By MIKE ECKEL
The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 22, 2007; 12:52 PM
MOSCOW -- When he flexes Russia's diplomatic and military muscle, Vladimir Putin always makes headlines.
But few could have predicted the squall of gossip and speculation that erupted after the president stripped off his shirt for the cameras while vacationing in the Siberian mountains last week.
The resulting images, prominently enshrined on the presidential Web site, inspired admiration, criticism and some racing pulses among his admirers.
The Russian media still can't get enough.
The tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda on Wednesday published a huge color photo of the bare-chested president under the headline: "Be Like Putin." Its excuse? A guide showing exactly what exercises were required to build up a torso like the Russian leader's.
Kremlin watchers have been trying to guess what kind of political message the pictures send, given that the 54-year-old Putin has insisted he plans to step down at the end of his second term next year, as required by the constitution.
One radio talk show host speculated the photos were meant to enhance Putin's personal appeal to voters _ a strong signal that he doesn't plan to relinquish power. When the commentator, Yevgeniya Albats, went on to suggest the half-naked photo shoot was unbecoming for a Russian leader, female listeners peppered her with e-mails expressing admiration for Putin's physique.
Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that women who visited its Web site posted comments on Putin's "vigorous torso" and said they "were screaming with delight and showering (him) with compliments."
Russian gay chat rooms and blogs were particularly intrigued by the photos: Some claimed that Putin, by stripping to his waist, was somehow pleading for more tolerance of homosexuality in Russia _ where gays and lesbians are for the most part forced to remain closeted.
One satirical photo circulating on the Internet jokingly compared Putin's mountain adventure with Prince Albert II of Monaco to the movie "Brokeback Mountain," a love story about two cowboys who conceal a homosexual affair.
The Russian president, who is married with two daughters, has long cultivated an image of machismo and manliness. Well-known as a downhill skier and black belt in judo, Putin has appeared on national television driving a truck, operating a train, sailing on a submarine and copiloting a fighter jet.
These exploits have been widely publicized, thanks to the Kremlin's control of major Russian media.
In contrast to his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, notorious for drunken antics, Putin has established an image as serious, energetic, sober and sharp-witted. In a country that worships its Olympic and other world-class athletes, he has also taken care to stay physically fit.
In interviews, he speaks avidly about judo and athletics.
"Sport has helped me form my own personal point of view on the world, on people and my approach to them," he said in an interview posted on the Kremlin Web site.
Some say it's all part of the Putin mystique.
"He's cool. That's been the image throughout the presidency, cool," said Sergei Markov, Kremlin-connected head of the Moscow-based Institute for Political Research.
But Putin's outdoor outing last week took this manly public persona to a new level.
The prince and the president spent several days on vacation in the mountainous southern Siberian region of Tuva. Dressed in fatigues, fingerless gloves, a bush hat and chic sunglasses, Russia's most powerful man was shown on TV broadcasts in scenic footage riding horses, rafting down a river, fishing for grayling and off-roading in a sport utility vehicle.
Amid the outdoor posturing, the image-handlers were careful to make sure Putin was shown staying on top of major events _ a lesson he learned after he was criticized for failing to immediately interrupt his vacation after the submarine Kursk sank in August 2000.
Putin's Siberian holiday coincided with the bombing of a passenger train near St. Petersburg. This time, TV footage showed him reportedly issuing orders to top ministers by cell phone from his vacation retreat.
Stanislav Belkovsky, head of the National Strategy Institute think tank, said the pictures from Tuva were nothing more than an effort to reassure Russians that Putin knows how to relax _ and was preparing for retirement.
Yevgeny Volk, who heads the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office, said the political elite increasingly views Putin as a lame duck leader and that the photos only strengthen the impression that he should no longer be taken seriously.
Kremlin Web site: http://kremlin.ru/eng/events/details/2007/08/13_141050.shtml