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Birthday boy in hiding as Putin-mania hits new peak

MOSCOW: Men climbed peaks and unfurled his portrait, while women flirted shamelessly in videos that quickly went viral: Russians celebrated Vladimir Putin's 60th birthday on Sunday with adulation fit for a king.

All across the country, cities attempted to outdo each other with platitudes. The town of Vladimir woke up to find the city's name changed to reflect Mr Putin's name and patronymic - Vladimir Vladimirovich - on all its street signs. In the southern region of North Ossetia, 10 mountaineers scaled a 4150-metre mountain and planted a large portrait of Russia's powerful leader - the first step, they said, towards having it renamed Peak Putin.

Not everyone in the kingdom was in celebratory mood. The irony of the fact Mr Putin has reached 60, the age at which Russian men are eligible for retirement, in the year of his contentious return to the Kremlin was not lost on those who have spent much of the past year taking to the streets in anger. ''Lead Grandad to Retirement'' was the name of one protest held by about 150 of those demonstrators, who came equipped with pipes and slippers as retirement presents for the increasingly unpopular Mr Putin.

Russian officials remained mum on another anniversary celebrated on October 7, the day in 2006 on which the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered. As Mr Putin was getting ready to celebrate his birthday in St Petersburg, opposition activists in the northern city gathered in the centre of town to unfurl a banner reading: ''Putin, we remember everything.''

Mr Putin returned to the presidency in May after a four-year interlude as prime minister because of a constitutional ban on serving more than two consecutive terms. He has been at the country's helm since 2000 - one-fifth of his eventful life.

If he serves another term, he will have been in charge for longer than Leonid Brezhnev and almost as long as Joseph Stalin. The comparisons between Mr Putin and the latter have grown in recent months, not least because of Mr Putin's own calls for a Stalinesque ''great leap forward'' in industry and the renewed spotlight on show trials, such as that of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot.


But the Kremlin has gone to some lengths to downplay the cult of Mr Putin's personality. None of the celebrations on Sunday were officially sponsored by the Kremlin. Mr Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the President disliked such grandiose displays and would celebrate the day surrounded by close family and friends in his home town of St Petersburg.

Yet the state's hand was visible in nearly all the festivities. NTV, a state-run channel, aired a fawning documentary detailing the ins and outs of Mr Putin's daily life. There was Mr Putin in his cavernous office, Mr Putin swimming laps in a pool, Mr Putin peeking into a refrigerator, Mr Putin answering the questions of a journalist with a brow that strained to furrow.

Rumours of plastic surgery have haunted Mr Putin, who continues to maintain a macho image despite his advancing years.

Presents and goodwill messages came from across the former Soviet Union, including one from Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox church, whose close relationship with Mr Putin prompted the cathedral protest that resulted in Pussy Riot's arrest.

''Today, Russian citizens' desire to live in peace and harmony, to determine their own destiny, and to maintain their spiritual and cultural identity, is being realised, in large part thanks to your efforts and timely decision-making,'' Patriarch Kirill said.

Guardian News & Media