Vladimir Putin turns 60 this weekend, but what does one get the man who has everything?
On previous birthdays, he has been given tiger cubs and calendars featuring scantily clad women. He has celebrated with his old friends and former statesmen Silvio Berlusconi and Gerhard Schroeder.
This year, as he faces an unprecedented challenge to his authority from tens of thousands of opposition protesters, many expected the celebrations would be more discreet.
Pro-Kremlin youth groups are hosting events around the country. The youth wing of the ruling United Russia party, Young Guard, is leading the way, with a campaign titled “We are Russia, Russia is Putin” on Sunday, Putin’s birthday.
As part of the campaign, a poetry reading will be held on Arbat, Moscow’s main tourist street. Banners celebrating Putin will be hung from a bridge in the city of Rostov, and a huge birthday card will be opened in the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk, where admirers can write personal greetings to the powerful leader.
The group has tasked at least one school, in the southern city of Taganrog, best known as the birthplace of the playwright Anton Chekhov, with compiling 100 drawings from its students devoted to Putin, according to documents leaked on the internet.
State-run television channels will also rejoice. Two programmes on Putin are planned for Sunday night, one on NTV, a channel run by the Kremlin and owned by Gazprom, the national gas monopoly. A trailer of the film that briefly aired on the channel’s website on Thursday was titled Putin in a Pool: NTV Exclusive. It showed a giddy interviewer standing poolside as Putin, bare-chested in small black swimming trunks, spoke earnestly from the water about his swimming schedule. He then powerfully swam away.
The film will show several days in the life of Putin, who returned to the presidency in May following four years as prime minister. He has led the country since 1999, meaning he has spent over one-fifth of his life at Russia’s helm.
That fact is not lost on Russia’s opposition, who emerged last year after Putin announced he had no plans to leave office. Playing on the fact that Putin has reached 60, the pension age for Russian men, anti-Putin activists will hold a flash mob near the presidential administration’s office just off of Red Square titled Send Grandad into Retirement. Props are expected to include slippers, eyeglass cases and gardening equipment: things one might need for a happy retirement.
The Kremlin has sought to distance itself from the pro-Putin birthday fest. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said the president would have “a very modest home celebration with his best friends and relatives. He’s not fond of big celebrations.” Peskov did not comment on whether Berlusconi or Schroeder would attend. “I don’t know the list, but it will be very limited,” he said.
What of the countrywide celebrations, which are to include exhibits and concerts in St Petersburg, Putin’s hometown? “He really appreciates warm feelings towards him that are being demonstrated, but every time he would prefer these feelings to be expressed in a different way – in the form of support of his ideas, support of his activities, support of his efforts,” Peskov said.