Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated his 63rd birthday Wednesday, amid a controversial bombing campaign in Syria, a weakening economy and tensions with the U.S. and its Western allies. The Russian leader made a point of taking it all in stride — including adulation from his fans.
He occupied an even more prominent place than usual on Russian state television on Wednesday. Putin was shown receiving a briefing on the Russian military operation in Syria, including the news that Russian warships in the Caspian Sea fired more than two dozen rockets at targets in Syria.
Then, as if to demonstrate that 63 years haven't slowed him down, he was shown taking part in a hockey game, playing alongside Russian stars of the National Hockey League.
In the meantime, Putin's fans arranged tributes, including a song by a pair of popular Russian rappers. It's called "My Best Friend is President Putin."
"This is our destiny," they rap. "Everything for him and freedom flows like a river." The song calls Putin "a tough superhero."
The rappers also remind listeners that the president is no longer married, saying, "All the girls are just crazy about him."
The theme of Putin as a superhero was also promoted at a small art gallery in Moscow's Arbat district, hosting an exhibition called "Putin's Universe."
It features paintings depicting Putin as various leaders and heroes, from Alexander the Great to Batman. One shows Putin as Sherlock Holmes, complete with deerstalker hat and magnifying glass.
"This is an artistic view of Vladimir Putin's personal character," says Milos Kojic, one of the organizers. "Probably the artist saw him as an investigator and brilliant-minded man who can resolve difficult puzzles."
Kojic says the paintings were chosen from the best submitted to the biggest Facebook fan page devoted to the Russian leader.
Portraits are displayed of Putin as the god Thor, as Che Guevara and as the Brazilian soccer star Pele — kicking a ball drawn with the face of President Obama.
Putin is portrayed as a peace hero, too — as Mahatma Gandhi and Buddha.
"Here is Vladimir Putin presented like Martin Luther King," Kojic says. "He was the most famous fighter for human rights. Also, Vladimir Putin is a fighter for human rights and he is protecting his people, especially in Crimea."
While I was at the exhibit, there was only one other visitor, a 70-year-old pensioner who said no Soviet leader would've allowed himself to be portrayed this way.
Does this mean that a cult of personality has developed around Putin?
"I think there is a sort of a cult," says Vasily Ivanov, a 27-year-old engineer in Moscow. "But it's because of the personality of the president, because who else besides him is worthy to lead the country?"
But, Ivanov clarifies: "It's not to make a god of him. He's not God or Stalin or something else. He's president."
Asker and Galina Madmedov, a Moscow couple, say they don't care what people in the West think.
"It makes no difference to us," Galina says.
"When people in the West make same-sex marriages or dye their hair red, we ignore it," says Asker. "This is our business. We love and respect Putin."
Adds Galina: "He is a magnificent man."