On magnets, mugs and matryoshka dolls, Putin's face still sells


Saint Petersburg (AFP)

Under the onion domes of its Orthodox churches or in front of its imperial facades, one face peers out at tourists strolling past the rows of Saint Petersburg's souvenir stalls.

Twenty years after he came to power, President Vladimir Putin is omnipresent, not only across the airwaves of Russia's media but also on the magnets, mugs and matryoshka dolls throughout his hometown.

Whether it is commander-in-chief Putin looking through binoculars or mocked-up shirtless Putin riding a bear, the Russian president is on sale everywhere.

Painter and businessman Alexei Sergiyenko has been cashing in on Putin for years. In 2012, he opened an exhibition of work devoted exclusively to Putin titled: "President. A man with a good soul."

- 'Special attitude' -

The walls of his studio were lined with pop-art pictures of Putin carrying a child on his shoulders or dressed as a Hollywood superhero stopping a meteorite from crashing into the Earth.

Sergiyenko also owns 64 souvenir kiosks, most near an ornate cathedral called the Saviour on the Spilled Blood. At each, the president's face has been printed on anything that tourists may be tempted to buy.

"Putin souvenirs are only three-to-four percent of total sales, but the numbers are stable," Sergiyenko told AFP.

His art has even been miniaturised and printed on the wrappers of chocolate bars sold throughout the city for 150 rubles (around $2).

These kinds of flattering images of the president reinforce a portrait offered by the Kremlin of Putin as a father figure or saviour of the nation.

Since coming to power two decades ago following the resignation of Boris Yeltsin, Putin's popularity has remained high.

It spiked after Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, with his approval rating nearing 80 percent.

Although his ratings have since slumped -- along with the economy -- souvenir vendors say the president is still a hit.

"Putin is a strong leader. I respect him for that," said Alexander Savenkov, an estate agent in his 40s who owns a Putin T-shirt, which he mostly wears abroad.

Alexei Ivanov, director of the "Che Guevara" souvenir company which specialises in politically themed merchandise, says the success of Putin souvenirs lies in the strength of his personal brand.

"The main reason these souvenirs are popular is the fame, wide recognition and a special attitude that Russians have towards Putin," Ivanov said.

- Like 'North Korea' -

Andrei Stepanov, a 60-year-old engineer who lives near the clutch of kiosks, would be happy to have a break from seeing Putin at every turn.

"I already have the impression that I'm living in North Korea. The 'great Putin' is everywhere: on TV, in the newspapers, his portraits in every official building and even on souvenirs. It's too much," he said.

While vendors may be happy to cash in on Putin's brand, the Kremlin has hinted there should be limits.

Recent sightings of traditional Orthodox icons featuring Putin in Saint Petersburg's airport prompted a curt response from the Kremlin's spokesman.

"We do not approve of it. The president does not approve of it. You can hardly call these icons," Dmitry Peskov said in response to a question from AFP.

Still, the Kremlin has launched a website in honour of Putin's 20 years in power with fawning archival footage of the president singing Frank Sinatra hits or posing with animals.

Much like his reign, Putin memorabilia looks set to be a mainstay for years to come, leaving vendors pondering just how long they will be able to bank on the souvenirs.

"I wonder if I will be selling them until the end of my life," said Sergei, a vendor in his 30s in the city centre. "I'm afraid it looks likely."