Putin calendar girls outrage Russia's embattled journalists

MOSCOW LETTER: Media students’ titillating tribute to the PM has not gone down well in a profession cowed by his regime, writes…

MOSCOW LETTER:Media students' titillating tribute to the PM has not gone down well in a profession cowed by his regime, writes DANIEL McLAUGHLIN

A GROUP of young women studying at Moscow University’s prestigious school of journalism gave Vladimir Putin a controversial birthday present last week.

They stripped to their underwear for a calendar in which they offered breathy messages of adoration to the president-turned-prime minister, telling him with longing looks that “You only get better with the years,” and sighing, “If only everyone had such a man.”

Others found something to admire in his handling of this summer’s forest fires, revealing that “You put out the fires but I’m still burning,” while one winkingly encouraged the birthday boy to return to the presidency in the 2012 elections by whispering “If not you, who?” and “How about a third time?”

Russia and Putin are used to this sort of thing. He has been serenaded by pop divas and has cultivated a macho image by riding in jet fighters, diving in Lake Baikal, firing darts into tigers and whales and famously riding and fishing shirtless in Siberia. State television, on which real news is scarce, devotes much time to such official pantomimes.

Amid speculation that the calendar was another homage from one of the youth groups that propagate Putin’s cult of personality, the men behind it insisted that it was a simple birthday offering from girls “with good looks and brains”.

But many of Russia’s real journalists were furious. They saw the girls as an embarrassment to Moscow University and to a profession that is under huge pressure from political and financial elites to scrap independent reporting and become part of their public relations machine.

The outrage of critics was intensified by the timing of the calendar, because October 7th was not only Putin’s 58th birthday but the fourth anniversary of the murder of Russia’s best-known journalist, Anna Politkovskaya.

She was shot dead in the hallway of her apartment block by men who have still not been found, and so became a symbol of the free, combative media that have been almost completely silenced since Putin first entered the Kremlin a decade ago.

Politkovskaya was the most dogged chronicler of Putin’s war against rebels in Chechnya, which is now led by his local ally Ramzan Kadyrov, a man Politkovskaya and many others have accused of kidnapping, torturing and murdering opponents.

Politkovskaya’s colleagues and admirers thought her fame would protect her from the kind of violence inflicted on many Russian journalists who have told uncomfortable truths to power, particularly in the provinces of this vast country, where corruption is rife and the rule of law feeble.

But her reputation could not protect her, and the fact that Russia’s best-known reporter could be murdered with impunity in the doorway of her home in central Moscow had a chilling effect on an already emasculated media.

In Russia, the worlds of crime, the security services, politics and business intersect more extensively than in most other European countries. It is inconceivable that the identities of those who ordered, planned and carried out the killing of someone as prominent as Politkovskaya could not be known to at least some of the people who should be trying to catch them.

Rights campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, speaks for many when she talks of the likely involvement in the killing of elements of the Federal Security Service (FSB), which Putin once ran and which has massively increased its power during his rule.

“The FSB carried out surveillance either for the killers or to kill her,” she said. “It’s obvious to me that the FSB’s involvement in this case has made it impossible to sort out.”

Speaking at a rally of a few hundred people who gathered in a Moscow square in remembrance of Politkovskaya, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov said he no longer believed that it was a just “terrible coincidence” that she was murdered on Putin’s birthday. “It’s the style of this regime, which hates journalists because it sees them as independent, and fears that they will expose their crimes,” he said.

“They saw Anna as a personal enemy. They sent her to the cemetery, and we must send them to the political cemetery, so we can once again be proud of our country.”

When the next speaker mentions the already notorious calendar models, a young woman shouts out “They are not journalists!”

She is Polina Myakinchenko, another student at Moscow University’s journalism school and an intern at Novaya Gazeta, the campaigning newspaper that employed Politkovskaya.

She is young and slight, but her eyes blaze as she speaks.

“We have to remember Anna and what happened to her,” she says. “Not enough of us care. But if we forget, Russia is finished.”