MOSCOW (Reuters Life!) - Some were bearing gifts for Vladimir Putin's 58th birthday on Thursday -- others bared their flesh.
Several female journalism students from a prestigious Russian university posed in slinky lingerie for a calendar filled with warm -- sometimes steamy -- birthday greetings for the prime minister.
The calendar is the latest and one of the flashiest pieces of publicity for Putin, who has assiduously developed a manly image by posing shirtless on horseback, stalking a tiger through Siberian forests and climbing into jet-plane cockpits.
It drew swift and severe criticism from a separate group of journalism students from Moscow State University.
Hard to find in stores but splashed widely across Moscow's tabloids, the cheesecake calendar features a photograph of a woman for every month in 2011, each with a word bubble addressing Putin.
"Vladimir Vladimirovich, WE LOVE YOU!" reads the cover, which shows a close-up of a woman's chest above barely concealed cleavage.
"You only get better with the years," third-year Moscow State University journalism student Nastya Klabukova, posing in a black-and-teal bra and panties, says on the September page.
"The fires are out, but I'm still burning," the March model says -- a risque reference to wildfires that killed more than 50 Russians this summer, and which Putin helped fight by dropping water from a plane.
In a retort, other journalism students from the same school posted a calendar with photos depicting them in dark clothing, their mouths taped, with captions asking questions about issues that are the focus of criticism of Putin and his era.
"Who killed Anna Politkovskaya?" one asks -- a reference to the unsolved slaying, on Putin's birthday in 2006, of an investigative journalist who exposed human rights abuses.
"When will (Mikhail) Khodorkovsky be freed?" asks another about an imprisoned oil tycoon whose fraud and tax evasion trial was seen by Kremlin critics as a punishment for challenging Putin.
Critics have accused Putin, who was president in 2000-2008 and has hinted he may return to the Kremlin in a 2012 election, of encouraging a personality cult.
Technically subordinate to the successor he steered into the presidency in 2008, Dmitry Medvedev, Putin is widely believed to be the final arbiter of Russia's policy.
Putin and his spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment about the calendar. Its creators said they had not consulted with Putin's office or anyone else in politics before publishing the calendar.
"We wanted to create a colorful project and at the same time make a present for his birthday," Vladimir Tabak, a co-head of the publishing company that put out the calendar, told Reuters.
Tabak said he and colleagues at the company, Fakultet, are graduates of the Moscow State University journalism department but that the calendar had no connection with the department.
A spokeswoman for the department told Ekho Moskvy radio that it was "tactless" of the publisher to use the department's name for the calendar, but that the students would face no punishment.
Nine of the calendar girls are current students at the department, two are graduates and one is to enrol there soon, Tabak said. He said all were at least 18 except one 17-year-old who was more fully dressed than the others.
Editing by Steve Addison