Medical Examiner

Moves Like Putin

Why do Russian leaders all have the same weird walk?

George W. Bush infamously claimed to have looked into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s eyes and gotten a “sense of his soul,” but perhaps he would have learned more by watching him walk.

A recent paper in the British Medical Journal takes up the unexpected question of why Putin, as well as several of his subordinates, walk with an unusual gait, swinging the left arm normally but keeping the right arm close to the hip. Bastiaan R. Bloem, a neurologist at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre in the Netherlands, says he was first tipped off to the strange gait by one of his former instructors, who noticed it in a video of the Russian president.

For Bloem and his co-authors (all “movement disorder enthusiasts,” as he puts it), the video, and others in which Putin walks the same way, set off alarm bells since “unilaterally reduced arm swing” can be a sign of several neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s disease. Videos of the 1970s English soccer star Ray Kennedy’s arm movements, for instance, show early stages of what turned out to be Parkinson’s. Old films of Adolf Hitler have also convinced many neurologists that he was in the early stages of the disease. (This is actually referred to in an episode of the new Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, which shows a fictional aging Hitler with his hand in his pocket to hide signs of the disease.)

Videos of other senior Russian officials show the same unusual gait, including Prime Minister (and former president) Dmitry Medvedev, former defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov, and current chief of the presidential administration Sergei Ivanov.

“The first thing that came to mind is, ‘What the heck? Is there a Parkinson’s epidemic in the Kremlin?’ ” says Bloem. That would be pretty unheard of, and several other factors argue against the diagnosis in Putin’s case. The Russian leader’s arm movements are consistent, rather than worsening over time. He shows no signs of weakness in either arm in the many, many videos released of him performing vigorous physical activity, and his handwriting appears normal.

Another possible explanation surfaced when one of Bloem’s colleagues found a KGB training manual, which instructs operatives that “[w]hen moving, it is absolutely necessary to keep your weapon against the chest or in the right hand. Moving forward should be done with one side, usually the left, turned somewhat in the direction of movement.” The authors have called the ex-KBG agent’s John Wayne–esque walk a “gunslinger’s gait.” This doesn’t mean, literally, that the president is packing. Putin probably never did much gunslinging in the KGB, where his job was to recruit potential operatives in East Germany, but the walk may be a tough-guy affectation akin to his often-coarse choice of language. “Putin is a macho leader who kept his gait to show that he is a KGB veteran,” Bloem says.

Ivanov is also an ex-KGB man and Serdyukov has a military background. Medvedev, on the other hand, is a lifelong civilian lawyer thought of as something of a nerd. In his case, the walk might be compensation. When he was first elected president in 2008, for a four-year term in which he was mostly keeping the seat warm for Putin’s return, Kremlin-connected spin doctors reported that he was being coached to mimic his mentor’s rhetorical style and even his walk. “He’s probably just aping his boss’ gait,” says Bloem. “If you want to be part of the Kremlin elite, you don’t swing your right arm.”

The paper was published as part of BMJ’s annual Christmas issue, which features tongue-in-cheek papers on offbeat topics, so the “gunslinger’s gait” should be taken in the spirit of speculative food for thought rather than an irrefutable conclusion. But Bloem says the paper is meant to convey a serious point as well. It shows that observation over time and distance is necessary to properly diagnose movement disorders and that patient background and experience can produce symptoms the look like the result of medical conditions. “It is really a tribute to the art of observation in health care,” he says. And perhaps also useful guidance for anyone who aspires to have moves like Putin.