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Putin Look-Alike Takes the Similarity in Stride

Russia: Businessman receives requests for autographs and other attention from the public. And sometimes he has fun with the resemblance.

September 22, 2002|SARAH KARUSH | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

MOSCOW — Wherever he goes, Anatoly Gorbunov is greeted by awed gazes, whispers and requests to take his picture.

It's the kind of treatment well-known to movie stars, but Gorbunov is just a regular guy -- who happens to bear a striking resemblance to Russia's most powerful and popular man, President Vladimir Putin.

Gorbunov, a businessman from the southern city of Volgodonsk, is not related to Putin and has never met the former KGB agent who was catapulted to the presidency 2 1/2 years ago. But the resemblance makes people do double takes.

"I'm told I look like him," Gorbunov said in a recent interview in Moscow. "What can I do? ... It's nature's joke."

Gorbunov and Putin share the same sharp cheekbones, slightly flared nose and thin brown hair, but the resemblance is far from total. Gorbunov's sparkling blue eyes and warm grin contrast with Putin's gray eyes and steely countenance. Putin is also a decade older than 39-year-old Gorbunov.

Thanks to Putin's unflagging popularity, Gorbunov's resemblance to the president garners him requests for autographs rather than pies in the face. More than halfway through his term, Putin enjoys steadily high approval ratings, as well as outright adoration in Putin books, Putin portraits and Putin T-shirts. A new pop song, "I Want Someone Like Putin," has teenagers swooning over the president's strength and reliability.

In the summer of 1999, Gorbunov's appearance went suddenly from unremarkable to the talk of the town, mirroring Putin's unexpected rise from the relatively obscure post of chief of the Federal Security Service to prime minister.

Soon after that appointment, Gorbunov and a friend took a vacation at a resort known to be frequented by government officials.

"We got there and everyone started dropping dishes when we went to the restaurant," Gorbunov recalled.

Since then, Gorbunov, who runs two television channels and several radio stations in Volgodonsk, has learned to enjoy his stardom.

He recalled strolling with a friend on Moscow's Red Square when a group of tourists from Siberia began staring at him, trying to figure out if he really was the president.

Pointing to Russia's most famous church, at the time enveloped in scaffolding, he said in his best Putin voice: "First we'll finish with St. Basil's, and then we'll do more repairs on the Kremlin." That seemed to convince the tourists, he said.

Gorbunov has mastered Putin's facial expressions -- the creased forehead, the stern frown -- as well as his manner of speech, and puts these skills to work when friends request "a toast from Vladimir Vladimirovich" on their birthdays.

Last New Year's Eve, he appeared on his television channel with the president's traditional holiday address, making sure first to put his watch on his right hand as Putin wears it.

But although he has fun with the attention, Gorbunov concedes that it can sometimes be a burden, especially when he leaves Volgodonsk, where he is well-known. Since the incident on Red Square, Gorbunov says he avoids the center of Moscow, especially if he is dressed in a suit.

"Some people smile, some point," he said. "Some say, 'Yo, man! It's Putin!' That kind of thing is annoying and tiresome."

As for Putin himself, Gorbunov said he supports what he sees as the president's efforts to "return Russia to its past greatness."

But he said he was dismayed last year when Putin did not speak out in defense of NTV television, which was swallowed up by the Kremlin-connected natural gas monopoly. Many observers said NTV, at the time the country's premier non-state channel, was paying the price for the critical reporting of its news service.

Gorbunov said NTV's takeover set a bad example for officials in the regions, where many independent media are at risk. Gorbunov's own VTV television is in the middle of a drawn-out legal battle with the Volgodonsk city government.

The vivacious Gorbunov could attract attention without Putin's help. Besides running a small media empire, he and a friend build cars from scratch, based on antique models.

Recounting a spin in his most recent construction, he said passengers on a packed trolley bus craned their necks to see him -- after one boy shouted, "Look at that car Putin came to see us in!"

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