President Donald J. Trump recently embarked on a historic meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki Summit in Helsinki, Finland. The key takeaway from the meeting appears to be Trump’s decision to avoid pressing Putin on allegations that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election.
But since Grand View Outdoors makes its living by creating hunting content, we’ll let the political pundits offer their analysis of the events in Helsinki, while we’ve chosen to revisit Putin’s relationship to U.S. hunters, the NRA and, oh yeah, SITKA Gear.
In perhaps Putin’s first flirtation with the U.S. hunting culture, the Russian president granted an unlikely, exclusive 2011 interview with Outdoor Life blogger and Texas writer Gayne C. Young. It’s not very often an outdoor magazine is granted an interview with a world leader and the fact that the world leader was Putin is even more intriguing.
It begs the question: Why?
Still, one might counter, does there even have to be a “why?” Maybe the guy is simply passionate about outdoor recreation and it’s the kind of subject even someone of Putin’s stature will make time for. This was certainly the case with Paul Ryan. The Wisconsin congressman and eventual House Speaker was always willing to make time for bowhunting with a membership to the Quality Deer Management Association , plus he granted multiple interviews to the Archery Trade Association.
Putin’s Outdoor Life interview, cut down to a still lengthy 3,000 words, was originally a whopping 8,000 words according to the New York Times coverage of the interview.
Here’s an excerpt:
Young (for Outdoor Life): “Perhaps one of the reasons you are popular with American outdoors enthusiasts is that you seem not to be concerned with ‘political correctness.’ For example, it is highly unlikely that President Obama (or any past president) would ever allow himself to be photographed holding a scoped hunting rifle or with his shirt off, holding a fish he just caught, for fear it would offend some people. Do you think the Russian people are more open-minded about sports such as hunting and fishing, or have Americans just become hypersensitive?”
With his answer, Putin demurred. But he came around to create a sense of identification with a community of readers that undoubtedly found the Russian leader relatable.
Vladimir Putin: “I think this question should rather be addressed to a professional psychoanalyst. I am not ready to assess transformations in Americans’ sensitivity and, more than that, I do not think it would be right to ascribe certain characteristics to representatives of one or another ethnic group.
“The area where a person lives, the prevailing social and economic conditions and cultural traditions surely leave an imprint on his or her personality but, still, I have met quite a few Americans who could easily be taken for Russians if they did not speak English. In general, we have a rather similar mentality. In any case, we are not snobs. My ‘popularity,’ as you call it, with American outdoors enthusiasts is just another proof of that similarity of our views and perceptions.”
This question and answer, which took place nearly eight years before Trump was elected president, says a lot about the state of Middle America. Looking back, it’s clear how hungry portions of the American population were for a straight shooter, someone who was not hamstrung by political correctness. And, conversely, it’s also plain that Putin was willing to offer an alternative view to satisfy that hunger. For hunters — a group that represents only 5 percent of the American population, has been pushed aside and marginalized by animal-rights activists and bullied on social media — Putin offered a warm embrace from a high perch of power.
At the time, remember this is 2011, the New York Times weighed in on the Outdoor Life interview and dismissed it as “an exercise in mutual back-slapping,” an interview “not likely to have much impact.” And, as a stand-alone article, maybe it didn’t. But there were other offerings made by the Kremlin to advance Putin’s persona as an outdoorsman. Together, they offer small crumbs of foreshadowing.
In 2013, images of Putin fishing were distributed by the Russian government and were widely circulated by U.S. social media users, many of whom were hunters and anglers. In the images, the Russian President landed a huge pike wearing SITKA Gear, one of America’s popular camo brands. Images of Putin boating in SITKA apparel were also released in 2017.
According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Putin chose to forgo his bare-chested, outdoorsy look in favor of SITKA hunting apparel, and SITKA leadership was pumped about it.
“Bozeman-based Sitka Gear started in 2005, and sales manager Andy Wunch said the company decided early on to target the Russian market, among others. ‘Russia is a very large hunting market,’ Wunch said. ‘There are challenges – foremost is the distance – but there is a high level of interest in hunting, Gore-Tex and American-made products.'”
“(Former Sitka Gear business leader Kevin) Sloan said the company was approached in 2008 by a Russian marketing contact, which made the decision easy. Shortly after, Putin’s assistants contacted the company asking for a complete package of outerwear, Sloan said.
“’We’ve known that he wears it when he’s hunting, but this is the first time we’ve seen pictures published,” Sloan said. ‘The coolest thing to us is that the leader of the non-free world would choose to wear our gear.'”
