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Russian bare: Putin doffs his shirt but veils motives for the curious

Russian President Vladimir Putin went shirtless for the cameras in Siberia last week. Russian President Vladimir Putin went shirtless for the cameras in Siberia last week. (ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTO)

MOSCOW -- When he flexes Russia's diplomatic and military muscle, Vladimir Putin always makes headlines.

But few could have predicted the squall of gossip and speculation that erupted after the president stripped off his shirt for the cameras while vacationing in the Siberian mountains last week.

The resulting images, prominently enshrined on the presidential Web site, inspired admiration, criticism, and some racing pulses among his admirers.

The Russian media still can't get enough.

The tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda yesterday published a huge color photo of the bare-chested president under the headline: "Be Like Putin." Its excuse? A guide showing exactly what exercises were required to build up a torso like the Russian leader's.

Kremlin watchers have been trying to guess what kind of political message the pictures send, given that the 54-year-old Putin has insisted he plans to step down at the end of his second term next year, as required by the constitution.

One radio talk show host speculated the photos were meant to enhance Putin's personal appeal to voters -- a strong signal that he doesn't plan to relinquish power. When the commentator, Yevgeniya Albats, went on to suggest the half-naked photo shoot was unbecoming for a Russian leader, female listeners peppered her with e-mails expressing admiration for Putin's physique.

Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that women who visited its Web site posted comments on Putin's "vigorous torso" and said they "were screaming with delight and showering (him) with compliments."

Russian gay chat rooms and blogs were particularly intrigued by the photos: Some said Putin, by stripping to his waist, was somehow pleading for more tolerance of homosexuality in Russia, where gays and lesbians are for the most part forced to remain closeted.

One satirical photo circulating on the Internet jokingly compared Putin's mountain adventure with Prince Albert II of Monaco to the movie "Brokeback Mountain," a love story about two cowboys who conceal a homosexual affair.

The Russian president, who is married with two daughters, has long cultivated an image of machismo and manliness. Well-known as a downhill skier and black belt in judo, Putin has appeared on national television driving a truck, operating a train, sailing on a submarine, and copiloting a fighter jet.

These exploits have been widely publicized, thanks to the Kremlin's control of major Russian media.

In contrast to his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, notorious for drunken antics, Putin has established an image as serious, energetic, sober, and sharp-witted. In a country that worships its Olympic and other world-class athletes, he has also taken care to stay physically fit.

In interviews, he speaks avidly about judo and athletics.

"Sport has helped me form my own personal point of view on the world, on people and my approach to them," he said in an interview posted on the Kremlin website.

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