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Medical News Today: Putin’s unusual walk: KGB or Parkinson’s?

Each Christmas, The BMJ release a series of papers showcasing research of a more left-field bent than their normal fare. Today, we take a look at one of these intriguing and original studies.
[Vladimir Putin delivering a speech]
Is Putin’s odd gait due to disease or military training?

Despite the Christmas topics being slightly unusual, the research is still peer-reviewed and based on detailed work.

Science owes a huge debt to serendipity; the discovery of penicillin springs to mind, as does Viagra, which was initially designed to treat angina.

Important scientific discoveries can appear from the most unlikely of corners. Because of this, all rigorous research has a certain inbuilt validity.

The paper covered below is entitled ‘”Gunslinger’s gait’: a new cause of unilaterally reduced arm swing”. The work was carried out by Prof. Bas Bloem and his pan-European team of self-declared, unabashed movement disorder enthusiasts.

YouTube-based research

The team of gait-obsessed researchers were struck one day while watching YouTube videos of Russian President Vladimir Putin walking. His left arm behaved as expected, but they noticed he had a much-reduced swing in his right arm.

They searched on and found a wealth of examples. When walking, Putin’s left arm swings normally, but his right arm stays almost static by his side.

While considering potential reasons for Putin’s modified gait, the team came across a KGB training manual. In a section discussing how an operative should move in the field, they found the following paragraph:

“When 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.”

Putin did indeed receive KGB training, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Could it be that ingrained training in the secret service permanently affected the way he walked?

The video below shows an example of Putin’s walk, as he enters for his presidential inauguration ceremony:

‘Gunslinger’s gait’ may result from behavioral adaptation

To see if their theory held any water, the avid researchers widened their net. They searched for videos showcasing the gait of other Russian officials.

They found that, as predicted, other top Russian brass displayed a similarly muted swing with their right arm as they walked.

The gait was spotted in several Russian officials of significant rank; these included the current prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, two ex-ministers of defence – Anatoly Serdyukov and Sergei Ivanov – and a highly ranked military commander – Anatoly Sidorov.

They termed this striking asymmetrically reduced arm swing as “gunslinger’s gait.”

The authors say:

“We propose that this new gait pattern, which we term ‘gunslinger’s gait’, may result from a behavioral adaptation, possibly triggered by KGB or other forms of weaponry training where trainees are taught to keep their right hand close to the chest while walking, allowing them to quickly draw a gun when faced with a foe.”

To ensure that the reduced movement in the right hand was not due to some underlying pathology, the team watched videos of the officials writing or carrying out other tasks with their right hand. All were found to have fluid, normal use of their right limb in these situations.

KGB links with Russian officials

Putin’s KGB career is well known; Ivanov also spent time in the KGB, but Medvedev, Serdyukov and Sidorov did not.

Serdyukov did, however, spend a year in the Soviet Army and 5 years as the minister of defense. Sidorov is a current member of the Russian military.

The link is weakest for Medvedev, who has no links to military or intelligence agencies. It could be that his gait is due to the “imitate the boss” phenomenon. This theory holds some water, as Medvedev is constantly being groomed to look and sound more like Putin. Whether this different gait is a purposeful imitation or a subliminal affectation is up for debate.

Unilaterally reduced arm swing pathology

A walk that shows a marked reduction in arm swing on just one side is a diagnostic sign for a number of disorders, including Erb’s palsy (a paralysis of the arm caused by nerve damage), stroke and Parkinson’s disease.

Pre-Parkinson’s symptoms are an interesting area of research. Spotting the signs early has obvious benefits. Among these early markers are constipation, a reduced sense of smell and a unilaterally reduced arm swing.

In the past, Putin’s slightly unusual walk has been questioned. Some wondered if he has Erb’s palsy or if he was showing early signs of Parkinson’s.

This does not seem to be the case; neither Putin nor the officials displayed any of the other symptoms associated with early Parkinson’s, such as rest tremor or rigidity. Additionally, Putin is an excellent swimmer, has no problem lifting weights and is a judo black belt. This rules out any of the other disorders.

The authors of the study note that Putin’s walk has remained constant over a number of years without any marked decline in function. This adds weight to their KGB theory.

This intriguing research might add a useful note of caution for any doctors considering the early diagnosis of Parkinson’s in an individual who has had experience within the military or secret services.

Medical News Today recently covered research showing that ex-military personnel who serve less than 4 years “are at increased risk of suicide”.

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