Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting in Moscow, on September 26, 2011. Internet has been abuzz with rumors about whether he has had botox. (YANA LAPIKOVA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

First he’s the bare-chested outdoorsman galloping on his powerful steed across Siberia, then the telescoped-rifle-toting hunter felling wild animals, next the airplane-flying firefighter dousing burning forests, the leather-jacketed biker dominating the pack.

He’s Vladimir Putin, Russia’s skating, fishing, skiing, diving, judo-throwing man for all seasons.

You can only imagine what all that sun and wind does to a guy’s skin, not to mention the frownies from toting around nuclear briefcases and imposing your will on a nation of 140 million often fractious citizens. Thank heaven for Botox.

That, anyway, is the rumor, my dears. The blogs are atitter. The critics are meowing. They’re saying Putin, who turns 59 next Friday, no longer looks his age.

The whispering began a year ago when the prime minister appeared in Ukraine with what looked like a bruise on the cheekbone below his left eye. Journalists were told they were imagining it. “There are no bruises there,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said at the time. “He was just really tired after several flights and extra meetings. Also, the light may have fallen on him in an unfortunate manner.”

Soon enough other stories dominated the news, distracting everyone. Would the vicious beating of yet another journalist be solved? Would the destruction of an ancient forest be prevented? Would former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky be freed after seven years in prison? No, no and NO!

Then, last week, Putin revealed that he would be taking back the presidency from Dmitry Medvedev in the March election, giving Medvedev his job as prime minister. Putin’s face was everywhere, and the knives were soon flashing.

“Russians desired a new face in politics,” a blogger identified as ubunturka put it, “so Putin had plastic surgery.”

A blogger named Tatyana Nabatnikova decided he had gotten Botox, and too much of it, so that he looked like some Michael Jackson. “It’s impossible to look at Putin,” she wrote.

Since Putin was last president, the presidential term has been extended to six years, and most Russians assumed Putin was telling them that he will run the country for two terms, until 2024, when he is 71. That would give him nearly a quarter of a century in power — raising comparisons to the unfortunately crepe-papery Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, a time of stagnation.

Although many have accused Putin of presiding over another period of stagnation, no one can call him wrinkle-faced. And Botox has emerged as the favored theory.

“Of course,” said Leonid Volkov, an opposition politician and member of the opposition in Yekaterinburg. “You can see it on TV.”

On Wednesday, Ilya Yashin, a 28-year-old blogger and member of the opposition, posted one of the jokes going around. Putin has three stages in his political career:

2000-2008 — President.

2008-2012 — Ex-president.

2012 — Botox-president.

“I don’t know how they will keep the country together on Botox,” said Yelena Stepanova, a human rights activist.

If Putin has had work, no one has any evidence, and one blogger suggested it was all so much talk.

“When several million people talk about you in a vulgar way from morning to night,” wrote evgknyaginin, “maybe your appearance will change so no one will recognize you.”