MIDWAY: Czar’s guide to manhood

Last fortnight, Vladimir Putin went on a fishing trip down the remote Yenisey, in southern Russia, together with Prince Albert II of Monaco. The Russian president managed to catch several Manchurian trout, while the unfortunate prince hooked only a single tiddler. But what really caught the world’s attention was Putin’s outfit: desert boots, green khaki trousers, a Tilley-style hat, KGB-issue shades — and no shirt.

At an age when most world leaders appear to be turning into John Prescott, 54-year-old Putin cuts quite a manly figure, shall we say — a fact not lost on some Moscow women of my acquaintance. Some friends in Britain reacted differently to the picture, however: “He looks like he could kill with his bare hands,” one said. Which may well be true, Putin being not only a former KGB officer, but a black belt in judo.

In fact, this is merely the latest in a series of carefully staged appearances designed to stress his action-man persona, as well as what are seen as his key virtues: competence and reliability. They are meant to remind voters that Putin is nothing like his late predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, a drunken and often embarrassing slob.

Since he became president in 2000, Putin has donned a colourful array of costumes. During a state visit to Japan, for example, he dusted down his old judo suit to demonstrate one of his favourite moves, a harai goshi, or sweeping hip throw.

These days, though, Putin is more often seen in uniform, as befits a leader who has recently threatened to point his nukes at Europe. One classic Putin image shows him, in sailor’s cap and striped navy T-shirt, onboard a cruiser during military exercises in the Barents sea — the epitome of the modern politician-warrior.

“He’s a natural. He’s very easy to photograph,” says Mikhail Klimenyev, a photographer with the president’s press pool. “He’s extremely active and dynamic. My favourite photos are of him in his judo suit.”

Though not quite a sex symbol in Russia, Putin is seen by many as a paragon of manhood. In 2002 the girl band Singing Together released a hit single with the lyrics: “I want a man who doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke and doesn’t beat me. I want a man like Putin.”