As Vladimir Putin is apparently preparing to return to the Presidential seat in 2012, PR campaign in his support is gaining strength sometimes almost reaching the level of cult of personality. On October 6, a day before Putin's 59th birthday, he got an unusual gift from several female students of Moscow State University's Department of Journalism. Twelve soon-to-be journalists in sexy lingerie posed for a calendar entitled "Happy Birthday, Mr. Putin!" Next to their smiling photos were put slogans like "How About a Third Time?", "Who Else If Not You?", "You Are Only Getting Better with Years" etc. Names of the girls and their department were mentioned at every page.
Make no mistake, it wasn't a joke or a spontaneous burst of patriotism of a few not-so-smart girls. The information was first published at the blog of Nashi Spokesperson Kristing Potupchik. It is also said that the people who organized the whole thing, Vladimir Tabak and Maksim Perlin, are connected with the government. The former one is an employee at the Federal Agency for Youth Policy (whose head, the infamous Vasily Yakemenko, was a long-time leader of the same Nashi); the latter one works for Russia.ru government-controlled Website. According to Potupchik, 50,000 copies of the calendar are already on sale in Moscow malls.
What made this story even more controversial is that the girls are proud students or would-be students at the well-respected Department of Journalism of Moscow State University, or "Zhurfak." Many prominent journalists were Zhurfak alumni including Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated on this very day four years ago, October 7, 2006. Her murderers have not been convicted -- just like the killers of another Zhurfak student, Anastasia Baburova, who was shot dead on January 19, 2009. Who will replace Politkovskaya, Baburova and the others if Zhurfak students pose semi-naked for public servants instead of investigating their misconduct?
The answer soon followed. In 24 hours another calendar was published on the Web. Six different Zhurfak girls posed for it in black business suits, their faces thoughtful and serious, and their mouths shut and covered with scotch tape, symbolizing the lack of freedom of speech in Russia. Instead of asking Putin for a "third time," they do what real journalists should do -- ask him uncomfortable questions. "When Will [Former Oil Tycoon Turned Political Prisoner Mikhail] Khodorkovsky Be Released?"; "Is Freedom of Assembly Always and Everywhere?"; "Who Killed Anna Politkovskaya?"; "How Will Inflation Influence Corruption?"; "When Is The Next Terrorist Attack?"
With so many journalists killed, forced into exile or left jobless and even more turned to self-censorship, Russian political media are in obvious crisis. The Zhurfak controversy shows that the question at stake is the mission of journalism: is it about getting naked before public officials or is it about discovering and making public naked truth?