AFP - Sergei Mikhalkov, a poet who penned the words to the Russian national anthem for Vladimir Putin after performing the same task for Joseph Stalin half a century before, died on Thursday. He was 96.
"Sergei Mikhalkov passed away today," his aide Denis Baglai was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
The author of impassioned verses that praised Soviet life under Communism, Mikhalkov wrote the words of the Soviet national anthem in the 1940s when Stalin decided to replace the Internationale with a new version.
The anthem's music and words were replaced after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But in 2000 then president Vladimir Putin decided to restore the old Soviet music after complaints the new tune was not sufficiently stirring.
He called on the indefatigable Mikhalkov to write the new lyrics and the veteran poet rose to the occasion with words that would have been unthinkable in Communist days, such as "Native land protected by God."
Putin, now prime minister, lauded the poet in a message of condolence to his family as an "outstanding representative of Russian culture" and a man of "unique talent".
"He will go down in the history of our country as the author of the words to the national anthem, as a great social activist and a true Russian patriot," said Putin.
"Sergei Mikhalkov always lived in the interests of its motherland and selflessly served and believed in her," President Dmitry Medvedev added in his message.
Millions of Soviet children knew him for storybook verses such as the 1930s "Uncle Styopa" which told of a gangling but squeaky-clean hero who stepped in to avert accidents and brushed off injury in battle.
But Mikhalkov proved equally adept in the less innocent world of Soviet politics as he retained his profile as Stalin fell out of favour after his death in 1953 and even when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Responding to the new official disapproval of Stalin's excesses, Mikhalkov erased Stalin's name from the anthem and replaced him with the founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
Mikhalkov became chair of the Russian Soviet Writers' Union in 1970, the same year as dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for his excoriating portrait of the Gulag "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich".
He joined in official condemnation of the prize, calling it a "provocation, having nothing to do with real concern for literary development".
Mikhalkov headed an extraordinary filmmaking family dynasty.
He was the father of Nikita Mikhalkov, one of Russia's best-known filmmakers and director of the Oscar-winning 1994 film "Burnt by the Sun", one of the most successful Russian films of the last decades.
Ironically, that film hauntingly exposes the terrors of Stalinist purges, showing the arrest of a decorated army commander by an intelligence agent who was once a family friend.
Another son, Andrei Konchalovsky has also directed a string of acclaimed Russian films and even found some success in Hollywood with the 1989 Sylvester Stallone vehicle "Tango and Cash".
By the time of his death, Sergei Mikhalkov was a respected part of the new cultural establishment of Putin's Russia, and news of his death was the sombre lead on all news bulletins. Schedules were cleared for films about his life.
In April 2008 he received modern Russia's highest state award, the Order of St. Andrew, in a glittering Kremlin ceremony from Putin to go alongside the Lenin and Stalin prizes won under Communism.