingly stays out of the limelight, so we can get a better view of Vlad. And speaking for the female half of the world, I am looking forward to seeing what more Prime Minister Putin will reveal in the future. Maybe he could don a towel, step into a shower and do a follow-up campaign for Old Spice aftershave. “Hay-lo, leddies, eem Vlad, hur tuday to tock to yew abot Old Speece….”

Ahhhhhh, sweet d├ętente….

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