When Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks, he speaks to the “everyman.”
At least that’s his plan.
But when, during his first televised interview since his inauguration in May, he seemed to speak with authority about group sex, it became yet another dose of downhome and earthy verse, for which the famously macho leader is known, to have gone wrong.
“Some fans of group sex say it’s better than one-on-one because, like in any team sport, you can slack off,” he said in reference to a 2008 demonstration in which jailed Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and husband Pyotr Verzilov had public sex alongside several other couples in a museum to protest former President Dmitry Medvedev’s inauguration.
While peculiar for a world leader with access to one of the world’s only nuclear arsenals, the comment fell in line with many other such oddball comments uttered by Putin. Bold, bizarre and seemingly always brash, the memorable one-liners have helped burnish the president’s image as a folksy leader steeped in street wisdom.
Take, for example, the instance last December in which he announced during a televised Q&A session that he thought the protesters who took to the streets with white ribbons after that month’s parliamentary elections were adorned with contraceptives.
"Frankly, when I looked at the television screen and saw something hanging from someone's chest, honestly, it's indecent, but I decided that it was propaganda to fight AIDS – that they had hung, pardon, a condom up," he said.
While the comment had upset the throngs of urban, middle-class protesters that continued to swell in subsequent rallies, the president’s comments are merely a part of a larger trend in which he employs less-than-polished speech to hammer home a point.
One of the most famous sound-bites came in 2002 when Putin, then a first-term president, seemed to threaten a French reporter with an age-old religious ritual after he had been hounded by the press about alleged human rights abuses in the worn-torn North Caucasus republic of Chechnya.
"If you are prepared to become a radical Islamist and are prepared to get circumcised, I invite you to Moscow,” he said. “We are a multi-confessional country, and we have specialists who deal with this practice. I recommend to do it in such a way that nothing ever grows back."
Putin’s tough talk seems triggered by a range of deeply sensitive issues that strike a nerve with the leader – such as the ongoing street protests against his rule or his handling of the devastating Chechen war, which helped earn him criticism from abroad for his heavy-handed assault on the separatist rebels.
Such was the case when Putin, empowered by his recent election to the presidency and facing the growing Islamic threat to the south, announced in 2001, “We will waste the terrorists in the outhouse.”
Experts say the importance of Putin’s commentary, however, shouldn’t be exaggerated. According to independent analyst and former Kremlin insider Stanislav Belkovsky, Putin wants to be perceived as a reliable world leader, but also “not to be humiliated at the same time, both personally and as a representative of Russia.”
All this, however, is not to say the president doesn’t know his verbal limits. During a visit to a Magnitogorsk factory last summer, while serving as prime minister, Putin reportedly expressed to local workers his regret over the “outhouse” comment in a rare display of humility for the leader.
"On the face of it, what I blurted out was probably wrong,” he said. “But in essence it was right."