From Russians, with love: Putin's 50th birthday celebrated

— The Russian people, accustomed to centuries living under rulers cast as omnipotent and omniscient, showered gifts and attention on their president as he turned 50 on Monday � a display that some say is reminiscent of a Soviet-style cult of personality.

But others say Vladimir Putin is just a highly popular, humble leader who does all he can to shun the accolades and adoration.

He has been flattered in book and song, his face plastered on T-shirts, billboards and nesting 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.

From classes about Putin in a Ural mountain city of Yekaterinburg school, to a parade and a prayer in his name in the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod, to a Moscow conference about the presidential image, the president was the focus of events across the sprawling country.

TV news shows devoted vast amounts of time to Putin. 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. The daily Komsomolskaya Pravda printed a letter from National Hockey League 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."

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 myth-making.

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. Monday morning the country's president Vladimir Voronin gave Putin a bottle of wine with the Russian leader's portrait, and a crystal crocodile. Ukraine's president gave him a solar clock.

Back in Russia, television channels broadcast several programs about Putin.

A 20-minute segment on the ORT channel alternated footage of an on-the-go Putin � swimming with dolphins, greeting adoring teenage fans � with an interview about his personal tastes and home life.

Putin 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.

The NTV network had a story about a woman who has trained her dog to bark "Vova" � short for Vladimir � and a man who changed his last name to Putin's, calling the president an "angel" who had given his life meaning.

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 � not him.

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