When he flexes Russia's diplomatic and military muscle, Vladimir Putin always makes headlines.
But few could have predicted the squall of gossip and speculation that erupted after the president stripped off his shirt for the cameras while vacationing in the Siberian mountains last week.
The resulting images, prominently enshrined on the presidential website, inspired admiration, criticism and some racing pulses among his admirers.
Russian media still can't get enough. The tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda on Wednesday published a huge colour photo of the bare-chested president under the headline: "Be Like Putin." Its excuse? A guide showing exactly what exercises were required to build up a torso like the Russian leader's.
Kremlin watchers have been trying to guess what kind of political message the pictures are intended to send, given that the 54-year-old Putin has insisted he plans to step down at the end of his second term next year, as required by the constitution.
One radio talk show host speculated the photos were meant to enhance Putin's personal appeal to voters — a strong signal that he doesn't plan to relinquish power. When the commentator, Yevgeniya Albats, went on to suggest the half-naked photo shoot was unbecoming for a Russian leader, female listeners peppered her with e-mails expressing admiration for Putin's physique.
Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that women who visited its website posted comments on Putin's "vigorous torso" and said they "were screaming with delight and showering [him] with compliments."
Russian gay chat rooms and blogs were particularly intrigued by the photos: some claimed that Putin, by stripping to his waist, was somehow pleading for more tolerance for homosexuality in Russia, where gays and lesbians, for the most part, remain closeted.
One satirical photo circulating on the Internet jokingly compared Putin's mountain adventure with Prince Albert II of Monaco to the movie Brokeback Mountain, a love story about two cowboys who conceal a homosexual affair.
The Russian president, who is married with two daughters, has long cultivated an image of machismo and manliness.A downhill skier with a black belt in judo, Putin has appeared on national television driving a truck, operating a train, sailing on a submarine and co-piloting a fighter jet.
But Putin's outdoor outing last week took this manly public persona to a new level.
Reassurance Putin knows how to relax
The prince and the president spent several days on vacation in the mountainous southern Siberian region of Tuva. Dressed in fatigues, fingerless gloves, a bush hat and sunglasses, Russia's most powerful man was shown on TV broadcasts riding horses, rafting down a river, fishing for grayling and off-roading in a sport utility vehicle.
Stanislav Belkovsky, head of the National Strategy Institute think tank, said the pictures from Tuva were nothing more than an effort to reassure Russians that Putin knows how to relax — and is preparing for retirement.
Yevgeny Volk, who heads the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office, said the political elite increasingly views Putin as a lame-duck leader and that the photos only strengthen the impression that he should no longer be taken seriously.