MOSCOW - Vladimir Putin has been flattered in books and songs, his face plastered on T-shirts, billboards and matryoshka dolls. There's a Putin look-alike, there's a young man who assumed the Russian president's last name and there's a dog that can bark his first.
Just when it seemed the Russian leader had gotten all the recognition he could, along came his 50th birthday Monday - and with it a shower of gifts and attention reflecting what some say is simply popularity and others call a Soviet-style cult of personality.
From classes about Putin in a Yekaterinburg school, to a parade and a prayer in his name in Nizhny Novgorod, to a conference about his image in Moscow, the president was the focus of events held across Russia. TV news shows devoted loads of time to Putin, and newspapers listed developments in the growing myth surrounding the former KGB agent who has cast himself as a reformer and champion of order.
Children were encouraged to write Putin letters with their hopes and hints, and the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda printed a letter from NHL star Pavel Bure saying he was "gratified that we finally have a national leader whom the people link with real hopes for the revival of Russia" and prepared to do anything in his power to help get the job done.
Putin was away from the whirlwind, attending a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moldova - not surprising, since aides claim he is uncomfortable about the mythmaking.
But the other leaders were aware of the occasion: The summit's informal program included birthday greetings at a cave complex filled with fine Moldovan wine; on Monday morning the country's president Vladimir Voronin gave Putin a bottle with the Russian leader's portrait, and a crystal crocodile. Ukraine's president gave him a solar clock.
Putin also received birthday calls from leaders around the world, including U.S. President George W. Bush, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, the Kremlin said.
Back in Russia, Rossiya and ORT, two state-controlled TV channels, broadcast competing prime-time programs about Putin.
A "Day With the President," a 20-minute segment on ORT's evening news, alternated footage of an on-the-go Putin - swimming with dolphins, horseback riding, greeting adoring teenage fans - with an interview about his personal tastes and home life. Putin named the end of serfdom as the biggest historical event in Russia and said he didn't know what his wife would give him for his birthday. Last year it was "a sweater, I think, or a scarf," he said.
Rossiya, meanwhile, broadcast a casual, one-hour conversation with Putin over tea. Putin anxiously furrowed his brow as the interviewer showed him excerpts from his first television interview at the start of his political career 11 years ago, when he worked in the St. Petersburg city government.
The NTV network showed a woman who has trained her dog to bark "Vova" - short for Vladimir - and a man who changed his patronymic and last name to Putin's, calling the president an "angel" who had given his life meaning. It also showed a Putin look-alike who said he planned to give the president a car he built with an engine from a Russian Volga and a chassis modeled after an antique Mercedes.
The gift that said the most, however, was a hat - a replica of sable-lined, jewel-encrusted Cap of Monomakh, an early czarist-era symbol of the Russian autocrat's absolute power - that a group of jewelers and cultural figures said they planned to give Putin for his birthday.
The newspaper Gazeta quoted an unnamed Kremlin official as saying the Cap of Monomakh had not yet arrived and that if it did, Putin would not try it on. That comment suggested the Kremlin is eager to show that if anybody is making the president into a mythical figure, it is the Russian people - accustomed for centuries to living under rulers cast as omnipotent and omniscient.
Alexei Pushkov, the anchor of a political news program on the Moscow network TV Tsentr, said there is a lot to that theory. "The whole stability of Russia is based on the image of Putin - there is no objective basis for stability, either social or economic, there are high oil prices and there is the image of Putin. Under these conditions, when society seeks a strut of support, it turns to Putin," Pushkov said in an interview.
He said the mythmaking around Putin also results from his popularity and of commercialism - budding Russian capitalists looking to make money of his name or is image.
Political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, director of a Moscow think tank called the Center for Strategic Studies, said the image of Putin - who was plucked from obscurity and picked by former President Boris Yeltsin as his successor - is largely a creation of Kremlin insiders determined to remain in power. "Of course this all starts at the top," he said.