Did a Stroke Cause Putin's Awkward English?

Those strained mouth movements! The jiggling! Some evidence that the Russian president might have a secret malady.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin appears during the State Prize ceremony at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow on June 12, 2013. (Reuters)

The Kremlin website today posted a video showing Vladimir Putin speaking English. His subject was Russia's intent to host the 2020 World's Fair (or Expo, as it's now more commonly known), and his addressee was the event's organizer, the General Assembly of the International Exhibitions Bureau. Funny thing about them, though, is that they're based in Paris, which perhaps ought to have indicated French as a more apt language in which to advance such an appeal. But then, Putin is a man who thinks the best place to host a Winter Olympics in Russia is in the country's warmest clime, and the best place to announce a divorce is at the ballet.

Putin watchers on social media could care less about the 2020 Expo, bidders for which are now down to Russia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Brazil, after Thailand was disqualified today. What they're interested in is how awkward, fidgety and downright uncomfortable Vladimir Vladimirovich appeared on camera. This is someone who seldom allows himself to appear uncomfortable in any format, and it's not as if the newness of the idiom was at issue. He'sspoken (and sung!) in English before without manifesting any of the idiosyncrasies on display here. First, there's the Stakhanovite work Putin's maxillofacial muscles appear to be exerting in order to enunciate vowels (it's true that you don't have to move your mouth as much to speak Russian, but this is a slightly caricatured way of getting the hang of things in English). Then there's the "wiggl[ing]," as The Guardian's departing Moscow correspondent and new-minted BuzzFeed editor Miriam Elder tweeted, which includes his left arm going up and down while his right side remains frozen.

Paralytic grief over his recently announced split from Lyudmila Putina, his wife of three decades? Another injury sustained from long hours in the dojo or, erm, with Lyudmila's rumored replacement, rhythmic gymnast turned Duma deputy Alina Kabaeva?

Actually, what we saw today was a stark expression of what many who have closely observed Putin's physicality have discovered over the last 13 years. In a valuable 2005 profile of Putin for The Atlantic, Paul Starobin hit upon one little-explored explanation for these tics: Putin is a possible stroke victim, and he may have befallen before he was even born.

Starobin cites Brenda L. Connors, a strategic research fellow at the Naval War College and former State Department official whose specialty is something called "movement analysis." That is, she studies how gaits, hand gestures and facial expressions correlate not just to human emotions but also to styles of leadership: a kind of Max Weber of walking and talking. As Starobin wrote:

After a tour of her lab we watched a tape she had made of Putin, compiled mostly from Russian television footage. The tape rolled to a shot of Putin at his first inauguration, in the spring of 2000, at the Andrei Hall of the Great Kremlin Palace. "Here's the picture," she said, as we watched Putin enter the hall and stride down a long red carpet. I saw what she meant only when she slowed the tape -- and when she did, I was taken aback. Putin's left arm and leg were moving in an easy, natural rhythm. But his right arm, bent at the elbow, moved in a stiff way, as if jerked by the shoulder, and the right leg dragged, without absorbing his full weight. When she replayed the segment at normal speed, it was easy to pick up on the impediment, and then I had no trouble spotting it in other segments. All the momentum and energy in Putin's gait comes from the left side; it is as if the right side is just along for the ride. Even the right side of his torso seems frozen. When he is holding a pen, his right hand appears to have only an awkward, tenuous grasp on it.

Retired Senator Bob Dole has similar movements, but his excuse was that he lost the use of his right arm from being hit by German machine gun fire in World War II. In Putin's case, medical and physical therapy experts with whom Connors consulted suggested that Putin might have suffered a fetal stroke, or been permanently injured by forceps as he was being pulled out of his mother's birth canal (a condition known as Erb's palsy). Still another cause could be polio, to which, as a child growing up in postwar Leningrad, he'd have been very susceptible.

Here's Starobin again: "Based on what she has seen and on her consultation with other experts, Connors doubts that Putin ever crawled as an infant; he seems to lack what is called contra-lateral movement and instead tends to move in a head-to-tail pattern, like a fish or a reptile."

The idea of Putin the Lizard or Putin the Shark is surely one that will resonate with his many enemies, foreign and domestic. And even though the biogenetic law behind it has been mostly debunked by modern science, it is certainly the case that embryonic developments reflect or mirror certain aspects of the human evolutionary sequence. And the amphorae-diving, bear-and-whale-hunting, crane-gliding black belt wouldn't be first historical figure to overexert himself in mastering a highly concealed deformity: Lord Byron swam the Hellespont not so much in spite of his clubbed foot as because of it.

Starobin associated this with Putin's handling of the Chechen conflict, which was certainly predatory, though that word can be similarly applied to his handling of pretty much everything since.


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Michael Weiss is the editor of The Interpreter, a journal sponsored by the Institute of Modern Russia.

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