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Russian Social-Network Guru Calls For 'Putin Shirtless Challenge'

Vladimir Putin was photographed while fishing on a recent break from his presidential duties.

MOSCOW -- Russian social-network prodigy Pavel Durov has called on his fans to photograph themselves topless and post the pictures online as part of a flash mob poking fun at President Vladimir Putin's penchant for bare-chested photo-ops.

The eccentric founder of the VKontakte social network and encrypted Telegram messenger told his followers on Instagram to post their photographs under the hashtag "Putin shirtless challenge."

Durov posted a photograph of himself topless on the Instagram photo-sharing network, writing in English: "Two rules from Putin -- no photoshop, no pumping. Otherwise you're not an alpha."

The slightly vain flash-mob call prompted hundreds of Russian men to post pictures of their naked torsos online, while some used it as a way to joke.

Durov, 32, has lived abroad since he clashed with Russian authorities as CEO of VKontakte, a tenure in which he refused to cooperate with the security services in taking down pages and sharing user data.

He was fired in 2014, while VKontakte was taken over by Putin allies.

After leaving Russia, Durov launched Telegram, a popular messenger service using end-to-end encryption. Telegram has since come under government pressure in Russia and elsewhere.

Durov claimed earlier this year that U.S. government officials had tried to pressure and entice him and his staff to install "backdoors" in the service.

In making his flash-mob call, Durov wrote that his "instagram has had to seriously step up its game to keep up with the increased competition from Mr. Putin's shirtless photos."

The Russian president has used staged photo sessions in an array of settings to project an image of vitality and strength. He has sometimes appeared bare-chested in those photographs, perhaps most memorably in 2009 when he was pictured riding a horse in the southern Siberian Tuva region.

The Kremlin press service last week published new photographs of a topless Putin relaxing in the Tuva wilderness, fishing and gathering mushrooms. Putin was photographed on the trip with two regional governors and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, a native of the poor Tuva region.