MOSCOW (Reuters) - Supporters planted Vladimir Putin’s portrait on a mountain peak on Sunday as Russia marked his 60th birthday with adulation worthy of the Soviet era, but some mocking protesters portrayed him as a pensioner fit for retirement.
A wave of satire including comparisons to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, whose 18-year rule until his death could be surpassed by Putin if he seeks and wins a fourth term in 2018, has hurt his macho image as he has faced the biggest opposition protests since he was first elected president in 2000.
But adoring supporters staged tributes ranging from floating a giant-size inflatable birthday cake on the Moscow river to unfurling his portrait on bridges, buildings and even a mountain top. The head of Russia’s Orthodox Church hailed Putin as a “real patriot” in a birthday message.
The ruling party’s loyal Young Guard movement published a video on its website portraying Putin as the ultimate ladies’ man, waited on by a gaggle of long-legged women. Other events around the country played on the tough-guy image that has been core to Putin’s political appeal.
Anti-Putin activists say he won a third term despite protests alleging elections have been rigged and ridiculed the birthday festivities as a personality cult.
They ditched plans for a major march through Moscow but a handful of activists were detained for staging a “Let’s send Grandpa into retirement” action near Red Square.
Critics say the former KGB spy’s reluctance to enact reforms and a series of moves to suppress dissent since returning to the Kremlin in May echo the political repression and economic stagnation associated with the Brezhnev era.
Putin brushed off criticism in an interview with a pro-Kremlin television channel aired on Sunday.
“From the first, almost everything I did was criticized,” Putin was cited by Russian news agencies as telling NTV. “The main thing is that the overwhelming majority of people still support me.”
“But the most important thing - it’s hard to explain - is some kind of internal chemistry, sense of rightness, of correctness in what I‘m doing and how people react,” he said.
Putin defended Russia’s two-year jailing of three female members of the anti-Kremlin group Pussy Riot for bursting into Moscow’s main cathedral and belting out a song insulting Putin.
“It is right that they were arrested and it was right that the court took this decision because you cannot undermine the fundamental morals and values to destroy the country,” he said.
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, who has portrayed Pussy Riot’s protest as an attack on traditional values, said Putin had pursued “the path of a far seeing politician and a real patriot for his country”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the president would spend the day relaxing with close family.
In the most ambitious tribute, a group of world-class mountaineers unfurled Putin’s portrait at 4,150 meters (13,615 feet) atop one of the highest peaks in Russia’s North Caucasus.
“We have stuck Putin’s portrait on a rock wall we see as unbreakable and eternal as Putin,” Kazbek Khamitsayev, who led the difficult climb up the icy peak, told Reuters.
“This is our present... From the bottom of our hearts we celebrate him who has done so many courageous things for our country and is a strong guarantor of happiness and stability.”
The relatively unknown Putin built his political career more than a decade ago by reimposing Moscow’s rule in the Caucasus region’s secessionist Chechnya province.
Even though Putin is at an age at which he can collect his pension, many of the tributes played to his image as a sex symbol - one in five Russian women say they would be happy to marry him in a Levada Centre poll released on Friday.
The Young Guard video included young women in tight-fitting costumes anxiously checking their cell phones and staring longingly at portraits of Putin.
They re-enact the former KGB spy’s macho stunts such as scuba diving, flying a fighter jet, playing hockey and galloping through a field. Each woman smiles as she receives a text message, promising “I’ll be there soon.” The clip ends with them cheering as a car presumably containing Putin pulls up.
In St. Petersburg, Putin’s hometown, a VIP concert was planned while around 200 Kremlin supporters turned out for a “Pull-up for Putin” competition in Moscow. Other activists held a poetry reading and a Putin-themed evening at a nightclub.
Anti-Putin activists marked the day in a rather different style, including at the protest near Red Square where demonstrators brought mocking gifts suitable for a pensioner.
One activist was arrested mid-sentence when she unwrapped an enema and began reading Putin a birthday card. Another held up prison-stripe pyjamas marked with Putin’s name.
“It’s past time for him to retire,” said Yevgeny Vasiliyev, 62, a pensioner himself.
After 12 years as Russia’s paramount leader, Putin’s ratings are down from their peak during the oil-fuelled economic boom of his first presidency from 2000 until 2008.
In August the independent Levada polling group said 48 percent of Russians had a positive view of him compared to 60 percent in May when he began a new six-year term, though that is higher than that enjoyed by most Western politicians.
Editing by Jon Boyle and Myra MacDonald