MOSCOW – He single-handedly saved a TV crew from the jaws of a tiger. He flexed his muscles in front of the cameras in Siberia. He cuts a dash on the ski slopes.
A former president, he is Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, but not quite Russia's sexiest politician. At least, that is, according to Russia's Sex & the City magazine.
In its September "Sexy Rating" list, the glamour magazine ranks who it considers the 20 sexiest Russian politicians. At the top is Boris Nemtsov, a former leader of opposition party Union of the Right Forces now viewed by many as a spent force.
It is rare that Putin loses out at home. A winner abroad — selected as Time's person of the year in 2007, and Vanity Fair's most powerful and influential figure of the year this month — Putin courts widespread popularity at home, having restored a sense of national pride and stability after the difficult post-Soviet years of Boris Yeltsin's rule.
"This is good news ... but I don't take it too seriously," said Nemtsov, who is pictured sitting on a bed, barefoot and dressed in a grey silk shirt and chinos. Although greying at the temples, that doesn't seem to put the voters off.
Responding to a query on how Putin might feel at being pushed into second place, Nemtsov said, "I don't know and I don't care. But he has unlimited opportunities to overturn my result. Maybe this comes as an unpleasant surprise for him, but I guess he has other problems right now."
Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin lawmaker, said he was taken aback by the result.
"Putin is way better than Nemtsov," he said. "He's one of the sexiest politicians in the world." His looks may be average, he conceded, but his "decisive, harsh and unbending" character makes him extremely attractive.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov laughed in an embarrassed fashion, and said it was hard for him to comment.
The magazine's online blog — which opens the voting up to the general public — shows a rather different picture, giving Putin a narrow lead over Ilya Yashin, who leads opposition party Yabloko's youth movement. Former Economy Minister German Gref comes in at third, while four of the lesser-known entries garner no votes at all.
A black belt in judo and an accomplished skier, ex-KGB spy Putin has been snapped in an array of macho shots, from flying a fighter jet to strutting his stuff on a nuclear submarine.
Within days of the publication of photos last summer — where a bare-chested Putin was snapped fishing, horse riding and off-roading in a sport utility vehicle — the then-president was claimed by some as a gay icon, and local newspapers received a flood of excited letters on their websites from admiring women.
In his most recent escapade this August, Putin "saved" a TV crew from a gory death at the hands of a tiger, shooting it in the nick of time with a tranquiliser gun in Ussuriland.
Compiled from an anonymous poll among 20 female employees, most of them in their mid-30s, the results are sometimes surprising.
Eduard Limonov — the aging opposition figure, who sports a tufted haircut and goatie — comes in at number 14. Thrice married, his current partner is some 30 years his junior.
"Putin's just short — what's sexy about that?" laughed Limonov, before conceding that Putin's power was his biggest attraction.
Snappy dresser Gref has shaved off his trademark goatie to come in at number nine. Heavily-lined foreign minister Sergei Lavrov — most prominent in recent weeks for his hawkish comments regarding Georgia — slides in at number 15. Yashin scraped in at 19, and promptly posted the ratings on his blog.
Mikhail Kasyanov — also known as "Misha-two-percent", an allusion to the kickbacks he allegedly received during his tenure as prime minister — is pictured beaming at number 16. Ramzan Kadyrov — the Kremlin-friendly Chechen leader, who keeps tigers as pets — takes 18th place.
But spare a thought for poor Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's diminutive president, who trailed in at seventh place.
He might find some consolation, however, from the knowledge that few of the younger Moscow residents seem to remember Nemtsov.
"Nemtsov? I haven't heard his name for ages," said Daria, 23, who works as a translator. A further seven women — all of them under the age of 20 — had never heard of the politician.
"Putin should be number one," said Katya, a 24-year old lawyer. "People have been saying he's the sexiest man in the country for years."
Masha, 21, graduate student said the rating reflects a shifting in the power balance in the country: "I'm sure that when Putin was the president, he would have been number one."
A number of women dismissed Putin from the list as "too old" and "cool but not sexy". For Katya, 17, age was no barrier. "It doesn't matter that he's too old ... he's sexy," she said. "I like him better than Medvedev."
In Russia — a country with limited media freedoms, and carefully-controlled images of its leadership — it is unthinkable that an opposition figure could push Putin into second place. But, says Kristina Ilyina, Sex & the City's commissioning editor: "We can afford to take serious issues lightly."