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Boston Globe
November 21, 2001
To a Russian, with lust
By Joanna Weiss, Globe Staff

There he was, standing with President Bush on a podium in Texas, wearing a black-on-black get-up with a velvet collar - at once the model of Western chic and the mysterious foreigner. As relayed by C-Span, the fact was hard to refute: Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, is hot.

Hot in the sense that Putin is the world leader with just about the biggest buzz these days, as he forges a remarkable friendship with Bush and works on anti-missile treaties and wartime coalitions.

But also hot in a more visceral way. Hot meaning, Come on, George, stop talking so the cameras can turn back to Vlad! Hot meaning ... well, you know what.

This must be a sign of how far we've come since the Cold War. Russian leaders, through most of the 20th century, seemed to fit a general mold: beefy, slightly decrepit men, with super-Slavic features, a proud proletarian contempt for style, and, in some cases, a deep love for vodka. And now along comes Putin: compact and athletic, with a Mona Lisa smile.

He doesn't drink. He loves the West. He plays sports and is visibly buff. Also balding, in a cute, Jean-Luc Picard sort of way. Or maybe a Thom Yorke sort of way: A couple of years ago, a New Jersey rock fan set up a Web site, comparing the Russian president to the Radiohead lead singer.

That fan, Sarah Lewitton, now 21 and living in New York, admits she'd been taking a lot of Robitussin at the time. But she says the Web site draws a surprising amount of traffic - at least a couple of hits a week, even two years after its birth. In her guest book, one Web visitor wrote that ''Vladimir is much cooler, smarter and more powerful than Thom.''

And while Lewitton's heart lies with Radiohead, she can understand the Vlad mystique.

''He dresses pretty decently, you know,'' says Lewitton, who now works for VH1 and writes for Spin. ''He's got this, like, thing. He's got this rock star-ish look. He's definitely cute. And anyone in power is always very good.''

Powerful men are sexy; dangerous men can be, too, and it's not too presumptuous to assume that Vlad is a little dangerous. He started his career with the KGB. He is hardly kind to Chechens or other foes. He is not, scholars say, to be trusted completely.

''If you cross him, you are very vulnerable,'' says Marshall Goldman, associate director of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University, who runs off a list of Vlad critics who have managed to lose their property and their standing.

And yet, somehow, this dark side seems to bolster his appeal. At home, Goldman says, Vlad benefits from the strength he projects; in polls, Russians say they like the fact that he brings a sense of order. There's also a longstanding human fixation with spies and shady characters; there's a reason James Bond has endured for so long, and a reason his bad-guy nemeses are often darkly sexy, too.

And if you think it's just a function of America's weakness for foreign accents, consider what the Russians have to say. A year ago, the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda conducted an Internet poll, in which Putin was rated the sexiest man in Russia. A 32-year-old woman with an admitted spy fixation explained the mystique: ''Even when Putin is shaking someone's hand on television with a little smile to show that he is human, I'm frightened of him - in other words, I want him.''

Vlad has managed to make the bulk of Russians want him on some level, Goldman says. His approval ratings hover around 75 percent. And he knows, in a spy-savvy sense, how to manipulate his image for the masses. He has a solid propaganda machine and a slick Internet site. He sponsors youth groups dedicated to Putiniana; at a rally in Moscow last May, thousands of them gathered, wearing T-shirts that bore his face.

He has also figured out how to get at the American heart: by taking questions from the audience. At the Oprah-esque event with Bush in Texas, at a call-in show that night on National Public Radio, Putin managed, even while speaking in Russian, to feel America's pain, to roll ''covert'' and ''sensitive'' into the same dashing package.

On the radio show - which drew 2,000 questions by e-mail - Putin talked about Sept. 11, about his deep admiration for the freedom of the press (a recent enthusiasm, it would seem), about NATO (no enlargement) and Chechnya (no compromises), and how useful it has been to have worked in KGB intelligence, because ''it helps me establish human interaction.''

He also talked about how he still practices judo.

Imagine Boris Yeltsin doing that.

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