By Tom Balmforth
MOSCOW -- Vladimir Putin is no stranger to offbeat forms of public veneration.
His image adorns T-shirts. Billboards in Moscow and online comic strips have portrayed him as a James Bond-like action hero. And a cult in Siberia worships him as the reincarnation of St. Paul.
Now, a slick new video that quickly went viral on the Russian Internet is calling on young women across the country to unite in support for the premier -- and to show that support by ripping off their clothes as part of "Putin's Army."
The video, posted July 17 on Vkontakte
, one of Russia's most popular social-networking sites, is seen by some as a government bid to exploit new media and tap into youth culture for political ends.
The main protagonist, who identifies herself as Diana, is an iPhone-sporting schoolgirl dressed to the nines, confidently waltzing through Moscow in high-heels to a thumping hip-hop beat. She professes adoration for the man she says brought stability and prosperity to Russia.
"I'm crazy for the man who changed the life of our country," Diana gushes. "He's a capable politician. He's a chic man. He's Vladimir Putin. Millions adore him, but there's a bunch of people that spit dirt on him. Maybe it's because they're afraid, or maybe because of their own weaknesses since they will never be in his position."
Diana then meets two of her girlfriends, sunning themselves on the bank of the Moscow River, before daubing a heart and the slogan "I rip for Putin" onto a freshly purchased, skimpy white tanktop in red lipstick.
Diana then announces a competition calling on "young, smart, and beautiful" girls to film themselves "ripping" something off for Putin. She demonstrates what she means by commencing to tear open her clingy tanktop.
Putin has cultivated the image of a hard man through a myriad of highly choreographed feats of manliness, including sedating a polar bear and burning rubber at a race track behind the wheel of a Formula One race car.
PHOTO GALLERY: Russia's diminutive ex-spy-cum-leader has gone to great lengths, distances, and depths to cultivate his image as a swashbuckling man of action. Here are some of Vladimir Putin's most glaringly, er, robust photo ops over the years, a campaign that appeared to be stepped up once he left the presidency in May 2008.
But pro-Putin PR stunts are increasingly carried out by other parties.
Last year, 12 students from Moscow State University's journalism faculty posed in lingerie for a racy calendar published on Putin's 58th birthday under banners with slogans like: "We love you, Vladimir Vladimirovich."
Observers of the Russian political scene say they suspect that pro-Kremlin youth groups such as Nashi and the Young Guard are involved in such stunts.
"There is nothing particularly new in this 'Rip for Putin. It's just a way of exploiting the image of a person in love for the first time -- put simply, it is Berlusconi-ization,'" says Aleksandr Morozov, a prominent Russian blogger. "Who came up with this idea is difficult to say. All of this is created alongside Kremlin youth organizations. All of those so-called creative groups work on this in order to attract the attention of youth."
Kirill Shchitov, a lawmaker in the Moscow City Duma from the ruling United Russia party and a member of the Young Guard's coordinating council, posted the "Rip for Putin" video on his blog on July 17. Beneath he mused: "Why do we never see successful, pretty girls in the opposition?"
On July 19, a rival group of young men and women calling itself the "Anti-Putin Army" appeared on Vkontakte condemning Diana's group as either "paid by the state" or the "latest ravings of the elite."
"I think 'Putin's Army' is an amoral movement," Konstantin Kozhevnikov, a member of the Anti-Putin Army group, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "Their video is vulgar propaganda: They are trying to cultivate some kind of political ideas in their audience, and what is more by showing the female chest. This is an indication that Putin cannot get enough...votes in a normal way."
Analysts compare the "Rip for Putin" video to other youth-friendly pro-government projects online such as comic strip published in May
that cast Putin, Medvedev, and powerful Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin as superheroes fighting against a zombie-like opposition.
"The idea is to somehow use the Internet, which, although not well respected by Putin, is considered by his team and by his campaigner managers as an important tool," says Nikolai Petrov, a domestic politics expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
The clip provides light fodder for the perennial debate over whether Putin will stage a comeback to the Kremlin in the presidential elections in March, having handed over the reins to Medvedev in 2008.
The group on Vkontake that posted the "Rip for Putin" video features a photo of the premier wearing a red blazer and sunglasses. It says its goal is a Putin return in March, when a presidential election is scheduled. But in a possible wink to the new-media-savvy President Dmitry Medvedev, the winner of its competition will apparently walk home with a new Apple iPad 2.
RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed reporting