MOSCOW – When he flexes Russia’s diplomatic and military muscle, Vladimir Putin always makes headlines.
But few could have predicted the squall of gossip and speculation that erupted after the president stripped off his shirt for the cameras while vacationing in the Siberian mountains last week.
The resulting images, prominently enshrined on the presidential Web site, inspired admiration, criticism and some racing pulses among his admirers.
The Russian media still can’t get enough.
One radio talk show host speculated the photos were meant to enhance Putin’s personal appeal to voters â€” a strong signal that he doesn’t plan to relinquish power.
Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that women who visited its Web site posted comments on Putin’s “vigorous torso” and said they “were screaming with delight and showering (him) with compliments.”
Russian gay chat rooms and blogs were particularly intrigued by the photos: Some claimed that Putin, by stripping to his waist, was somehow pleading for more tolerance of homosexuality in Russia â€” where gays and lesbians are for the most part forced to remain closeted.
One satirical photo circulating on the Internet jokingly compared Putin’s mountain adventure with Prince Albert II of Monaco to the movie “Brokeback Mountain,” a love story about two cowboys who conceal a homosexual affair.