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Putin Popular in Russia's Small Towns

When President Bush and Russian President Putin meet this week, both do so with high public approval ratings at home. Opinion polls give President Bush a near 80 percent approval rating and President Putin has consistently scored 70-plus percent approval in Russia. That's not to say that Mr. Putin does not have his critics, but it was not easy to find any during a visit to the tiny Russian town of Izborsk, nestled in the rolling hills of northwestern Russia, some 300 kilometers south of St. Petersburg.

Izborsk is like any farming village in the area area. What sets it apart is its history, ancient and recent. Archaeologists say the town was founded in the late seventh century. Its walled fortress was built in the 1300s during a time of almost continual warfare. But it seems not much has happened here since then, until August 2000, when President Vladimir Putin made a surprise stop.

"I happened to be here by chance; I was in the crowd. It was really unexpected," said Elena Voronkova, who said she remembers that day well. Ms. Voronkova is an archeologist by training and works as a guide at the local museum, which proudly displays ancient artifacts found around the town and its fortress.

"Everything started here at this square. Here the tourist route begins, here all the buses stop," she said. "The President said he wanted to take the tour. He entered the fortress through Nikolskii Gate."

Visitors do come here, some even in tour buses. They go to the old fortress and to the natural springs.

On this particular day, a group of schoolchildren is on an afternoon outing.

But apparently, until President Putin visited two years ago neither the old fortress nor the museum was attracting very many tourists. Elena Shpilnaya sells souvenirs at a little stand by the roadside and recalls the President's visit.

"The president came up to us. He was the first to say hello because we were all just speechless," she said. "We wanted to give him something as a gift, but they didn't let him come closer. After that all of August and September there were a lot more tourists."

And 72-year old Vladimir Borodavkin is almost moved to tears as he talks about the visit. "He didn't spend much time here. He came and went. He's a good person and treats other people well, with his heart, with understanding," Mr. Borodavkin said. "I remember the era of Lenin and Stalin, but I think no one will speak badly of Putin."

It's not every day that such well-known visitors come through here and so it's perhaps natural that people in Izborsk were awed by Mr. Putin's presence.

The visit got a good deal of attention in the Russian media and Izborsk's museum director was accused of turning it into a bad case of hero worship after he started a special walking tour that followed the exact route Mr. Putin took that day.

President Putin is generally popular with Russians even outside Izborsk. That is not to say that he does not have his critics. Some accuse him of having curtailed press freedom, others say he is trying to centralize too much power in the hands of the Kremlin and still others accuse him of cooperating too much to the West and giving in to American interests.

It seems, however that most average Russians care little about such issues and instead are pleased with Mr. Putin's performance thus far. And they seem to like his style. Just ask the people in Izborsk.

Twelve-year-old Julia Skobeleva sells cucumbers in town and the president bought one from her during his visit. "He was coming down the hill. He first came to me and started asking about prices. He asked how much the cucumbers were," she said. "I said two rubles. He chose the smallest one and gave me two rubles, and I gave it to my grandmother. Then he gave me another fifty rubles and we have that at home. We won't spend it because Putin gave it to us."

And there is another bonus. Everyone in Izborsk agrees the president's visit brought more tourists and more tourist money. And that is likely to continue to make Vladimir Putin a local hero.