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The Putin decade

On Aug. 9, 1999, Vladimir Putin was appointed Russia's prime minister. It's been real.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rides a horse in southern Siberia's Tuva region, Aug. 3, 2009. (Alexei Druzhinin/Pool/RIA Novosti/Reuters)

MOSCOW — He’s met oilmen in the Far East, bared his torso to ride horseback through the fields of Siberia and given rousing speeches at a youth camp devoted to supporting his rule.

As he marks 10 years in power, Vladimir Putin has many memories to savor.

When an ailing and alcoholic Boris Yeltsin appointed the little known KGB spy as prime minister on Aug. 9, 1999, the country was in post-Soviet shambles. Putin’s supporters say he has restored stability and prestige to Russia. His detractors say any stability has come at the price of freedom of the press, assembly and dissent, and has spurred widespread corruption.

Through it all, Putin has crafted a careful image, spawning a cult of personality little rivaled in the world.

His face adorns many office walls, government and commercial alike. “Putinka” is the name of one of the country’s most popular brands of vodka (though Putin likes to stress that he cares for his health and does not drink). He’s starred in a judo instructional video;

 inspired pop songs and movies;

as well as a line of women’s underwear adorned with the words “Vova, I’m with you!”, using the short form of “Vladimir.” The line was unveiled on Red Square last winter. Despite a financial crisis that has decimated Russian industry and spurred widespread unemployment, Putin’s ratings remain sky high. The Levada Center, an independent pollster, recently put his approval rating at 78 percent.

Putin’s image as strong leader, man of the people and unrivalled savior has helped keep his rating high, analysts said.

“All his gestures are symbolic ones that show he wants to be the key national leader and wants to be number one,” said Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst at Moscow’s Carnegie Center.

“It’s part of the game,” she said. “It shows he’s the only one that can solve the country’s problems — that he’s tough enough and macho enough to address all parts of society.”