In the Thick of It

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Russian President Vladimir Putin with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu relaxing shirtless on a boat in Siberia.

How Good Is Putin at Spearfishing Really?

August 08, 2017
Simon Saradzhyan

The author, director of the Russia Matters Project, has been spearfishing for over 20 years.

That Vladimir Putin went spearfishing the other day isn’t surprising. He’s reportedly done it before, as have Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Medvedev’s deputy Dmitry Rogozin and even Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. But never before this weekend’s Siberia trip has there been footage of the president actually shooting fish, as released by NTV, the Defense Ministry’s Zvezda channel and then RT.

Alas, while shots of Putin’s spearfishing expedition may impress those with no knowledge of the sport (likely the bulk of his voters), seasoned spearos in and out of Russia, who know about diving for fish “on breath hold,” will see little more than a novice—no matter how many times state-controlled TV channels tell them the Russian president “chased a giant pike for two hours before catching it with [his] bare hands.”

The released videos show that Putin doesn’t even dive to shoot his prey. Instead, he swims on the surface of the water and shoots a pike—of rather modest size for the wilds of Siberia, even if RT did call it “giant.” (Here I must add that pike is sometimes speared from the surface in shallow rivers: You glide down the current, watching for pike hiding in grass or amid sunken branches. But in lakes or slow-moving parts of rivers, spearos typically dive down and then slowly explore or lie on the bottom, hoping the predator will come check them out. That kind of ambush technique is far more challenging, as it requires diving skills, including knowing how to equalize pressure, as well as the ability to cause as little commotion as possible when descending and to hold your breath for a considerable amount of time.)

Another sign of Putin’s lack of skill is that the Russian leader doesn’t even dive to retrieve his speared trophy. The NTV footage clearly shows someone else, with a camera on his forehead, diving down to take hold of the fish and then helping Putin handle it. And no way did Putin catch the pike “with his bare hands" as claimed in Zvezda’s headline for the video.

That Putin holds the pike by the eyes shows that his spearfishing instructor/cameraman, who appears to hand him the fish, knows a thing or two. The fact that this assistant is wearing a smooth-skin freediving suit—which is more elastic and generates less friction, but can easily be torn if not handled with care—also indicates he has some diving skills and experience.

Putin in wetsuit preparing to get in water

Zvezda’s footage also clearly shows that the Russian president doesn’t know the technique of swimming in long free-diving fins—instead of making long movements from the hip with legs outstretched, as free divers and free-diving spearos do, he makes frequent up-down movements with knees bent, which is what novices instinctively do.

Rather than carry weights on a diving belt on his waist, Putin wore a diving vest. This can be hazardous in freshwater because the vest can get entangled in sunken trees and isn’t as easy to ditch as belt. But this could be to protect his back, which has given him trouble before, because carrying weights on a belt puts a lot of pressure on your back.

On the positive side, you’ve got to hand it to Putin: That was a pretty good shot, given his distance, the length of the gun and the angle. That said, if Putin really did “chase the pike for two hours” as his spokesman said, then we don’t know how many times he shot and missed before finally nailing the sharp-toothed beast. Interestingly, two different spear tips appear in the footage. In RT’s, Putin is shown jumping into the water with a speargun whose shaft ends in a trident, which also appears in Zvezda’s footage. NTV’s footage, however, shows Putin firing at the pike and swimming back with it with a shaft that ends in a single bullet-like tip.

I’d also note that Putin was not practicing what he preaches in terms of “import substitution”: He was wearing a diving suit by OMER, an Italian brand that recently became part of California-based Aqua Lung (whose suit, incidentally, Putin wore to retrieve ancient jugs from shallow waters in the Black Sea in a photo-op that invited criticism for being staged). The rear-handled pneumatic speargun that he used for the shot also looked to be a classical European design, most likely Italian or French, in contrast to Russian-made spearguns, which normally sport a handle in the middle, giving more maneuverability in murkier waters and around submerged trees. Prime Minister Medvedev is more oriented toward Russian producers in his choice of suits: He’s switched from an American Riffe to Neopro, one of Russia’s leading manufacturers.

Photos from official Kremlin website.