Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday praised the Russian scientists who have reached a gigantic freshwater lake in Antarctica hidden under more than two miles (3.2 kilometers) of ice, a pristine body of water that may hold life from the distant past.

On national television, Russia's natural resources minister gave Putin a canister of water from melted ice at the bottom of the boreshaft near the surface of Lake Vostok.

The footage appeared aimed at showing Russia's scientific prowess and helping Putin's bid to reclaim the presidency in March's election. Putin hailed the discovery of Lake Vostok as a "great event" and said the research team members will receive national awards.

After more than two decades of drilling, the Russian researchers reached the lake on Sunday at a depth of 12,366 feet (3,769 meters) in a location about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) east of the South Pole.

Reaching the surface of Lake Vostok, the largest of nearly 400 subglacial lakes in Antarctica, was a major discovery avidly anticipated by scientists around the world.

The lake is expected to hold living organisms that have been locked in icy darkness for some 20 million years, as well as clues to the search for life elsewhere in the solar system.

Scientists believe that microbial life may exist in the dark depths of the lake, despite its high pressure and constant cold _ conditions similar to those believed to be found under the ice crust on Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus.

American and British teams are drilling to reach their own subglacial Antarctic lakes, but they are smaller and younger than Vostok.