A bust of Russian President Vladimir Putin clad as a Roman emperor sits on… (Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles…)
MOSCOW — He slowly descended the stairs to the courtyard, his handgun loaded with 12 rounds. Seven armed comrades stood in the windows behind him.
At the bottom, a drunk and angry crowd of 5,000 threatened to storm the building. Just moments before, they had looted the Dresden office of the feared East German secret police next door.
It was shortly after the fall of Berlin Wall in October 1989. The Soviet KGB Dresden station chief had run away, leaving his deputy, a lieutenant colonel, in command. When he reached the bottom step, the young Soviet spy addressed the mob: "I am an officer, and I have 12 rounds. One I will leave for myself. But fulfilling my duty, I will shoot."
Then he turned and walked slowly up the stairs, the back of his shirt damp with sweat. At the top, he turned around. The crowd was receding.
The scene was described last week in a documentary broadcast to many Russians to mark the birthday of the young KGB officer: Vladimir Putin. The show's anchor, Andrei Karaulov, said simply, "Anybody can tell you this story today in any Dresden pub."
But it never happened. The Kremlin openly declares that the story is fantasy. But as Putin celebrates his 60th birthday Sunday, it illustrates the image-making that has served him so well since he came onto the national stage 12 years ago: The tough guy who stood up to save Russia.
This year, the head of a small Orthodox church in the Nizhny Novgorod region of central Russia declared that myrrh had begun to seep from a picture of Putin.
"Putin is a new way for Russia," said a statement on the church's website. "In one of his past lives he was Count Vladimir who baptized Rus [Russia] and now Vladimir Vladimirovich will have to baptize our pagan country!"
A recent survey by the independent Levada Center polling agency found that a quarter of high school-educated women between the ages of 25 and 39 said they would like to marry Putin.
The Russian leader's exploits are well-known. Over the last few years, he has been shown flying a combat jet, driving a race car, riding a horse shirtless, tagging a polar bear and shooting a dart into a gray whale with a crossbow for purposes of scientific research. He dived to the bottom of the Black Sea and emerged with a couple of ancient amphorae. The Kremlin later acknowledged that the large jars had been planted there by what it said were over-enthusiastic assistants.
Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, said Putin remains popular in the provinces, in part because people there mostly rely on state-controlled television, which broadcasts such reports. But as he launches a six-year term as president — after four years as prime minister that were preceded by eight as president — he is facing economic and political discontent and is losing the urban population.
"Despite his career accomplishments, Putin inside remains a painfully vulnerable person who needs his image of a strong and tough leader promoted on a daily basis," Gudkov said. "His charisma is not natural, but forcefully imposed on the society by his daily appearance on television and the resourcefulness and imagination of his image makers."
One of the oldest Russian magazines, the Ogonyok monthly, included in its October edition a route for a full Putin excursion around St. Petersburg, containing descriptions and anecdotes about Putin, starting with the maternity home in which he was born on Oct. 7, 1952.
His birth coincided with the last Communist Party congress attended by Josef Stalin, who died the following March. On the day Putin was born, the magazine said, Lavrenty Beria, the feared head of Stalin's secret service, made a speech to the congress.
The list of landmarks includes a movie theater where, in 1968, Putin "probably" watched a Soviet thriller about a spy in Nazi Germany. Putin has said the movie influenced his decision to pursue a career with the KGB.
Far to the south in Rostov-on-Don, members of a pro-Putin youth group sponsored by the government prepared a 150-yard-long birthday banner. Activists intend to have it span the river, symbolically connecting Europe and Asia and honoring the role Putin played in creating a loose alliance of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, said Andrei Batrimenko, head of the local branch of the Young Guard group.
In Moscow, an exhibition of paintings called "The President: The Man with the Kindest Soul," depicting Putin with animals as well as with other political leaders, will open Sunday.
Putin plans to spend the day in St. Petersburg with family and friends, said his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.
Peskov's office said the televised story about the KGB office in Dresden "doesn't correspond with reality." And Dmitry Orlov, director of the pro-Kremlin Agency of Political and Economic Communications, said the hoopla is far from a cult of personality, a la Stalin.
"The fact is that in Russia the democratic system is quite different from the democratic system of the West, and it is mainly built of people's trust for Putin personally," Orlov said.
Lilia Shevtsova, a senior researcher with Moscow Carnegie Center, said whether anyone regards the Dresden story as true, it gets Putin's message across: "He will leave the last bullet for himself, and he will not go of his own accord."