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.
Widely seen as something of an autocrat, Putin has been making attempts in recent years to exhibit his softer side – perhaps as a way of competing with the incumbent, Medvedev, who's generally considered more of a liberal. A series of arranged press events saw Putin interacting with cuddly creatures: weighing a polar bear, helping to release a Persian leopard and feeding baby elks from a bottle. Last year Putin was gifted with a tiger from an anonymous donor, as well as a huge fluffy puppy from the Bulgarian prime minister, as thanks for an oil pipeline deal. Putin was snapped cuddling the new pet, and even held a "name the puppy" competition. The winning moniker? "Buffy."
Putin's rebranding has extended to to half-naked photos of him holding a fish and a gun, as well as riding a horse. Putin's been seen attending a fight with his friend Jean Claude Van Damme, and riding motorcycles with the Russian Night Wolves gang. Visiting a pro-Kremlin youth group recently, Putin scaled a climbing wall with no safety gear, partook in arm wrestling, and unsuccessfully tried to bend a frying pan with his bare hands.
The organizations of eager teenage girls, combined with Putin's macho-man antics, are likely evidence of Putin's attempt to reconnect with Russian youth, as well as a way of showing he's still physically fit, in anticipation of a possible repeat bid for the presidency in 2012. Putin was barred from seeking a third presidential term in 2008, but may well be looking to run again in 2012 – this time for 12 years. Indeed a campaign video released this week called; 'We are building a new Russia. V. Putin, would seem to indicate that may well be the case.
Although Putin's self-branding as macho figure, animal lover and ladies man may well resonate with today's Russia, these political tactics probably seem pretty alien, if not slightly ridiculous, to most US onlookers. However it's worth bearing in mind that some of Putin's strategies come straight out of the president's playbook. Indeed Amber Lee Ettinger's "I got a crush on Obama" video, showing her dancing around in a skin tight outfit, inspired a host of other copycat versions – none of which can have hurt his attempts to woo young men to the polls.
Surrounding himself with scantily clad young women, and adding a host of furry animals into the mix, Putin will at least ensure that if and when he does run, he has voters' attention.