When Prime Minister Vladimir Putin climbed into the ring at Moscow's Olympiisky Stadium to congratulate the winner of a mixed fight bout on Sunday evening he was met by a chorus of boos and catcalls from the 20,000-strong crowd.
But while many in the media and Russia's blogosphere saw the whistles and shouts as a rare sign of open dissent against the powerful Putin, others said they had nothing at all to do with the frontrunner in the upcoming presidential polls, and were either directed against the bout's American loser or were simply the frustration of fans desperate to make it to the toilets.
"Dear friends, today is a great holiday for fans of martial arts," Putin, a judo black belt, began after Russian Fedor Emelianenko had defeated American Jeff Monson. That was when the booing began. Putin was visibly shaken, and paused for a moment before raising his voice to continue. The din only ceased when Putin praised Emelianenko as “a real Russian hero" and Monson had been led away.
While state TV channels later edited the catcalls out and made no mention of the incident, Russian and foreign media said it was the first time Putin had been publicly booed. Alexei Navalny, one of Russia’s most prominent bloggers, called it “the end of an era." He also suggested the incident had symbolic significance as it was now known to “everyone in the country, from young to old.”
"The people showed great courage [in booing Putin]," blogger Alexander Morozov wrote. "Maybe they mistook him for [President] Medvedev?" quipped Oleg Kozyrev.
The original video has already turned viral, getting 500,000 hits on Youtube as of Monday morning. "Putin gets booed" was also the top news on the country’s major online search engine, Yandex.
Olympiisky Stadium director Mikhail Moskalyov told the Lenta.ru website the booing was a reaction to the bleeding and limping Monson being led away. A careful examination of the footage shows that the booing seemed to cease when Monson had left the arena. But a lone voice then shouted “Get out!” when Putin continued to speak.
Putin supporters had other explanations fo the boos. Kristina Potupchik, a spokesperson for the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, said in her LiveJournal blog the crowd was “anxious” to get to the toilets.
Putin, 59, who announced plans to return to the presidency next year, has seen his approval rating fall significantly in recent months. Only 35 percent currently support the premier, according to a poll carried out by the independent Levada Center last month.