A few days ago, Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of Russia, celebrated his 58th birthday. Ok, you might say, who cares? After all, who even knows when Stephen Harper's birthday is? (Actually, a better question might be who even knows who Stephen Harper is, besides Canadians?) But here in Russia, Putin is a national hero. There are music videos in his honour, featuring gyrating Russian girls crooning about how they want a "man like Putin." A political youth organization, Nashi, was created in 2005 and has been referred to as the "putinjugend" by Western journalists, a play on the hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) of Nazi Germany. His approval rating in 2007 was 81%, the highest of any world leader, and has only continued to rise in the wake of the forest fires and heat wave of this past summer, when President Medvedev's incompetency was only highlighted by Putin's expert dealing of the situation. A lot of Russians credit him with restoring Russian national pride - as well as its economic and political pull in both the domestic and international spheres - following the breakdown of the Soviet Union. In comparison to bumbling, drunk Yeltsin, Putin is sober, ripped (he has a black belt in judo and is frequently photographed swimming in lakes, working out, and showing off his pecs), and very, very smart. He is, in many ways, exactly what Russia needs, and although I DO profess an admiration for Vladimir Vladimirovich, I have to admit that a cult of personality has arisen over the figure of Mr. Putin that I find truly disturbing and frightening.
The pop songs are bad enough, although I can laugh at them and not think much of it. But in honour of his birthday on October 7, a group of female journalist students at the prestigious Moscow State University released a special birthday calendar entitled: "Vladimir Vladimirovich, We Love You! Happy birthday!" with the text appearing over a photograph of a woman's bountiful cleavage. Inside the calendar are provocative poses, scantily-clad girls (all JUST 18 years old!), and cheesy lines like, "The fires are out but I'm still burning" and "How about a third time, Mr. Putin?" (referencing the possibility of Putin running for a third term as president in the upcoming 2012 elections, but the sexual innuendo is so obvious here they might as well hit you over the head with it). Ugh. This disgusts me in so many ways I don't even know where to start.
But the biggest problem with this calendar is the fact that these young women are all part of the same faculty that the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya graduated from. Politkovskaya was a talented and fearless journalist who reported on some of the worst human rights violations happening in Chechnya. She was also a voice of criticism of Putin's regime, calling out for fair elections and an end to the corruption that exists in a country that is far from democratic. I read one of her books a few years ago, on the state of Russian political parties as well as the horrific events happening in Chechnya and within the Russian army, and it truly was one of the those books that forces you to wake up and pay attention to a tragedy that most of the world knows little about. On Putin's birthday four years ago, Politkovskaya was assassinated in Moscow, and the details of her death still remain murky. Seeing that she had been a vehement and vocal critic of Putin and his government, it doesn't really take a rocket scientist to draw some conclusions about the person, or people, who lay behind her assassination.
Journalistic freedom, then, is far from a reality here in Russia. Other journalists who have opposed Putin and his party, United Russia, have met similar fates.
For these young journalism students to degrade themselves in such a way, to me, is morally repugnant. They are, as students in the same program Politkovskaya graduated from, effectively being passed her torch, yet they seem to have completely disregarded this in favour of pandering to the prime minister in skimpy lingerie. Not only are they degrading themselves as women, but to me, the most important thing about this is that they are degrading themselves as journalists.
Criticism from other journalism students at MGU has, thankfully, been loud and public. Another group of young female students released their own calendar, featuring photos of them with tape over their mouths and questions such as "Who killed Anna Politkovskaya?". One of these students succinctly explained, "Breasts are pretty, yes - I have them too. But I also have a head on my shoulders."
Please, from one young woman to another, regardless of our nationalities, experiences, and upbringings, I am begging the students who put together this erotic birthday calendar to start using their heads.