September 6, 2012 10:23:46 AM
VLADIVOSTOK, Russia -- Vladimir Putin flew a motorized hang glider to lead a flock of young Siberian white cranes in flight, a characteristic stunt for Russia's action-man, animal-loving president.
Dressed in a white costume meant to imitate an adult crane, Putin was taking part in a project to teach the endangered birds who were raised in captivity to follow the aircraft on their southern migration to Central Asia. It follows a series of adventures for which the Russian leader has become alternately notorious and beloved, from flying a fighter jet to riding a horse bare-chested.
The flight proved to be a test of Putin's leadership skills. Only one crane followed Putin on his first flight, which he attributed to high winds that caused the hang glider to travel faster than usual, the RIA Novosti news agency reported. On the second flight, five birds followed Putin, but after a few circles only two had stuck with him for the full 15-minute flight.
Putin stopped off at the Kushavet ornithological research station on Wednesday en route to an international summit in Vladivostok, on Russia's Pacific coast. Once at the Arctic station, he paired up with a pilot to take the birds for a spin.
It was a scene reminiscent of the 1996 movie "Fly Away Home," in which an estranged father and daughter use an ultralight plane to help a flock of geese migrate. The movie was based on a real-life Canadian, who spent a decade teaching orphaned geese how to fly south.
Putin's flight, given many minutes of airtime on Russian television, provoked an array of contemptuous jokes on the Internet, one of the most popular being "So Putin is off to wintering with cranes. Does this mean he's not going to be back before spring?"
After leading the cranes, Putin said he didn't know what he would do next with animals. "That's for the specialists to decide," he said. "It shouldn't be just for fun but it should have some use."
Some of Putin's adventures have purported scientific connections, such as putting a tracking collar on a polar bear tranquilized in the wild and shooting a crossbow from a boat to get a tissue sample from a whale.
Last year, Putin was caught short when one of his scientific events was revealed to be a set-up. He was shown scuba diving and bringing up fragments of ancient Greek amphorae, but his spokesman Dmitry Peskov later admitted the artifacts had been planted on the sea floor for Putin to grab.
The stunts irritate Putin's opponents, who regard them not as benign political entertainment but as part of an establishment of a cult of personality lionizing an authoritarian leader.
Marat Guelman, one of Russia's most well-known art gallery operators, wrote in a blog on the Echo Mosky radio station website that the flight shows Putin "has lost faith in us. He sees our treachery, greed, cowardice and cruelty. There's nothing to love in us anymore. Dolphins, cranes, horses -- that's a different thing."
Masha Gessen, author of a book critical of Putin, left her post as editor of the travel and science magazine Vokrug Sveta (Around the World) this week, claiming she was fired for refusing to send a reporter 3,500 kilometers (2,200 miles) northwest of Moscow to Yamal Peninsula to cover Putin's flight with the cranes.