MOSCOW - Vladimir V. Putin has been celebrated in books, T-shirts and calendars. His bust sits on the desk of many a bureaucrat. Newspaper and magazine covers frequently feature his somewhat doleful image. One man has even tried to name a new variety of tomato after him.
But a new pop song, "I Want Someone Like Putin," appears to mark a milestone in the remarkable career of the former-KGB-spy-turned-Russian-president. He might soon be elevated from statesman to sex symbol.
In the tune, which can be heard blasting from cars crawling along Moscow's streets these days, the lead singer in the all-girl group Singing Together complains about her alcohol-guzzling boor of an ex-boyfriend and coos about Putin: "And now I want a man like Putin, who doesn't drink. A man like Putin, who doesn't hurt me. A man like Putin, who won't shame me."
Though the song is somewhat romantic, it carries a heavy political backbeat. And critics consider it a thinly disguised political commercial - the first, perhaps, of an election still two years away. They grumble that the creators are trying to cash in on Putin's undeniable popularity.
To some, Singing Together sounds suspiciously like Moving Together, a mysteriously well-financed pro-Putin youth organization. Moving Together has launched a crusade against alleged agents of cultural despair, taking aim in particular at avant-garde writers who ridicule Soviet-era heroes. But Moving Together and the man behind the Putin song deny any link.
The promotion of Putin over the past couple of years has been denounced here as a revival of the Soviet tradition of the cult of personality. But Putin's fan club remains a pale imitation of the original Kremlin personality cult, that of the dictator Josef Stalin. People who weren't sufficiently adoring of Stalin were shot.
Defenders say political leaders elsewhere, including the United States, are treated like celebrities and they don't see anything wrong with doing that in Russia, too.
Indeed, the man behind "I Want Someone Like Putin" says he has purely unselfish goals. Nikolai Gastello, media secretary to Russia's Supreme Court, says he decided to create Singing Together and its music to help cure Russia of what he considers a cultural malaise.
"The music should help Russians to finally shake off depression and decadence," Gastello told the newspaper Izvestia.
The artists involved say they share Gastello's vision. "I believe that music should help people," says Kiril Kalashnikov, the 30-year-old composer. "If my music helps even one person, then my life will not have been wasted."
Gastello hired Alexander Yelin and Kalashnikov to write the song in February. Last month, he recruited three singers in their 20s and recorded the tune. Then he approached the owners of several Moscow radio stations. "I Want Someone Like Putin" has been playing repeatedly on Russian Radio, Dynamite FM and AutoRadio since.
Singing Together is re-recording the Putin song in English and Spanish, Kalashnikov says. And the song's creators will collaborate on several other tunes about social ills, the first on the high incidence of abortion in Russia. They plan to put out an album, perhaps as early as October.
The song is heard so often in Russia that children have begun singing it on playgrounds and in schoolyards.
"The melody is good," says Yevgenia Slivkina, 12, who says all her friends know the lyrics. Even a 2-year-old neighbor has memorized most of the song, she says, although he can't pronounce "Putin." "When we sing 'Putin,'" she says, "he always shouts 'Pooh.'"
Until now, no Russian leader has neared pop idol status. "It is clear that neither [former Russian President Boris Y.] Yeltsin, nor [former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev, could be the subject for a girl's dream," says lyricist Yelin, 44, of Putin's older, less svelte predecessors.
But he says he has talked with his female friends and relatives about the president, and they find him irresistibly stalwart, romantically responsible - and, best of all in this nation troubled by alcoholism, sober.
"Women in general, they are always seeking some ideal of a man. And I should say that ... ideal of a man is Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] - rather than Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson - because Putin is serious, smart and reliable."
So, then, does Yevgenia want a boyfriend like Putin? Not really, she says, respectfully. The typically dour president isn't "appealing."