Two years ago, Gayne C. Young, a Texas-based writer and blogger for Outdoor Life, scored the interview of a lifetime. As a beat writer, Young had enjoyed the outdoor exploits of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been documented shooting a gray whale with a crossbow, tranquilizing a tiger attacking a news crew, hunting shirtless, fishing shirtless, and riding horseback shirtless. On a personal level, Young liked the rugged brand of masculinity that seemed a throwback to Teddy Roosevelt. "Although you have Clinton shooting ducks, you never see it. Although Rick Perry says he enjoys hunting, you don't see it. They say they do, but they don't. Obama says he shoots skeet, but they only released one picture," Young says. "Here's a guy out there fishing, with no qualms. He's like, 'You don't like it? Tough.' Then he'd escalate and do more."
His posts on Putin brought in great traffic, so his editor kept encouraging him to escalate. Soon, Young was declaring his "man crush" on the Russian president. ("I hate to use that word, especially on a hunting website," he admits.) He called the Russian consulate, flirted with the right secretary, and went through "hoop after hoop after hoop" until, one Friday, a press attaché called and told him the president wanted his questions in the next 20 minutes.
Young scrambled and sent something over. Six weeks later, Putin replied with an almost unbelievable 8,000-word missive—covering everything from tiger conservation to his favorite works of Hemingway to the innate frailty of human life. He lectured on the similarities between Russians and Americans, and demurred from answering Young's friendliest questions. ("Are you the coolest man in politics?") "People really liked him, at least on our comments section on Outdoor Life," Young says. "Given the demographics of the readership, most are die-hard Republicans," and when they saw Putin hunting, he says, "they were like, 'Obama wouldn't do that.' "
Putinphilia is not, of course, the predominant position of the conservative movement. But in certain corners of the Internet, adoration for the leader of America's No. 1 frenemy is unexceptional. They are not his countrymen, Russian expats, or any of the other regional allies you might expect to find allied with the Russian leader. Some, like Young and his readers, are earnest outdoorsy types who like Putin's Rough Rider sensibility. Others more cheekily admire Putin's cult of masculinity and claim relative indifference to the political stances—the anti-Americanism, the support for leaders like Bashar al-Assad, the oppression of minorities, gays, journalists, dissidents, independent-minded oligarchs—that drive most Americans mad. A few even arrive at their Putin admiration through a strange brew of antipathy to everything they think President Obama stands for, a reflexive distrust of what the government and media tells them, and political beliefs that go unrepresented by either of the main American political parties.
They utterly perplex many observers of the Russian-American relationship. "No clue as to what drives it, other than some form of illness," says Russian-born novelist Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan.