MOSCOW - For many Russians, the climate has turned even chillier than the cold north winds bearing down on the country these days would warrant.
The political party associated with Vladimir V. Putin is distributing a book to St. Petersburg first-graders that describes the president in the same tone once reserved for another Vladimir - Vladimir I. Lenin, the founder of the Communist Party and leader of the Bolshevik revolution.
Perhaps the unprepossessing little book would not have been enough on its own to send shivers down so many spines, but it arrives at a time of concern about Putin's authoritarian inclinations, given the arrest of a Radio Liberty reporter in Chechnya, the assault on Moscow's only independent television station and a clampdown by the former KGB on the flow of information in a Volga River city.
"That book is a small indication of the new atmosphere in society," Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst, said yesterday. "It would have been impossible even two years ago. Nobody published anything like that about [former President Boris N.] Yeltsin. We live in different times."
The simply written book concentrates on the rights of children as defined by the United Nations, but it also has a Soviet tone.
To "Comrade children," it says of the Russian president: "When he was little like you, he didn't know he would be president and would be responsible for everything. Nobody knew. But everyone on the block knew that Vovka [little Vladimir] was not afraid of anybody and would never let anybody down. ... And he is still not afraid of anything. He flies in fighter planes, skis down mountains and goes where there is fighting to stop wars. And all the other presidents of other countries meet him and respect him very much. ... He had so many friends - the entire country of Russia, and they elected him president. Now everyone says: Russia, Putin, Unity!"
Unity is the party formed to promote Putin, and when the St. Petersburg branch of the party heard that a group of teachers and children's advocates was having trouble finding the money to publish a book about children's rights, the party offered to pay for 10,000 copies. An additional 30,000 copies have reportedly been ordered.
In return, Unity got a page devoted to Putin - a St. Petersburg native - showing a picture of him as a small child in his mother's arms, another at about age 12 and a third as an adult. That's how most adult Russians grew up with Lenin, starting out when they were very young children with pictures of baby Lenin affixed to little red plastic stars.
The party also got a page devoted to Unity and its leader, Boris Gryzlov, with pictures of him as a young boy, too.
Klavdia V. Ivchenko, one of the authors, said the book was not political. "We weren't thinking of creating any particular image of Putin or Gryzlov," he said, "only that every citizen should know a minimum about his own country. It is meant for molding patriotic feelings in children."
This week's edition of Moscow News, a serious tabloid-sized newspaper, devoted its entire front page to an article about the book. "Vladimir Putin," the sub-headline read, "has taken Vladimir Lenin's place in textbooks."
NTV television weighed in with a news report Thursday night, showing a classroom of first-graders earnestly reading the Putin section aloud.
The station is the centerpiece of Media Most, the conglomerate controlled by Vladimir Gusinsky, who was arrested and briefly imprisoned in June on fraud charges. Earlier Thursday, Russia's deputy prosecutor general said criminal charges of fraud would be brought against various executives of the company.
Though the prosecutor's office says the case involves an attempt by Gusinsky to avoid paying his debts, it has been widely interpreted as a Kremlin attempt to silence the only major independent source of news in Russia.
Last night, NTV devoted an hourlong talk show to the book, producing a boisterous debate among children's authors, psychologists, parents, education officials and Unity officials.
It culminated in a call-in poll: Do you think contemporary Russian politicians should be held up as examples to our children? A resounding 82 percent said "No."
"I believe that the present Russian powers treat the mass media with scorn," said Andrei Babitsky, a Radio Liberty reporter who goes on trial Monday. "They believe the mass media should strengthen the state power and that any criticism weakens the state."
Babitsky, known for his hard-hitting war reporting, was arrested in Chechnya in January and accused of spying. Later, he was charged with carrying false identity papers - papers he said were given to him by Russian authorities after his own were taken away.
Though many observers consider the charges preposterous, they have had an effect: Babitsky has been silenced, prevented from reporting on Chechnya.
Recently, the FSB, the successor to the KGB, told Volgograd newspapers that they would get information only if they agreed to certain rules, including giving any negative information about the FSB to the agency first.
"It's the ordinary life of the mass media in the regions," said Yefim Shusterman, one of the few editors who refused to go along with the deal. Shusterman, editor of the 138,000-circulation Iter weekly, said economic pressure has already much killed off freedom of the press in the countryside.
Like governors across Russia, he said, Volgograd's Gov. Nikolai Maksuta has made the local press and television financially dependent on him. "From early in the morning," Shusterman said, "you only see him on TV."
Piontkovsky said Putin has been trying hard to send signals that he is democratic and open to many ideas - meeting the other day with a former dissident, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for example.
"I think we should judge him by his actions," he said, "and his actions are a ruthless war in Chechnya. His actions are cracking down on the media. No one can pretend as your leaders do that they don't know the answer to 'Who is Putin?' He has answered that very well."