Putin's Kiss, Pinched Cheese and Election Sex

MTNewlyweds trying out the Bench of Reconciliation, designed so two people sitting on it are forced to slide into the middle.
It was the year that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin kissed a tiger and was called an "erotic dream" by a gay Italian television host.

His handpicked successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, inspired an orgy in the Biological Museum, while the new first lady tried to spread a little love in Moscow with an oddly shaped bench.

There was plenty of political and economic turbulence in 2008, but one thing that didn't change was Russia's propensity to produce bizarre news.

It started in January, when vandals stole a 200-kilogram bronze block of cheese from the factory in northern Moscow where the famed Druzhba processed cheese is made.

The bronze cheese -- complete with barcode -- was part of a giant sculpture devoted to the factory's output. The devastated factory owners put out a reward of 100,000 rubles ($3,500) for its return.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Thieves stole this 200-kilogram bronze block of Druzhba processed cheese from the factory in January. The cheese was found hidden in a nearby snowdrift.
A happy ending came several weeks later: The cheese was found hidden in a nearby snowdrift, where the lazy -- or weak -- thieves had left it until they found some heavy lifting equipment.

Then there were balconies. For some, a handy place to store vegetables or hang the laundry. But not for one Yekaterinburg resident, who rented out his apartment with an unusual amenity stashed on the balcony: the corpse of his mother who had died two months earlier.

It was only when a new tenant moved in that the woman's body -- bashed to death by her son -- came to light in April. The horrified tenant called police and will be going through a more reputable agency next time.

A little more harmless was the Irkutsk resident who kept two bear cubs on his balcony until the neighbors complained about all the growling.

It was also the year that the stuffed bear in the Biological Museum on Ulitsa Malaya Gruzinskaya, in central Moscow, witnessed the most exciting event in the museum's history.

The name of the new president, Medvedev, comes from the Russian word for "bear," and a few days before the March 2 presidential election, the anarchic art group Voina, or War, celebrated -- or protested -- Medvedev's all-but-certain victory with a performance at the museum titled "F**k for the Bear Cub Successor."

Four couples, mainly philosophy students at Moscow State University, held a group sex session in front of the stuffed bear, while two clothed participants held up a banner and another photographed the proceedings.

The museum was open at the time, but its director said later that all the other visitors had left and an elderly attendant was simply too frightened to step in, despite a flagrant breach of the museum's ban on flash photography.

Marina Kamenev / MT
A woman modeling underwear reading "I'm With You, Vova," which is being sold by the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi.
Medvedev's views on the performance remained a mystery, but his wife, Svetlana, decided to do her bit for Russian demography: She organized a new Day of Family, Love and Fidelity. Sadly, it wasn't a day off, even if some Russians called for three separate holidays -- and one more to sleep it off.

The first lady arranged the unveiling of a Bench of Reconciliation in Moscow. The bench was cunningly designed so that two people sitting on it were forced to slide into the middle. This encouraged people to kiss and make up their differences, or possibly was just very uncomfortable.

After Putin stepped down as president in May, a popular joke had political analysts deliberating on his future: "A lot will depend on the new prime minister," they decided.

Putin secured his spot in the limelight by setting up photo opportunities with not one, but two tigers.

In August, he traveled to the Far East to tag endangered tigers. Swooning state media reported at length how he saved a television crew by felling a tiger with one glance from his icy blue eyes -- and a shot from a tranquilizer gun -- after it escaped from its leash.

He put a satellite collar on the recumbent tiger and then kissed it on the cheek. It's said the tiger hasn't washed since.

Ria-novosti / AP
Putin surprising journalists in October with a baby tiger, which he said was a birthday gift from an unidentified well-wisher.
A month later, Putin invited journalists to his dacha and surprised them with a tiger cub, which he said was a birthday present from an unidentified donor. The tiger snuggled in a tiger-print dog basket, and his Labrador, Koni, was nowhere to be seen.

The tiger taming antics impressed at least one man.

"When I saw his naked torso and a slain Siberian tiger lying at his feet, I almost had a stroke. Won-der-ful!" Alfonso Signorini, an openly gay Italian television host, raved in October in an interview with La Stampa.

Putin "is my erotic dream," Signorini later told The Moscow Times. No one at the White House was available for comment.

The prime minister also continued to be an erotic dream for his fans in the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, who began selling a range of women's underwear with the slogan "I'm With You, Vova."

Another sex symbol appeared in the shape of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who made his debut as a male model in September.

Photographers from Icons magazine, an offshoot of Hello! magazine, traveled to Kadyrov's palace to capture a softer side of the 30-year-old leader, known for his collection of firearms and pet lion.

Unusually, Kadyrov chose to accessorize an Armani suit with Kalashnikovs. He posed with three gun-toting guards, who were decked out in this season's slim-line bulletproof vests.

"The whole crew of photographers was charmed by him," the magazine's editor, Svetlana Bondarchuk, said later.

For Mayor Yury Luzhkov, the year brought sadness, as his wife, billionaire Yelena Baturina, found that money can buy you concrete, vintage cars and, reportedly, Britain's largest house. But it couldn't buy Moscow's first couple an Austrian villa.

Baturina wooed the residents of a Tyrolean village with a concert by Stevie Wonder and a new golf resort. But local officials ruled that her company couldn't buy a luxury home there.

The company would put the villa to commercial use, an official said. "This is a completely residential area."

Some may have feared that the home would be replaced with a historically accurate replica with four extra floors and underground parking.

As the year came to an end, Muscovites fretted over the snow that wasn't snow -- but just gray frozen steam from power stations.

In December, thieves hijacked a truck filled with packets of Ariel laundry detergent. They abandoned the Belarussian-made truck as worthless, but the packets of detergent, worth $20,000, vanished without a trace.

A few days later, the city had its first bright white snowfall.