Alina Kabaeva on cover of Russia's Vogue in triumph of celebrity politics

Alina Kabaeva is gracing the January cover of Russian Vogue. Notable in her own right for being a Gold medalist and Russian parliamentarian, the spotlight instead is on her rumored affair with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Alina Kabaeva.

Alina Kabaeva had many reasons to be famous even before gracing the January cover of Russian Vogue wearing a $33,000 gold Balmain gown.

Beyond being a current parliamentarian and former Olympian, she also the alleged mistress of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – a persistent rumor that got one unlucky Moscow newspaper shut down for repeating it, while also fueling an almost frantic buzz around her name in Moscow high society circles.

Ms. Kabaeva is one of Russia's most successful rhythmic gymnasts (see video below). She took part in six world championships and brought home an Olympic Gold medal in 2004.

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After she retired in 2004, she was recruited by the ruling pro-Kremlin United Russia party and soon joined several other former Olympic champions in the ranks of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.

But it is her alleged relationship with Mr. Putin for which she is most known today, to the chagrin of political analysts who say that the only scandal worth talking about is the non-participatory nature of Russia's political system, which enables the United Russia party – which is headed by Putin – to co-opt youthful and inexperienced celebrities and vault them into parliament, without any training or even the need to campaign for their own election.

"They may be celebrities, but I can't see anything that these ex-athletes contribute to politics," says Sergei Mikheyev, director of the independent Center of Political Technologies in Moscow. "Alina Kabaeva was a famous gymnast, but she hasn't distinguished herself as a politician in any way."

Due to electoral changes brought in during Putin's presidency, Russian voters cast their ballots for a party and not for an individual candidate. Party leaders draw up the lists of people whom they will appoint to the Duma seats won by their party.

"United Russia is always seeking popularity, and its advisers suggested bringing in successful athletes, who enjoy public adulation, and make them faces of the party," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow.

"That's how Kabaeva and other sports heroes came straight into the Duma. It's good for them. United Russia is the ruling party, so they can remain in the public eye as celebrities," he says. "But basically they're just cashing in on their athletic reputations."

Kabaeva's bout of notoriety came in early 2008 when Moskovsky Korrespondent, a daily tabloid owned by newspaper mogul Alexander Lebedev, published an interview with a St. Petersburg wedding planner who claimed to have been hired to arrange for Mr. Putin's marriage to Kabaeva after he stepped down from the presidency later that year.

Both Kabaeva and the Kremlin angrily denied the story, and Moskovsky Korrespondent promptly shut down, citing "financial difficulties."

The rumor that Putin has left his wife and taken up with Kabaeva has remained a staple topic on Russia's freewheeling blogosphere. It acquired fresh life last year when Kabaeva gave birth to a son, but kept the father's name a secret.

Putin recently made a televised appearance with his wife of 27 years, Lyudmilla, which many observers saw as an effort to squelch the gossip.

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