May 12, 2011
Vladimir Putin has become the object of veneration for a bizarre Russian all-female sect whose followers believe that the tough-talking prime minister is a reincarnation of the early Christian missionary Paul the Apostle.
Members of the sect that has sprung up in a Russian village some 250 miles southeast of Moscow believe that the 58-year-old macho Russian politician is on a special mission from God.
"According to the Bible, Paul the Apostle was a military commander at first and an evil persecutor of Christians before he started spreading the Christian gospel," the sect's founder, who styles herself Mother Fotina, said.
"In his days in the KGB, Putin also did some rather unrighteous things. But once he became president, he was imbued with the Holy Spirit, and just like the apostle, he started wisely leading his flock. It is hard for him now but he is fulfilling his heroic deed as an apostle."
Reports from the sect's headquarters close to the town of Nizhny Novgorod say that its members are all women who dress like nuns and pray for Mr Putin's success in front of traditional Russian Orthodox Church icons that have been placed alongside a portrait of the Russian prime minister himself.
Followers are reportedly encouraged to sing upbeat patriotic Soviet songs at 'services' rather than hymns.
As befits a sect that worships a man who has denounced the decadence of the oligarchs, the sect's members are said to survive on a Spartan diet of turnips, carrots, peas and buckwheat.
According to local media, Mother Fotina's real name is Svetlana Frolova.
Father Alexei, the priest in the local village church, has dismissed the sect.
"Her so-called teachings are a nonsensical mixture of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, the occult, Buddhism and political information," he said.
"But (Mother) Fotina does not come across as a mad person."
Mr Putin's spokesman said he was bemused.
"This is the first I've heard of such a religious group," said Dmitry Peskov. "It is impressive that they think so highly of the prime minister's work but I would like to recall another of the main commandments: thou shalt not worship false idols."
A new political front created by Mr Putin meanwhile announced it may choose a candidate to run in the 2012 presidential election, in the latest sign the Russian strongman is eyeing a Kremlin return.
Mr Putin set up the Popular Front political movement to unify his supporters, from celebrities to pensioners alike. Dmitry Medvedev, the current president, vowed to respond to Mr Putin’s new coalition, by promising to create “other election alliances”, in the latest sign of a rivalry between the duo.