MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Roman Emperor Caligula have a lot in common, begins a popular joke making the rounds in the Sverdlovsk Oblast.
Caligula appointed his horse Incitatus as a senator and Putin has made an obscure tank factory foreman called Igor Kholmanskikh his special envoy to the Urals region, goes the punch line.
Next in line for a top state post is Putin's black Labrador Koni, the joke adds for good measure.
Putin's appointment earlier this month of the 42-year-old Kholmanskikh as the Kremlin's representative to the economically crucial mining region, which comes with a seat on Russia's powerful Security Council, has certainly elicited its fair share of snickers and raised more than a few eyebrows.
Konstantin Kiselyov, a Yekaterinburg-based political analyst, has noted that Kholmanskikh is virtually unknown in the region. "No one remembers him -- he's a nobody," he says. "He's completely gray. I spoke to some journalists today and that's what they think as well. They're all laughing."
Sending A Signal
On the surface, the appointment appears to be a reward to the blue-collar voters in the Russian heartland who provided the backbone of Putin's support in the March presidential election.
The campaign used Putin's tough man-of-the-people image to appeal to workers like Kholmanskikh at a time when the urban professional classes were abandoning him in droves -- and taking to the streets to demand his ouster.
Kholmanskikh, a foreman at the UralVagonZavod tank factory in Niznhy Tagil, contributed to this narrative in December 2011 when, during one of Putin's live television broadcasts with voters, he offered to travel to Moscow "with the guys" to put an end to mass opposition protests breaking out in the capital
Analysts also say Putin is using the appointment to send a message that he values loyalty above all.
"Putin is demonstrating to everyone -- the political elite, the business elite, his own circle -- that he scorns and does not wish to consider himself subject to any new laws or norms," says Sergei Moshkin, another Yekaterinburg-based political analyst. "For him there are no political traditions. Henceforth, the only decision maker is him -- for him this is allowed and it must not be discussed."
Kholmanskikh was born to factory workers in Nizhny Tagil in 1969 and served in the military as a driving instructor in amphibious tracked tanks in the late 1980s.
Kholmanskikh has been lavishly praised by Kremlin-friendly media outlets.
In 1994, he earned a degree in mechanics, specializing in wheel and track vehicles, and took a job at UralVagonZavod, which is named after Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet Union's secret police.
He slowly worked his way up the ranks of the plant, where his parents had been employed for more than three decades and which relies entirely on government contracts.
He worked for six years as deputy manager of assembly and was finally promoted to chief assembly manager in August 2011.
A Fighter For 'Stability'
Months later, Kholmanskikh became a household name. In December Putin purred with delight as the factory worker took the microphone on national television amid mass antigovernment protests and told millions of Russians how far he was prepared to fight to protect "stability" -- the jewel of Putin’s political lexicon.
Shortly after the broadcast, Kholmanskikh began organizing pro-Putin rallies in the region.
On May 18, Putin repaid that loyalty -- and sparked headlines in Russia and beyond -- by appointing him special envoy to the Urals Federal District, which includes Sverdlovsk Oblast.
"As a man who has spent his entire life in manufacturing, I think you know how simple people, simple citizens, live and how to use this position properly," Putin told the mechanic. "You will be able to stand up for the interests of the people."
In taking up the post, Kholmanskikh told the president that he hoped he "would not let anyone down."
Kremlin-friendly media outlets have since been busy praising Kholmanskikh as, among other things, a "model family man," an avid sportsman, and "master of checkers."
Kholmanskikh's meteoric rise and the Kremlin's reputation for manufacturing well-orchestrated political theater has naturally fed the conspiracy mill.
Leonid Volkov, an opposition figure in Sverdlovsk Oblast, says Kholmanskikh's promotion to foreman in August -- just as the Kremlin was forming the All-Russian Popular Front to attract working-class support and three months before he spoke out on national television -- was suspicious. He has suggested that the whole thing was scripted from the start.
"The idea to use this political tactic clearly came after the idea of the People's Front," Volkov says. "The idea to counterpose hipsters with the real working class was clearly established in the summer and by autumn it was already in action. The whole Kholmanskikh-Putin phone-in was just the realization of this strategy."
Others, however, have dismissed the conspiracies and maintain that the Kremlin simply saw an opportunity in Kholmanskikh and exploited it.
"This is a man who accidentally found himself at the summit of power during a time of political turmoil," analyst Moshkin says. "It had nothing to do with him personally -- it was that particular type of person who turned out to be needed by the country's president."