Keeping Putin up to date

Most middle-aged men can only dream of getting such a birthday present: not one but two calendars filled with lovely young women asking them very personal questions.

But Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin may not have liked what he was being asked in one of them.

In it, women wearing dark dresses stare at the camera, their lips sealed shut by yellow tape. In large type, they address their queries to a "Vladimir Vladimirovich."

"When is the next terrorist act?"

"Who killed Anna Politkovskaya?"

The calendar, created overnight by a group of infuriated Moscow University journalism students, appeared last week on the website on Putin's 58th birthday. Coincidentally, it was also the fourth anniversary of the unsolved killing of crusading journalist Politkovskaya, who has become a focal point of growing protests over limits on personal liberties in Russia.

The calendar came in response to another calendar published last week by a group in the same department. That one depicted 12 scantily clad young women expressing their affection for Putin with lines such as this one, a double entendre referring to his self-perpetuated macho reputation and his widely expected bid for another term as president: "Vladimir Vladimirovich, how about a third time?"

Other pictures fit his flamboyant image only too well. During this summer's wildfires in Russia, Putin personally flew a plane to drop water on the burning forests. So the July girl asks: "Vladimir Vladimirovich, will you take me as a co-pilot?" and the March girl exclaims: "Vladimir Vladimirovich, you have extinguished the forest fires but I am still hot!"

The 50,000 copies of the Putin-we-love-you calendar was distributed for about $9 apiece at a popular retail chain in Moscow and suburbs. Its publisher and creator, Vladimir Tabak, himself a graduate of the journalism department, defended the models.

"What's wrong in the girls' desire to express their respect for our premier in a light and humorous manner?" he asked, adding that the calendar was selling like hotcakes. He said that the other group had turned this light joke into a scandal but that "the Kremlin says that our girls are better-looking, anyway."

If Tabak felt quite comfortable with the commercial success of his enterprise, the moral and ethical side of the issue raised an uproar on campus. Margarita Zhuravlyova and her friends in the journalism department rushed to prepare an alternative calendar to "save the honor" of the school.

With the campus abuzz Friday over the war of the calendars, Zhuravlyova and three of her friends stood outside the journalism building a stone's throw from the Kremlin.

"We didn't have to think long to come up with questions … for our alternative project," Zhuravlyova, 19, said of the calendar, which was published online only. "People ask these questions in their daily lives, at home, at work, in the streets and on public transportation."

Pretty, young and cheerful, they smiled at each other, their eyes radiating the warm energy of youth. They were not scared. They were not defiant, either.

They said that after they had agreed on the plan of action, they invited their friends and a good photographer, and worked until 4 a.m. Thursday, when the alternative calendar was ready.

"We got what we wanted, and frankly even more than we wanted," said Tatyana Kartashova, 18. "The main thing is that many students and other people are calling us on the phone all day expressing their support, saying they are with us."

The campus was divided into two camps, one of those supporting the alternative calendar and the other admiring the young women in the Happy-Birthday-Mr. Putin calendar, said Alexandra Guseva, 20, a journalism student who was not involved in the project.

"The number of those who favor the alternative project is incomparably higher," she said. "I would like to see Putin's reaction to this debate and hear him answer the questions."

Putin's spokesman said the prime minister was aware of the existence of such calendars, and "his attitude is indifferent."

"All these questions have a right to exist and people have a right to ask them," spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a phone interview. "This situation tells us about natural pluralism of opinions in our society and that it is important to have an active position in life, and such things should be encouraged unless they interfere with studies.

"For myself, however, I hope that the girls study as good as they look on the calendars."

Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Protection Foundation, a Moscow-based human rights group, expressed concern that the government may start harassing the girls challenging Putin, but said, "We see a new whole generation arising with no fear and a clear vision of what they want from life and how they want to achieve it.

"We thought of the young generation as passive, spoiled and indifferent," Simonov said. "But they don't have this old Soviet fear deep in their veins as we do, and the voice of this new generation grows louder."

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