MOSCOW – Vladimir Putin received an unusual birthday gift Thursday from 12 female journalism students, who posed in lacy underwear and used sexual innuendo to create a calendar dedicated to Russia's macho prime minister.
"How about a third time?" asks Miss February, hinting at a third presidential term for Putin, who served two terms as president from 2000 to 2008 and is eligible to run again in 2012.
"You put out the forest fires, but I'm still burning," says Miss March, referring to Putin's piloting of a firefighting plane during the summer's devastating wildfires.
During his decade in power, Putin has been glorified in song and seen his name used to sell a brand of now-popular vodka. Students have formed Putin fan clubs, and activists in Kremlin-connected youth groups have chanted his name at their rallies and staged pranks ridiculing his critics.
The calendar created for Putin's 58th birthday takes its inspiration from the Kremlin-driven campaign to boost Putin's popularity and cultivate his alpha-male image. Putin himself has been known to show some skin, posing shirtless on horseback and while fishing.
The release of the pinup calendar was announced by the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, whose spokeswoman Kristina Potupchik posted the images in her blog. She gave the print run — 50,000 — and said they were on sale in Moscow supermarkets for the equivalent of $8.50.
The calendars may also been the latest effort to profit from the prime minister's popularity.
The 12 pinup girls, all students of Moscow State University's journalism school, apparently risk no rebuke.
"I think this calendar is a rather frivolous production, but I don't see any crime in it," Yelena Vartanova, the school's dean, told Associated Press Television News.
A separate group of journalism students quickly created a quite different calendar online, comprised of pictures of themselves wearing black and with their mouths taped shut to protest Putin's policies.
"Who killed Anna Politkovskaya?" asked one of them, referring to the investigative reporter who was shot four years ago to the day.
At a rally commemorating Politkovskaya's murder, chess champion and opposition leader Garry Kasparov said the pinup calendar was created by the kind of journalists who sell out to the Kremlin.
"Authorities promote journalists of this kind and kill the honest ones," he told a couple hundred people who gathered in central Moscow to commemorate Politkovskaya, according to Kasparov's website.
Politkovskaya was a harsh critic of the Kremlin and exposed widespread human-rights abuses and corruption in Chechnya.
Prosecutors have said little about who might have ordered the contract-style killing, and the suspected gunman is believed to be hiding abroad. Three men accused of playing minor roles in the killing remain under investigation.
At least 18 journalists have been murdered with impunity in Russia since Putin came to power in 2000, according to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists.