SOCHI, Russia Russian President Vladimir Putin has admitted that some of his most famous media adventures with wildlife have been carefully staged but has said they were worthwhile because they drew the public's attention to important conservation projects.
His macho appearances with everything from tigers to whales have been a staple of Russian state TV for years, cementing his image as a man of action but drawing mockery from critics who have likened them to Soviet-style propaganda.
Although Putin's spokesman has previously revealed that at least one of the stunts was a set-up, Putin until now has appeared to play along with the exercises, allowing state media to present them as they seem rather than how they really are.
But in a rare meeting with a Kremlin critic after his latest wildlife stunt - taking to the skies in a light aircraft with a group of cranes last week - Putin admitted he had often taken part in media exercises which were carefully staged.
Sometimes, he said the stunts had been over the top.
"Of course, there are excesses. And I am enraged about it," he told Masha Gessen, a journalist and Putin critic whom he had invited for a meeting in the Kremlin after she was sacked from her job editing a travel magazine for refusing to send reporters to cover the crane flight.
She wrote an account of her meeting with the president in Bolshoi Gorod magazine.
"But I thought up these tigers myself. Twenty other countries where tigers live, also started taking care of them," she quoted him as saying, referring to an incident four years ago when he was shown shooting a tiger with a tranquilizer gun that looked like it was poised to attack someone.
Environmentalists later suggested the tiger had been driven in from a zoo for Putin to shoot for the TV cameras.
"The leopards were also my idea," Putin was quoted as saying. "Yes, I know, they were caught before but the most important thing is to draw public attention to the problem."
He was apparently referring to an episode in 2011 when he was shown tagging and releasing a rare and injured snow leopard. Environmentalists again said it had been brought in specially.
"OF COURSE IT WAS A SET UP"
"Everything I do in this area (wildlife conservation) should have nothing to do with politics. But for a man in my position it is very difficult," Putin said.
Putin also admitted that a stunt last year for which he donned a wet suit and dove to the bottom of the Black Sea to apparently discover ancient amphorae was also not what it seemed.
"Why did I dive? Not to show my gills off but to make sure people learn history. Of course it was a set up," the journalist quoted Putin as saying.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where Putin is spending a few days this week, that Gessen had provided "a correct account of the meeting except for some insignificant details."
Putin's summons to Gessen appeared to be an attempt to mediate in her dispute with her former employer.
She said that Putin, flanked by the magazine's owner, asked her whether she really wanted to have her job back or whether she was comfortable with the role of "a persecuted journalist" in which case the conversation did not make sense.
Gessen wrote that she had refused to accept Putin's offer to take her old job back, saying she did not want to work in a magazine where an editor-in-chief is appointed by Putin. However, Peskov said that Gessen had initially agreed to take her old job back only to change her mind the following day.
(Reporting by Gleb Bryanski; Editing by Andrew Osborn)
(This story removes erroneous reference to meeting in Kremlin cafeteria in paragraph 6)