Streetwise Professor

August 10, 2013

Cutting Stroke?

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 1:22 pm

Obama created something of a kerfuffle yesterday when he dismissed inferences about his relationship with Putin drawn from body language.  Obama said that Putin slouches, and often behaves like a bored schoolboy at the back of the classroom.

Interestingly, Putin’s posture has been discussed for going on a decade now.  This article from the Atlantic from June is of some interest in that regard:

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.”

Presumably these conditions could also produce schoolboyish fidgitines.

Surely Putin is sensitive about this, and quite possibly Obama has been briefed about it: Putin would likely believe that Obama has been.  Which means that Putin may read something into Obama’s remark, and maybe he would be right.  Obama could have dismissed the body language question in many different ways that couldn’t be interpreted in the personally cutting way the posture remark could.  If it wasn’t an intentional dig, it was a pretty big faux pas.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. I have also read in some Western publications that not only Putin but all ethnic Slavs are racially inferior to the Germans and Americans.

    Comment by Vlad — August 10, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

  2. @Vlad. OK. Name the publications. We’ll see how deep you’ve had to dig to find them. It’s amazing what kind of tripe can be published in countries with freedom of the press.

    I’m sure we can find worse about Americans and Germans in far more mainstream Russian publications. So what?

    And one more thing. What the fuck does your comment have to do with this post?

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 10, 2013 @ 8:10 pm

  3. I think the described condition is quite plausible. It may also explain why he needs to periodically project an image of a macho man.

    Comment by MJ — August 10, 2013 @ 9:43 pm

  4. the main reason that putin projects a macho image as ben judah notes in his new book is that putin needs to counteract the image of a weak hopelessly corrupt and inefficient state

    Comment by hmm — August 11, 2013 @ 1:56 am

  5. I dunno. His judo prowess is genuine, not sure he could have achieved much on the mat with half his body not functioning.

    Comment by Tim Newman — August 11, 2013 @ 5:30 am

  6. @Tim. There are all degrees of disability. Moreover, those with the will can train to overcome/offset the effects of a disability. And I don’t think there’s any doubt that Putin has a lot of will. If he has indeed overcome this impediment, it is something to admire about him.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 11, 2013 @ 10:40 am

  7. Have you read Ben Judah’s new book Prof? It’s really worth reading

    Comment by hmm — August 11, 2013 @ 10:44 am

  8. I’ve bought it but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I have read several of his newspaper columns where he discusses the book. Thanks for the recommendation.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 11, 2013 @ 11:17 am

  9. @Professor. I can barely contain my brimming admiration. 🙂 Darn forceps must have completely destroyed his corpus conscientiam.

    Comment by pahoben — August 12, 2013 @ 6:46 pm

  10. @pahoben. Think of that as a compliment like that in the joke Ty Cobb told to the guy who tracked him down when he was an old man (dramatized in the film Cobb, where he was played by Tommy Lee Jones). Cobb told a joke about the farm boy whose mama told him to make sure he complimented his prom date. The farm boy thought and thought and thought and finally said: “You don’t sweat too much for a fat girl.”

    As MJ notes, there are likely many perverse consequences to his psychological issues with his condition.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 12, 2013 @ 6:56 pm

  11. If Putin had played professional baseball in that era a couple umpires would be in prison and the others suddenly wealthy. Several sports writers would have been beaten to death. He would have played in the National League and railed against the hypocrisy in the American League and his “fan club” would have patrolled the bleachers looking for criminal fans supprorting the opposition.

    Ty Cobb would have kept his spikes extra sharp and patiently waited.

    Comment by pahoben — August 13, 2013 @ 7:11 am

  12. I hate to say this but looking at the National League pennant winners at the time it looks as though Vova would have played for the Cubs. Sorry for this.

    Comment by pahoben — August 13, 2013 @ 7:58 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress