(Svetlana Frolova pauses during a service at her sanctuary at Bolshaya Yelena, a village near central Russia's city of Nizhny Novgorod May 15, 2011/Natalia Plankina)

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin cultivates the image of a bare-chested macho man, but a nun-like sect in central Russia thinks actually he’s the reincarnation of St. Paul, the apostle. Or, if not that, he may in a past life have been the founder of the Russian Orthodox Church.

“I say what the Lord has revealed to me,” the sect’s leader, former convict Svetlana Frolova, said.

Putin’s advisers disclaim any link with the sect led by the former railway manager, who was jailed for fraud in 1996.  “He (Putin) does not approve of that kind of admiration,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said by telephone.

But Frolova and her followers are only the most extreme illustration of a personality cult building up around Putin before the 2012 presidential election. An opinion poll by the independent Levada Center showed that more than half of Russians believe a Soviet-style personality cult is being cultivated for Putin, who has refused to say whether he will run for president in the March vote.