You might expect a comparison between Russian prime minister (and former spymaster) Vladimir Putin and one of Jesus' 12 apostles to include a reference to 30 pieces of silver. In its report on an eccentric Russian sect, however, Reuters revealed that Judas isn't the appropriate apostolic reference:

“a nun-like sect in the Nizhny Novgorod region thinks that . . . [Putin is] the reincarnation of the apostle Paul. Or, if not that, he may in a past life have been the founder of the Russian Orthodox Church."

The sect's leader, a former convict named Svetlana Frolova, opined that: “Putin's past lives included that of Grand Prince Vladimir of Rus, credited with founding the Russian Orthodox Church more than a millennium ago.”

Which may be going a bit far, even for Russia. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, disclaimed any link with the sect, noting that, “Putin does not approve of that kind of admiration."

Quirky though her religious faith may be, Frolova appears to have a keen grasp of Russian politics: "You can be prime minister and still remain president," she said, leaving little room at the top of government for Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's official president. Frolova has concluded that God will intervene in Putin’s favor in next year’s presidential election, though Putin hasn't announced his candidacy. "Medvedev is merely Putin's student,” she said.

The Apostle Paul experienced his conversion on the road to Damascus. Apostle Putin underwent a transformation himself on a local street.

Strollers in downtown Moscow encountered posters showing the Ruling Tandem -- Putin and Medvedev -- tanned and jauntily outfitted in white tennis shorts and cardigans. The posters prompted an affair of state, as the headline on an Interfax.ru story announced: “The Government Has Demanded that the Advertisement Showing Putin and Medvedev be Removed.” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the unauthorized poster “verged on hooliganism.”

The BBC’s Russian Service reproduced the poster, revealing that the hooliganism was actually a work of “street art.” In an interview with the BBC, the poster's anonymous creator said:

“We most often see Putin and Medvedev all buttoned up, but I wanted to show them as stylish, relaxed guys who keep up with trends and lead an active life. . . . I have big plans. I want us to take steps ahead in our consciousness, so that we become as European as possible in our way of relating to things.”

Europeanization has been a long and bumpy road in Russia, beginning in the 17th Century under Peter the Great. It hasn't fully taken. Ilya Yepishkin, a blogger on ZhivoyZhurnal’s I-narodny.livejournal.com, reported that on May 31 -- as on the thirty-first day of months for the past two years -- pro-democracy protestors gathered peacefully on Moscow’s centrally-located Triumfal’naya Square. They found themselves facing beefy, club-wielding riot troops and counter-demonstrators wearing tee-shirts announcing, "With us are Putin, God and United Russia" -- Putin's political party.

Alan Cullison of the Wall Street Journal provided the background:

“The rallies were started by beatnik writer and poet Eduard Limonov, who in 2009 called on followers to gather at the square on the last day of any month containing 31 days. The rallies commemorate Article 31 of the Russian constitution, which putatively guarantees all Russians the freedom of assembly. And at each rally the authorities have been displaying precisely the kind of behavior that Mr. Limonov’s followers have gathered to protest.”

Cullison also pointed out that a “U.S. diplomatic cable, recently released by Wikileaks, called Mr. Limonov a fringe opposition figure, whose influence will only last as long as his ability to attract more recruits who are willing to be beaten and arrested.”

Limonov, however, “believes his critics are out of touch with the tough underlay of Russian political life, and that a polite western-style liberal movement whose members fear the police will never stand up to Kremlin steamrolling. He complains that western-leaning politicians often criticize his methods, but can’t summon supporters of their own.

“They are all generals without armies,” Limonov said. “We are the only real force out there.”

Only twenty-seven demonstrators, Limonov included, were arrested. Though Limonov's protests occur regularly in this city of 12 million, they rarely draw much of a crowd, due to widespread Russian apathy, and rarely receive publicity – evidence, perhaps, of the chill the Kremlin casts over press freedoms.

A post at I-narodny.livejournal.com contains Ilya Yepishkin’s dramatic, close-up photos of the protest, which show, among other things, Limonov’s arrival in a pack of bodyguards, various arrests, mild scuffles, and protesters holding placards reading: “I’ll SWAP PUTIN FOR KHODORKOVSKY,” referring to jailed Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and “ELECTIONS WITHOUT AN OPPOSITION ARE A CRIME!”

An explanatory caption on one photo read:

“Here and there the officers were trying to round up people with cameras and put them in their vans. . . only cries of ‘They’re arresting journalists!’ worked, and caused [the police] to quiet down.”

Meantime, the murder case of one of Russia's most famous journalists took an intriguing turn. Timofey Borisov and Natalya Kozlova of the state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported on the government's arrest, in Chechnya, of 37-year-old Rustam Makhmudov, the Chechen accused of gunning down journalist and human-rights activist Anna Politkovskaya in her apartment building's elevator in 2006. Politkovskaya’s “brazen murder,” the correspondents noted, “either on purpose or by chance took place on [Putin’s] birthday” and “provoked a widespread public response” -- that is, rumors that the killer had intended his deed as a grisly birthday gift to the then-president. Makhmudov, who will be transferred to Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison, claimed that he “had tired of hiding” – in Belgium of all places – “and was preparing to surrender himself to the authorities.”

Evidently the alleged killer had grown tired of living in Europe.