MOSCOW (Reuters) - For a man who has hugged a polar bear, flown with migrating cranes and shot a tiger with a tranquilizer gun, Vladimir Putin celebrated his 62nd birthday unusually quietly on Tuesday.
For the first time in years, the Russian president took the day off on his birthday and retreated to the remote forested taiga in Siberia for a private celebration.
With the economy faltering under sanctions imposed over the Ukraine crisis, the rouble in decline and relations with the West in disarray, he may have deemed festivities inappropriate.
If so, his admirers did not get the message. Or perhaps, after reclaiming the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine this year, he no longer has to resort to macho stunts to please them.
Supporters turned to art, song and humor to honor a man some of them regard as little less than Russia’s savior, managing to drown out the growing grumbles about the economy and the political and economic cost of the conflict in Ukraine.
“Happy birthday, President of Russia!” wide-eyed children dressed mostly in white sang in a sugary video shot in Putin’s hometown, St Petersburg, and posted online.
“His life is like a hundred milestones crucial for our country,” the children, part of a singing group called HITryushki, sang in a school classroom with a map of Russia on the wall. At one point, footage shot from above showed the children standing in the form of a heart.
One fan honored Putin by staging a small exhibition in Moscow on Monday depicting him as the Greek mythological hero Hercules carrying out his legendary 12 labors - updated to show the president fighting modern problems such as terrorism.
A humorous banner was unfurled from a Moscow bridge showing U.S. President Barack Obama wearing a T-shirt wishing Putin a happy birthday. Across town, Russians were snapping up T-shirts with Putin’s portrait newly on sale in the exclusive GUM department store opposite the Kremlin on Red Square.
“HE IS THE TSAR!”
Since he first rose to power in 2000, Putin has at times celebrated his birthdays with banquets or spent the day meeting political leaders and prominent cultural figures.
But, announcing what was described as Putin’s first day off on his birthday since he came to power, his spokesman told Interfax news agency he would spend the day “somewhere 300-400 km (190-250 miles) from the nearest settlement”.
With Putin’s ratings above 80 percent, according to independent Russian research group Levada, the popular adulation may come as little surprise in a country where leaders enjoyed personality cults in Soviet times.
His popularity soared when Russia annexed Crimea in March and has remained high as he backed pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine, though he denies sending them troops or weapons.
But there are also growing grumbles over the economy and what critics call a backward slide on democracy and persecution of opponents, although the Kremlin denies the accusations.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon who spent a decade in jail on tax evasion and fraud charges, says Putin is losing control and “probably does not see what is happening in front of his nose”.
There is no immediate threat to his grip on power, with the leaders of protests in the winter of 2011-12 unable to mount a challenge, with some in jail and others under house arrest.
Journalist Arkady Dubnov suggested in a satirical Facebook entry that the former KGB spy was addicted to power. “Then I realized: Putin is never going to leave the country without him shepherding the herd. He is the tsar!” he wrote.
Colleagues, family and friends of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist critical of Putin, also marked the day. They brought paper flowers to the offices of the newspaper where she worked before she was shot dead on Putin’s birthday in 2006.
Those who ordered her killing have not been identified or convicted.
Condemning her murder and those of other journalists, the U.S. State Department said: “Impunity for these crimes ... has only worsened the atmosphere of intimidation for those who work to uncover corruption or human rights abuses.”
editing by David Stamp