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Topless Putin woos Russians

What do you get if you combine John Locke from "Lost," the Marlboro Man, and a judo master?

Your first guess may not be Russian President Vladimir Putin, but if these pictures are any guide, it would certainly be the right one. (See video profile).

Dmitry Astakhov / AFP - Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin fishes on the Khemchik River on Aug. 15.  

Taken earlier this week when Putin took Monaco's Prince Albert II on a camping trip in southern Russia, they were splashed across the front pages of Russian newspapers and are all posted on the Kremlin's website.   

They show Putin in various states of ruggedness, feeling at home and at peace with the rivers, the mountains, the horses and fish, and not least of all, his own bare chest.

Poster boy for Russia?
Despite some incredulous reactions to Putin allowing himself to be photographed topless on blogs I've read here in Russia, "Wilderness Putin," (the action figure doll does not exist yet, but keep your eyes peeled) has been getting a lot of thumbs up here as well. Many bloggers are calling him sexy and wondering if he's free for a date.

While his wife may not take kindly to the proposition, the reactions should come as no surprise. Like any good politician, part of Putin's popularity is based on his image. Compared to the Russian and Soviet leaders who came before him, Putin is leading the charge for the young and healthy generation.

At the end of the Soviet era, it was hard to keep up with which 70-year-old, visibly sick leader was in charge. After Leonid Brezhnev died, neither of the next two successors lasted more than 15 months before dying – leading to the joke of a guard demanding to see someone's ticket to be allowed in to a Soviet leader's funeral, to which he responds that he has season tickets.

Dmitry Astakhov / AFP - Getty Images
Putin gestures as he takes a break during a hike in the foothills of the Western Sayan Mountains in the Republic of Tuva, on Aug. 15. 

But in many ways, Putin's image is seen in direct contrast to that of his immediate predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Putin is seen as the anti-Yeltsin. Yeltsin is remembered by many for acting like a buffoon in public, for his alleged heavy drinking and recurring illnesses.

The image of the leader is tied to the times. For many, these memories of Yeltsin are memories of a weak, chaotic Russia that may look amusing to the West, but isn't faring too well at home.

VIDEO: Today Show anchors check out the Putin pix

Along comes Vladimir Putin. The black-belt-in-judo, non-smoking, rarely-drinking, cool and collected leader. While his popularity is certainly tied to his image – leading to everything from Putinka brand vodka to the girl-band pop song "Like Putin" (whose singers look for a man who is "like Putin/full of strength/like Putin/who won't drink) – Putin's image is, in turn, mirrored by his era.

This is an era in which Russia is getting stronger, reasserting itself internationally, becoming more stable at home and growing economically. And if it's the image of a shirtless, machete-wielding president which best represents the man who can do all that and enjoy approval ratings at about 70 percent, maybe it's not such a bad thing.