Rumors surrounding Vladimir Putin's love life have been lighting up the Russian gossip columns yet again recently, after it was announced the prime minister hired a former beauty contestant and lingerie model as his official photographer.
Putin's spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov, insisted that Yana Lapikova had been hired on merit not because of her looks. "Her modeling past does not concern us whatsoever," he said.
But the Russian blogosphere buzzed with speculation that 25-year-old Lapikova had no real photography experience. "I have asked photography colleagues about her. No one could say anything – no one knew her," wrote blogger Rustam Adagamov.
While photos of Lapikova wearing lingerie, looking sultry and smoking a cigarette have cropped up on websites everywhere, photographs she herself took have been less ubiquitous. An online portfolio does exist under her name, but reportedly contains mainly pictures of cats.
It's not the first time tongues have wagged about Putin's penchant for young attractive women. Russian Vogue raised eyebrows last year when it controversially featured former Russian Olympic gymnast Alina Kabaevaon its cover. The 27-year-old Kabaeva had long been rumored to be Putin's mistress, with some reports even claiming he was the father of a child she had in 2009.
Putin, who married former Aeroflot flight attendant Lyudmila Shkrebneva in 1983, fiercely denied the allegations. "In what you said there is not one word of truth," Putin has been mum lately on the subject, but told journalists angrily in 2008 during a trip to Sardinia. "I have always reacted negatively to those with their snotty noses and erotic fantasies prowl into others lives."
Indeed Russian MPs voted for further media censorship as a direct reaction to the allegations surrounding Putin's relationship with Kabaeva, and the paper, the Moskovski Korrespondent, which made the initial allegation - was shut down almost immediately afterward.
In any case, it seems Putin's allure among young Russian women remains as strong as ever – evidenced by; "I really do like Putin" and "Putin's army"; examples of mushrooming support groups made up of often teenage girls who perform various stunts such as bikini car washes and marches, in support of their hero. "Putin parties" have even been reported at some Moscow nightclubs.
One video from "Putin's army" shows a girl tearing her shirt off in support of Putin – and encouraging other women to do the same. The video follows a calendar pictured on The Moscow Diaries, which was gifted to Putin last fall. The calendar pictures journalism students from Moscow State University stripped down to underwear, and features phrases like "Putin, how about a third go?": presumably a reference to the PM taking a shot at a third presidential term.