Five years later, it’s uncertain if Putin’s informal endorsement of SITKA Gear still projects as the “coolest thing,” or, rather, if it’s one of chilling embarrassment.
SITKA shared an image of Putin wearing its gear in a 2013 post of the same fishing trip.
SITKA’s Facebook community was a mixed bag of opinions on whether or not Putin’s affection for SITKA translated as positive notoriety or something worse.
Lewis Phillips wrote, “I would love to see Obama be half this manly. LOL.” While Wm Frazier commented, “I like Putin way better than I like Obama.” Mark Spencer chimed in with this gem, “I want POTUS who is bad ass like him!!!”
Others simply mused about whether or not U.S. President Barack Obama had ever gone fishing. Some on the other hand were offended, as evident by comments like this one posted by Bahd-Ombray Marty, “I can’t believe all the idiots who are praising this guy, he’s a corrupt leader who has imprisoned thousands of members of his opposition and sent arms to Syria and Iran. Do a little research people.”
Perhaps doing a little research, as Facebook user Marty suggested, involves taking inventory. And that brings us back to the larger question of why.
Why all the photos of Putin with his SITKA Gear doing outdoorsy stuff? These photos weren’t captured by paparazzi like you might see here when a U.S. president is on the beach, or sailing at Martha’s Vineyard. These photos were taken and released by the Kremlin. Were there motives outside of a simple shared interest in the outdoors? What could Putin possibly want from American hunters, or gun owners or any other subculture within the larger group that is known as Middle America? How relevant could these people possibly be to anyone that deals in issues of global consequence?
Yet, big things begin as small things. On a human level, what can start as a few setbacks and the occasional grumbling here and there, can turn into deeply set bitterness and a general mistrust and anger for life itself. It’s the rule of trajectory. What’s off by an inch today, can be off by two inches tomorrow. In the same way, Russia’s propaganda starts small as subtle overtures, tiny seeds nurtured over the span of years, decades.
Take the recent July 16 arrest of a Russian national. It’s an example of Russia’s patience and willingness to invest years in relationship-building, not with potential assets or operatives, but with Americans who fit the right persona. According to Bloomberg.com, “the woman, Maria Butina, tried to create a quiet line of communication between U.S. and Russian officials and attempted to infiltrate the National Rifle Association (NRA) on behalf of the Russian government in a long-running scheme that traces its origins to at least 2013, prosecutors said.”
That’s a 5-year project targeting the NRA, a non-profit group representing American citizens who are gun owners and 2nd-Amendment advocates. To the average American, wouldn’t it seem more likely for Russia to spend five years targeting a non-profit military defense group like, say, the Institute for Defense Analyses, or a private military company like the Houston-based KBR? But no, instead, it’s the NRA that offered something Russia wanted.
Butina, the arrested Russian national, presents herself as a gun-rights advocate who hopes to relax gun laws in Russia where citizens are allowed to own shotguns, but not handguns. Of Russian citizens who have reached out to build relationships with likeminded Americans — like Butina reportedly did with NRA members — is there a chance those people had innocent intentions? Were they like anyone looking to create a friendship with others who share similar views?
“Is it possible that these are just well-meaning people who are reaching out to Americans with shared interests? It is possible,” said retired CIA operative Steven L. Hall in an interview with the Washington Post. Hall retired from the CIA in 2015 after managing Russia operations for 30 years. “Is it likely? I don’t think it’s likely at all … My assessment is that it’s definitely part of something bigger.”
Hall was equally skeptical that Butina is indeed a true advocate for softer gun laws in her own country.
According to the Post, “he said he did not think Putin would tolerate a legitimate effort to advocate for an armed citizenry, and asserted that the movement is probably ‘controlled by the security services’ to woo the American right.”
In light of the Butina story and her recent arrest, is it a stretch to say America’s gun community is being targeted for another country’s gains? Has Putin been planting seeds of affection inside the hunting community? Most importantly, there are these final question:
Despite the lure of kinship and likemindedness — Putin shirtless on a horse, Putin landing a pike, Putin shooting an assault rifle — is the relationship worth it? When a powerful, yet corrupt man extends a gesture of acceptance and admiration, do you gesture back with a sign of allegiance and kinship? Or do you offer another gesture instead, maybe one that involves the middle finger?
A middle finger from Middle America. Is it fair to say that’s the prudent choice? The wise choice? After all, a wise man doesn’t participate in a fool’s game. Wise men win. Hunters, riflemen, gun owners, rural Americans, Middle Americans — each of them and all of them — make their own way. Independent as they are, they run their own race. They don’t blush in the light of one man’s smile.
Featured photo: iStock