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Russia

Vladimir Putin Dives Into History

Up close as the Russian Prime Minister takes an archaeology tour, by land and by sea -- and resurfaces with some loot. A surreal snapshot of the spectacle of contemporary Russian politics.

After the dive (MyPlanet TV)
After the dive (MyPlanet TV)

On Wednesday the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited the ancient Greek town of Phanagoria near Taman in the Krasnodar region of southern Russia. For years, archaeologists have been trying to excavate it for ancient treasures on land and at sea. To the astonishment of everyone present Putin put on a wetsuit and dived into the Sea of Asov to have a look for himself.

TAMAN - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin flew into this coastal town on a helicopter and arrived behind the wheel of a dust-covered jeep at the burial mound Boyur.

Boyur is the biggest mound in Taman, and has long been the object of archaeologists' eyes, far and wide. It's not quite clear who was buried there -- and on the whole, as I discovered, archaeology is a rather uncertain science. Still, everyone seems to agree that it must have been the final resting place of somebody seriously important.

This is also why the mound has often been the target of thieves throughout the centuries. But never before has there been such systematic digging on the mound as there is currently. Several bulldozers and tractors are methodically leveling it. Of course there's still enough work for students and their shovels. And a single one of them was introduced to Vladimir Putin.

Professor Kusnetsov, who heads the excavation efforts, explained that when the team was digging they found tunnels created centuries ago by thieves. He said the team was hopeful for some important new discoveries, even if: "99.9 percent of the site is completely plundered."

The Prime Minister asked when the site was robbed. "That's something we don't know," Kusnetsov admitted, though he added that "the Genoese came here once, and we don't trust them with anything."

"Oh, let's blame everything on the Genoese and the problem is solved!" Putin quipped back.

Something to take home

At the same time, the president of the Russian Geographical Society Sergei Shoigu found a small pottery chip while walking around the excavation site. "It'll come in handy in the house," Putin said, as if jealous of the find. He, too, seemed to be on the look out for something to take home.

After visiting the mound, Putin went to the ancient living quarters in Phanagoria. He was particularly fascinated by the remains of a vase that had been lodged in a wall for centuries. A student showed the prime minister how to use a scraper. Putin took it and touched the vase. It chipped immediately.

"Oops!" Putin said.

"Don't worry about it," said the student. "We'll fix it later."

Back in his jeep, the Prime Minister drove up to the beach. He put on a wetsuit and together with Shoigu and professor Kusnetsov approached the small pier.

It seems, at least underwater, Vladimir Putin has done it all. He's chased whales in the Sea of Japan; he's been on a submarine and various warships; he descended to the bottom of Lake Baikal in a deep-sea capsule. He's demonstrated his fishing skills in Tuva and the Altai region. But as it turned out, there was one more task at hand: scuba diving in an ancient Greek town at the bottom of the Sea of Asov.

It was 40 minutes before the boat made a triumphant return. Putin walked down the beach carrying two ancient vases. With no less pride, Sergei Shoigu had another one in his hands. It is of course difficult to verify where the vases are from - the bottom of the Sea or from a museum collection. But of course the Prime Minister insisted that the vases were waiting for him down there, ever since the 6th century. That's what Prof. Kusnetsov had told him.

He looked at the vases, and lifted them up for the photographers who had gathered around. Some ancient vases that help complete a perfect snapshot of Russian politics, circa 2011.

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