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.
There are many faux Putin fans in America — those who mock the hero worship ironically or half-ironically. But plenty of his fans are serious. Three months ago, Americans for Putin, a Facebook group, sprang up "for Americans who admire many of the policies and the leadership style of Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin" and think he "sounds better than the Republicrat establishment." The group has an eight-point policy platform calling for "a unified [American] national culture," a "firm stance against Israeli imperialism," and an opposition to the political correctness it says dominates Washington. Though that group is relatively small (167 likes as of Wednesday afternoon, ticking up every few hours), the Obama's-so-bad-Putin-almost-looks-good sentiment can be found on plenty of conservative message boards. Earlier this year, when Putin supposedly caught—and kissed—a 46-pound pike fish, posters on Free Republic, a major grassroots message board for the Right, were overwhelmingly pro-Putin:
"I wonder what photoup [sic] of his vacation will the Usurper show us? Maybe clipping his fingernails I suppose or maybe hanging some curtains. Yep manly. I can't believe I'm siding with Putin," one wrote. "I have President envy," another said. "Better than our metrosexual president," said a third. One riffed that a Putin-Sarah Palin ticket would lead to a more moral United States.
The cult of Putin in America probably has its strongest hold on the readers of ostensibly apolitical humor sites that target young men, such as Cracked and theChive. Cracked's post on why Putin is "The World's Craziest Badass" drew more than 1 million views. TheChive's slide show naming Putin "The Real Life Most Interesting Man in the World" inspired several hundred comments—only a few from Putin-haters distressed to see that he had such a following.
Putin is hardly the first—or the worst—antihero to enjoy the devotion of a small segment of Americans. Nor is he the first to benefit from a deep, reflexive distrust of public institutions like the government or media. The most recent and disconcerting example is the hero worship of Boston Marathon suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has a cult following online. Many doubt law enforcement's assertion of his guilt; others create Tumblr pages worshipping him like the latest teenage pop star.
As for Young, recent years have tested the man-crush. He still thinks the guy he interviewed would make a great fishing partner, but he dislikes the "saber rattling" he sees between Putin and Obama. "A lot of people in the outdoors world will say to me, 'Hey look what your boy Putin is doing now. I always respond: 'It's Vlad, and I'm not sure that's the real one,' " Young says. "It's really hard for me right now, with what all is going on, to say which Putin he really is. I would like to say he's the one who answered my questions."