MOSCOW – You’ve got to hand it to Vladimir Putin. For someone who so often shows up hours late to his appointments, the Russian prime minister has an astonishing sense of timing.
Earlier this week, 11 million Muscovites were choking from a thick noxious smoke cloud hovering over their city. They were told to wear masks if they ventured outside, but few could find any masks in the pharmacies. And if they stayed inside, they were pummeled by an oppressive heat their winter-friendly houses or apartments were built to retain and amplify.
REUTERS/Ria Novosti/Pool/Alexei Nikolsky
Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, wearing headphones, sits in the cockpit of a firefighting plane in Ryazan region on Tuesday.
By Tuesday most people were in a daze from lack of sleep and the effects of the smog on their lungs and nervous systems. The day before, Moscow’s health czar had corrected his earlier reassurances about the heat and revealed publically that it was in fact responsible for doubling the death rate in the city.
"The average death rate in the city during normal times is between 360 and 380 people per day. Today, we are around 700," Andrei Seltsovsky told a city government meeting.
And that didn’t include the blanket of smoky smog which was said to be the toxic equivalent of 8 packs of cigarettes a day. There was a sense that even Russians – perhaps the most patient people on Earth – were losing that patience.
So, under pressure, the city opened up about 120 so-called “anti-smog centers.” Places where you could go to literally catch your breath, with comfortable chairs, tea and biscuits, but most of all, air-conditioning to take the sting out of 100 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. However, by Tuesday, few air-conditioning units had even been installed yet in these urban oases.
By that evening the tension in the streets seemed as volatile as the tinderboxes that were igniting into hundreds of fires throughout the bone-dry nation.
Would President Dmitri Medvedev announce he was sacking half the cabinet and the whole Emergencies Ministry? Would there be denials of a people’s uprising in the Ryazan region – where the worst of the fires were burning? There were reports that some Russians there were actually fighting fires on their own, only hundreds of yards from their threatened homes, with shovels and water from garden hoses, and without a fire truck – or fighter – in sight.
Would Putin address the growing criticism in the small, but increasingly noisy Russian blogosphere, that the policy decisions he made when he was president had neutered the Federal Forest Agency and left Russia too ill-equipped to fight its own fires?
I turned on the evening news on state-run TV that night not knowing what to expect.
Enter ‘Action Man’
And there he was – Putin – in the cockpit of a Russian-built, amphibious Be-200 aircraft, his right hand firmly on the control stick. He appeared laconic; so laid back he could have been in a simulator.
But the fires across Ryazan were burning below him when the plane veered and you could hear, off camera, the REAL pilot – presumably – yelling.
“Attention, get ready to dump!” commanded the off-camera voice to Putin. Putin looking slightly more focused, then guided the stick forward on the command. “Dump now!”
Only then did I figure out what I was looking at: Putin was fighting a fire from inside a water-dumping plane.
With a judo-like flick of his head, he glanced askew and asked what had to be one of the most leading questions of all time: “Did we hit it?” The answer, “Yes, we hit it precisely!” was immediate – as was my amazement. (See video of Putin in the cockpit in the link below).
Instinctive political timing
Imagine President Barack Obama filming himself dumping 24 tons of water over a California fire from the cockpit of a C-130 and you get a better sense of how instinctive a Russian leader Putin is.
The situation looked very grim that day. People were choking in Moscow, 52 had died from fires across the country, and 2,000 had to flee their burning homes.
This was clearly a time for… Action Man.
So the mild-mannered prime minister of Russia slipped into his blue denim shirt and jeans and – once again – showed his people who was in charge.
It had been some years since Action Man – as he is sometimes called – appeared flying in a chopper, or fighter jet, or bomber, or navigating a submarine. But Putin knew – somehow – that it was time.
And if you think that dumping a plane-full of water over a fire that had already consumed 1.8 million acres of forest and peat bogs would have a minimal effect at best, think again.
When Muscovites woke up Wednesday morning, they did so in a New World.
The Kremlin’s golden spires were shining, once again, in full splendor, as was the rest of the capital’s cityscape.
The grey smog was gone. Skies were blue. Air pollution – at one point some 600 percent above safe levels – had returned to normal. The city’s 11 million people could breathe again, without masks, and it didn’t matter to them if some fires were burning closer to Chernobyl and might even unleash locked-up radioactive particles into the atmosphere.
Life was better, just hours after some 70 percent of Russians who get their news from TV saw Putin at the controls of a fire-fighting plane.
Of course there was no connection between Putin’s publicity stunt and the sudden break in the heat wave. He had nothing to do with the overnight thunder showers and strong winds which washed in and blew away Moscow’s smog.
But that was hardly the point – Action Man had acted, and now things were good. And it didn’t matter to most Russians for how long or how it all really happened. Isn’t politics mostly about perception?
‘The government will take care of us’
It’s as if Putin were in the Anti-Smog Center, earlier that day, when I asked an elderly Russian man why people were so accepting of such a horrific situation, one in which hundreds were dying a day. The man wouldn’t give his name. He spoke softly, but his words were stunning.
“What we see at the moment is worse than it was in World War II or during Chernobyl. Maybe because we were younger then and stronger. We are now no longer capable of defending ourselves, and all we can do is hope that the government will take care of us. But the government is not defending us, either.”
Uncannily, as this man spoke, Vladimir Putin was jumping into his Be-200 for a photo-op he couldn’t resist. And storm clouds were – for the first time in weeks - beginning to form over Moscow.
Hundreds of fires are still burning, and the shroud of smoke and smog could return to Moscow. Action Man may have to strike again.
Meantime, the 30 percent of Russians who don’t believe in miracles – or in Putin – are screaming “foul” in various blogs and online chat rooms. But it’s hardly a nascent opposition. One angry blogger named “viking_nord” demanded that Putin pay the equivalent of an $80 fine…for flying without a pilot’s license.
Jim Maceda is an NBC News Correspondent based in London, currently on assignment in Moscow.