Russia pays fawning tribute to birthday boy 'Putin the First'

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The Independent Online

President Vladimir Putin celebrated his 52nd birthday yesterday basking in the warm afterglow of a Soviet-style cult of personality. Although he and his officials insist they have no desire to engender such a cult, his supporters and the largely state-controlled TV networks have ensured one has grown up.

After more than four years as Russia's President, his approval ratings remain astonishingly high and the evening news is not complete without a long report showing Mr Putin talking to his ministers or inspecting a factory. Yesterday he was thought to have had informal meetings in Moscow with the president and prime minister of Ukraine.

The daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, which enjoys privileged access to the Kremlin, published a sentimental account of his school years in St Petersburg as recounted by his then German teacher Vera Dmitrievna Gurevich. Under the headline "A Hero of Our Time", the paper pictured a smiling Mr Putin being hugged by his former teacher.

The paper told readers Ms Gurevich had just published a book about her famous former pupil entitled Vladimir Putin: Parents, Friends and Teachers. It also carried sentimental anecdotes about how young "Volodya" used to try to copy the work of fellow pupils' work, and how incredibly energetic he was. "During the break, he was so active he was seen on all floors," Ms Gurevich says. Mr Putin, who formerly headed the FSB security service and served as a KGB officer in what was then East Germany, apparently had a few qualms about learning German.

His father had been badly wounded and his grandmother and two uncles killed during the Second World War so Ms Gurevich says that she had a lot of persuading to do.

Other papers dealt with his birthday with more humour. Nezavisimaya Gazeta pointed out that the Mariinsky Theatre in Mr Putin's native St Petersburg opened its season yesterday with a Mikhail Glinka opera called Life for the Tsar, suggesting strongly that it had been arranged in his honour. The opera charts the rise in the 17th century of Mikhail Romanov, later to become Tsar.

Moskovsky Komsomolets was more daring; it published a cartoon of Mr Putin dressed as a king, drinking champagne on a throne surrounded by court jesters and generals. The Putin figure says: "A rightful government is when the sovereign is always right."

Much of the paraphernalia glorifying Mr Putin that was produced after his first election in 2000 has disappeared, though cast-iron busts of him are still on sale in Moscow's kiosks. Tourist firms in St Petersburg now organise special tours of "Putin's Petersburg". The President's fans are shown the apartment block where he and his parents lived, his school, his university, and even the KGB office where he began his career.

Mr Putin and his radical, centralising reforms may raise eyebrows in the West but he is popular among ordinary Russians. Even after the Beslan school massacre, which the authorities were widely perceived to have handled badly, his approval rating stood at 66 per cent.

That may be a far cry from the 80 per cent-plus figures he was polling at the beginning of the year but it is a rating for which many a Western politician would give their eye teeth.

Mr Putin has said he wants elections for regional governors scrapped in favour of appointments (by him) and for the Kremlin to have a much greater say in the appointment of judges. He has also packed his administration with former spies and loyal people from his home city. Opposition parties have accused him of mounting a constitutional coup and worry that he is determined to undo Russia's democratic progress.

But his birthday did not pass without blemish. Andrei Illarionov, one of his most senior advisers, made an unusually scathing critique of the Kremlin's economic policy and savaged the way it had handled the Yukos affair and the trial of the billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky.