Supporters planted Vladimir Putin’s portrait on a mountain peak on Sunday as Russia marked his 60th birthday with adulation worthy of the Soviet era, but some mocking protesters portrayed him as a pensioner fit for retirement.
The ruling party’s loyal Young Guard movement was to unfurl a banner on a bridge in southern Russia which they say symbolises Putin’s role in uniting the Asian and European parts of a giant country that stretches over nine time zones.
Its website published a video portraying Mr. Putin as the ultimate ladies’ man, waited on by a gaggle of adoring, long-legged women. Other events around the country played on the tough-guy image that has been core to Mr. Putin’s political appeal.
Anti-Putin activists say the president won a third Kremlin term by rigging March presidential elections and ridiculed the birthday festivities as a personality cult.
They ditched plans for a major march through Moscow but were to stage action on a smaller scale near Red Square. With a theme of sending Grandpa off to retirement, protesters asked to bring gifts suitable for a pensioner, such as reading glasses or a pipe.
The authorities appeared to be seeking to play down the event. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the president would spend the day relaxing with close family and no special celebrations were planned.
In the most ambitious tribute, a group of world-class mountaineers unfurled Mr. Putin’s portrait at 4,150 metres atop one of the highest peaks in Russia’s North Caucasus.
“We have stuck Putin’s portrait on a rock wall we see as unbreakable and eternal as Putin,” Kazbek Khamitsayev, who led the difficult climb up the icy peak, told Reuters.
“This is our present to Putin.... From the bottom of our hearts we celebrate him who has done so many courageous things for our country and is a strong guarantor of happiness and stability.”
The Caucasus are particularly significant in recent Russian history as the relatively unknown Mr. Putin built his political career more than a decade ago by reimposing Moscow’s rule in the region’s secessionist Chechnya province.
Even though Mr. Putin is at an age at which he can collect his pension, many of the tributes played to Mr. Putin’s image as a sex symbol – one in five Russian women say they would be happy to marry him in a Levada Centre poll released on Friday.
The Young Guard video included young women in tight-fitting costumes anxiously checking their cell phones and staring longingly at portraits of Mr. Putin.
They re-enact the former KGB spy’s macho stunts such as scuba diving, flying a fighter jet, playing hockey and galloping through a field. Each woman smiles as she receives a text message, promising “I’ll be there soon.” The clip ends with them cheering as a car presumably containing Mr. Putin pulls up.
In St. Petersburg, Mr. Putin’s hometown, a VIP concert was planned while around 200 Kremlin supporters turned out for a “Pull-up for Putin” competition in Moscow. Other activists were to hold a poetry reading and take over a nightclub for a Putin-themed evening.
In a satire of the fawning celebrations organised by the pro-Kremlin camp, artists in Moscow staged an exhibit entitled “The President. The most kind-hearted soul,” featuring a picture of Mr. Putin cuddling his Bulgarian sheepdog.
State television was to mark the event on Sunday night with documentaries on Mr. Putin’s 12 years of power. He served as president from 2000-2008 and then four years as prime minister.
They were unlikely to be critical. One trailer aired on the Kremlin-friendly channel NTV showed Mr. Putin in tiny black swimming trunks answering questions after a lap in a pool.
Nevertheless, after 12 years as Russia’s paramount leader, Mr. Putin’s ratings are down from their peak during the oil-fuelled economic boom of his first presidency from 2000 until 2008.
In August the independent Levada polling group said 48 per cent of Russians had a positive view of him compared to 60 percent in May when he began a new six-year term, though that is higher than that enjoyed by most Western politicians.
Against the backdrop of birthday festivities and protests, about 200 people held a rally Sunday in Moscow to mark the sixth anniversary of the unsolved murder of crusading reporter Anna Politkovskaya.
Participants held up candles and pictures of the journalist and spoke in remembrance of Politkovskaya, a sharp critic of Kremlin policies in Chechnya, who was shot inside her Moscow apartment building in 2006.
The meeting, attended by numerous opposition figures, was unusual in that had received prior official approval from city authorities.
With a report from The Associated Press