Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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The Globe and Mail (Canada)
January 23, 2003
Indignant Russians object to President's elfin double

MOSCOW -- Pity poor Vladimir Putin. The Russian President has a lot to worry about.

The country's Soviet-era heating systems are collapsing, leaving many shivering in their homes this month in the middle of a cold snap. That pesky war in Chechnya still rages, with no end in sight. And now people say he looks like Dobby, a film elf from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

The resemblance between the 50-year-old Russian President, a man known to pride himself on his fitness and appearance, and the "house elf" created by author J.K. Rowling was first noted among Potter fans on the Internet.

"Are Russians now playing with magic wands? We ought to be told the truth!" typed one itinerant poster on a Harry Potter newsgroup beneath a picture of the carefully groomed President and his bat-eared doppleganger.

Not everyone has taken it so lightly. According to Russia's Novaya Gazeta newspaper, a major Moscow law firm is indignant over the apparent misuse of the President's image and is preparing to sue the filmmakers, claiming Warner Bros. had no right to base its creation on an internationally recognized face like Mr. Putin's.

The indignation -- Mr. Putin is almost as popular in Russia as Harry Potter is in other countries (his approval rating is almost 80 per cent) -- is low-level but growing. While the Kremlin has not commented on the matter, Russian Web surfers have been quick to defend their distinctly non-bat-eared leader.

"How dare the mean bourgeois mock our President?" wrote "Denis," posting on a newsgroup about Putin. "That domestic elf masochist . . . externally reminds me very much of Putin."

He and other posters were quick to point out that whatever the physical resemblances, there is no comparing Dobby with Mr. Putin at a deeper level. Dobby serves others and has a habit of collapsing into hysterics; neither of those traits apply to their leader, the pro-Putin surfers argued.

If Mr. Putin's poll numbers can be taken seriously, so can those compiled by CBBC, a children's Web site run by the British Broadcasting Corp. With almost 5,500 votes cast as of last night, 54 per cent saw the resemblance between Dobby and the President.

"Who can help it if Putin looks like a house elf? I pity Dobby!" posted "Laura," a visitor to http://www.mugglenet.com.

Others, however, failed to see any resemblance at all. "Give me a break! My word, Putin may be ugly but he is no Dobby and that's a fact!" wrote "Crystal," another MuggleNet patron. "With all the problems Russia has, you think they would be focusing on something a lot more serious than that!"

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