MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin marked his 62nd birthday roaming the Siberian wilderness on Tuesday, as supporters compared his takeover of Crimea to a Herculean labour and 100,000 marched in Chechnya in his honour.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had taken a day off from his “extremely intense” schedule to celebrate his birthday in the depths of Siberia.
“This place is some 300 to 400 kilometres (roughly 180 to 250 miles) away from the nearest settlement,” Peskov told the Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid, saying the president worked virtually around the clock and needed a breather.
“He will rest,” he said, declining to say whether Putin would have company.
The president is riding a wave of popular support following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in March, and ordinary Russians, ex-Soviet leaders and Ukrainian separatists sang his praises on Tuesday.
Festivities this year had all the hallmarks of the slavish adulation that has marked Putin’s birthdays of past, even as Russia’s economy reels from several rounds of Western sanctions.
More than 100,000 people, decked out in the colours of the Russian flag, marched in the president’s honour in the Chechen capital of Grozny, led by Kremlin-backed regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov who carried a portrait of Putin.
Supporters in Moscow staged an exhibition of paintings designed to symbolise Putin’s achievements, comparing them to the “12 Labours of Hercules", the demigod of Greek mythology renowned for his strength.
The paintings depict Putin, dressed in a toga and armed with a sword, taking over Crimea, a feat compared to capturing the Cretan Bull. His anti-corruption campaign was compared to Hercules’ cleaning of the Augean Stables.
‘Post-modernist personality cult’
The list of the Russian leader’s achievements extolled in the exhibition is topped by the most difficult labour of all – standing up to the United States, which is compared to the battle against the mythological, multi-headed dog Cerberus.
Prominent Russians like the pole vault star Yelena Isinbayeva posted online pictures of themselves wearing T-shirts with Putin images, while one man pledged to swim across the frigid Siberian river of Ob, with a Russian banner in hand.
“Since Putin’s last birthday Russia under his leadership has made a leap into a political ‘terra incognita’,” the mass-circulation daily Moskovsky Komsomolets trumpeted, saying he would remain “indispensable” for the country.
Political analyst Sergei Medvedev said the festivities were part of “a personality cult in its mild post-modernist form.” “This cult comes from below and those above are not putting up any obstacles,” he told AFP.
Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine, praised Putin for the protection of the “Russian world” and supporting rebels in the ex-Soviet country.
Putin celebrated his birthday last year by quaffing vodka with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a summit in Bali where his Indonesian host Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono also sang him a song.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi were among the statesmen who sent their greetings on Tuesday, said the Kremlin.
Greetings from Ukraine
But not everyone was celebrating. Critics attacked Putin online, while wry commentators wondered on Twitter whether he could remain in the Siberian woods for good.
Meanwhile some 50 journalists and activists gathered in Moscow to remember murdered anti-Kremlin reporter Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down eight years ago in the Russian capital on Putin’s birthday in 2006.
In Ukraine, where contempt for the Russian president runs high, the 1+1 television channel compiled a collection of profanity-laced Twitter messages and Internet memes.
“For the first time in his life the president of Russia is damned by the country of 47 million,” said one tweet, referring to Ukraine.
A Ukrainian activist group dubbed “the Maidan of Foreign Affairs” – a reference to the uprising that ousted a Kremlin-backed president in February – launched an online petition to “congratulate” Putin.
“Some dictators flee like Idi Amin of Uganda and Mobutu Sese Seko from Congo. Others die, sometimes with a painful death, like Mussolini and Gaddafi,” said the group.