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Glad About Vlad

Wearing T-shirts depicting President Vladimir Putin and chanting "Russia! Russia!" thousands of young people gathered outside the Kremlin on Monday to cheer Putin on the first anniversary of his inauguration.

The event was the latest show of devotion to the president, who has already inspired paintings, a children's book, a web site for his fans — and, some say, the beginnings of a dangerous Soviet-style personality cult.

Chanting and carrying Russian flags, college students from around the country marched down a central street to the edge of Red Square, where they listened to patriotic speeches, held hands and swayed to the national anthem. Organizers estimated the turnout at 10,000.

Sponsored by Walking Together, a pro-presidential youth organization, the rally resembled youth demonstrations of the Soviet era, when people gathered to sing the praises of the Communist leadership.

"Putin has given us hope that we will once again become a mighty country," 19-year-old Vitalina Svetkova told the crowd to enthusiastic cheers.

Since Putin took office, public displays of devotion to the 48-year-old former KGB agent have become increasingly common.

Beginning in April, fans of the president could obtain a Putin-inspired e-mail address from the web site www.putin.ru. The site also contains news about Putin, chat forums, photographs and Putin-inspired humor.

The site's owner, Vladislav Kalinin, said he created it because he observed that people had a lot to say about Putin and needed a forum.

"I don't support the personality of the president, but the fact that the people made their choice," he said.

Film director Igor Shadkhan has made a documentary about Putin titled "On the Road" — in Russian, "V Puti," a play on Putin's name. The film combines interviews Shadkhan shot of Putin in 1991 and 1995, when he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, with interviews with ordinary Russians riding the country's long-distance trains.

"In my family, I guess you could say we love him," says one woman passenger.

Shadkhan said the film won't be released unless Putin gives his approval.

Last fall, the St. Petersburg branch of the pro-government Unity party distributed a biography of Putin in elementary schools strongly reminiscent of children's books about the young Vladimir Lenin.

In Stary Izborsk, a small town about 600 kilometers (375 miles) northwest of Moscow famed for its springs, the director of the local museum takes visitors on a tour retracing the steps Putin took when he stopped by the town last summer.

Some critics warn that excessive adulation for the leader could help pave the way for dictatorship.

"Such a danger always exists because in Russia the bureaucracy is made up of careerists, whose main objective is to please the bosses," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama political think tank.

But those behind the Putin cheerleading say Russia has moved beyond that.

"We are more Western then he West now. Everyone understands that this is purely opportunistic," says Oleg Kalmykov, owner of the Moscow art gallery Soyuz Tvorchestva, which displayed Putin portraits this winter.

"It's just a PR campaign, an advertisement. I am advertising my gallery."

Yury Levada, director of the VTsIOM polling agency, said he doubted the demonstrations of affection for Putin were spontaneous. He said they were likely part of an organized campaign by Putin's advisers.

"According to our data, 3 percent of the population regards Putin's persona with enthusiasm. About 28 or 30 percent are satisfied with it. Everyone else is more reserved," Levada said.

But the presidential administration does not take credit for such events, and organizers deny ties to the Kremlin.

Vasily Yakemenko, the leader of Walking Together, said his group was financed by "different companies," but refused to name them.

Groups of students from cities around Russia, as well as the former Soviet republics of Moldova and Ukraine, cheered and waved banners as if at a sporting event. They said their travel expenses had been paid by Walking Together, and their universities gave them permission to miss class.

By SARAH KARUSH
©MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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