It is not the first time Vladimir Putin has used pictures of himself engaged in manly pursuits to burnish his public image, but Russian bloggers say they have caught the president telling fishy tales after an angling expedition.
Putin’s latest man-versus-nature photos, said to be from a Siberian fishing trip this weekend, backfired when bloggers questioned the reported 21kg weight of his catch and claimed some of the pictures may be several years old.
The photographs show Putin fishing, petting reindeer and driving a boat in the Krasnoyarsk region and the Tuva republic along the Mongolian border. An accompanying video shows the president hauling in a giant pike and kissing his prize.
“Careful, she might bite you,” the fishing guide warns as Putin attempts to untangle the pike from the net. “I might bite her,” Putin shoots back.
News of the trophy fish made a big splash, but its weight – said by the presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov to be 21kg (46lb), equal to the UK record for the largest pike – provoked disbelief. The former deputy prime minister Alfred Kokh, a keen fisherman, argued in a Facebook post that it would have weighed “12 to 13 kilograms at the most”.
Meanwhile, fishermen across Russia began posting pictures of themselves with pikes that resembled Putin’s in size but weighed far less. Others joked that the Kremlin weighed its fish the same way it counted votes.
Some commentators doubted that the weekend trip had taken place. The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta noted that the Kremlin did not bring the presidential press pool on the trip and only published the photos six days after it was said to have happened.
News accounts differed as to when the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, joined the party, and the trip was not listed in Putin’s schedule on the Kremlin website.
The journalist Andrei Malgin compared photos of Putin shirtless published on Friday with shots taken in Tuva in 2007 and 2009. Putin is seen wearing the same military-style trousers, belt, cross necklace, watch and, in some cases, sunglasses.
Peskov responded on Monday, saying the clothes and watch were new and that he personally saw the fish weighed at over 20kg.
The Kremlin has put on countless Putin photo sessions over the years, depicting him as an active, masculine leader and avid outdoorsman. His exploits have made him a sex symbol and, following his recent divorce, Russia’s most eligible bachelor.
Even before his split from his wife, a poll last year showed that a fifth of Russian women wanted to marry him. His political popularity has remained high even as support for the ruling United Russia party has crumbled.
Running themes of Putin’s photoshoots have been wild animals – tigers, cranes and, on the latest trip, reindeer and snow leopards – and weapons. He has gone target pistol shooting, tranquilised an Amur tiger and fired a crossbow at a gray whale to collect skin samples. This month he descended to the bottom of the Gulf of Finland in a small submarine to look at a 19th-century shipwreck.
The last Putin photo scandal occurred in 2011 when the president was shown with ancient amphora he supposedly discovered while scuba-diving in the Black Sea. Peskov later admitted the rare pottery remains had been planted for Putin to retrieve.