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Putin’s attack dogs target ‘almost naked’ pop stars in Russia’s new culture war – POLITICO

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As New Year dawned in Moscow, some of Russia’s top celebrities will have woken up with a hangover — of the worst, political kind.

When top influencer Anastasia Ivleyeva invited the beau monde of Russian pop culture to an “Almost Naked” theme party in late December, she unknowingly crossed a new red line.

The scandal that followed — in which one partygoer was jailed and others were pressured to make grovelling public apologies — reveals a dramatic shift in the Kremlin’s attitude toward the showbiz elite.

It comes at a critical moment for Russia, ahead of the second anniversary of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine next month and a presidential election in March.

Though extravagant, the private party at a Moscow nightclub on December 20 was hardly revolutionary — even in Soviet times, Russia’s political center doubled as the debauchery capital for the privileged elites.

But while revelers shared photos online of their scanty outfits — sheer lingerie, expensive jewelry and lots of skin — a rumbling of disapproval began among military bloggers.

Soon, patriotic officials chimed in.

Yekaterina Mizulina, the ultra patriotic head of the Safe Internet League, a pseudo-NGO, called the bash “a cynical act … at a time when our men are dying in the special military operation, and many children are losing their fathers.”

“The party,” she continued in her post on Telegram, amounted to a “shot in the foot” of the government.

Picking up the ball, State Duma deputy Maria Butina, once convicted in the U.S. as a Russian agent and then deported, called on law enforcement to investigate for signs of “LGBT propaganda” and the undermining of traditional values. Though the guests were long gone, Moscow’s Mutabor club was raided by police.

Russia’s assault on Ukraine has gone hand in hand with a renewed crackdown on its LGBTQ+ community at home, including an expanded law against the promotion of “non-traditional” sexual relations. Authorities present it as an existential battle against degenerative Western values.

News of the night of revelry supposedly reached President Vladimir Putin.

Russian influencer Anastasia Ivleyeva invited the beau monde of Russian pop culture to an “Almost Naked” theme party in late December | Creative commons via Wikimedia

Of particular offense to the president, according to the investigative outlet Agentsvо, were images of party guests faking oral sex on rapper Nikolai Vasilyev (stage name Vacío), whose costume consisted of only a white sock covering his genitals.

Defending himself, Vasilyev said the costume was inspired by a Red Hot Chili Peppers performance, and in a confessional video from custody specified he did not support the LGBTQ+ community and had not intended “to make propaganda” for it.

Nonetheless, a Moscow court still gave him a 15-day sentence for petty hooliganism and a fine of 200,000 rubles — the equivalent of about €2,000 — for “LGBT propaganda.”

Putin’s spokesperson refuses to comment on the affair. But whatever the Kremlin’s direct role, zealous officials, the state apparatus and patriotic vigilantes have now joined forces to amplify the outcry in what looks like an attempt to distract the population from the economic and human toll of the war and discipline the raucous urban elite.

Ivleyeva, who organized the party and has more than 18 million followers on Instagram, appears to be the prime target. In a matter of weeks, she has been dropped by two major advertisers and presented with a 130-million ruble bill — the equivalent of some €1.3 million — in outstanding taxes.

A Moscow court also gave her a fine of 100,000 rubles for “offending human dignity and propagandizing non-traditional sexual relations in a public place.”

Another lawsuit, supposedly initiated by a group of civilians, demands some 1 billion rubles in moral damages from her to be donated to Russia’s military.

Initially defending her right to dress as she pleased, Ivleyeva has since issued an extensive and tearful mea culpa video, appealing to Russians’ sense of forgiveness.

One after another of her celebrity guests have followed suit.

“In the life of every person there are moments when you take the wrong door,” Philipp Kirkorov, a mainstay of Russia’s entertainment scene, said in his own video.

Such apology videos are becoming increasingly frequent in Russia amid growing repression as “a means of pre-trial or extrajudicial prosecution,” anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova, a researcher at the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale EHESS in Paris, told POLITICO. “The goal is to humiliate the person and to depict them as weak, while demonstrating they accept the government’s value system which is being imposed on them.”

But public humiliation did not save the almost naked party guests.

State Duma deputy Maria Butina called on law enforcement to investigate for signs of “LGBT propaganda” | Kirill Kudryavstev/AFP via Getty Images

In a cultural purge reminiscent of Stalin’s time, the partygoers, some of whom have been a fixture of holiday festivities for years, saw their concerts canceled, scenes cut from state television shows and films, and names removed from promotional material.

Аccording to Telegram channel Ostorozhno Novosti, Moscow’s city authorities were even told to scrap their songs from holiday festivities’ playlists.

Battling the darkness

Some three months before Putin is set to use an election to extend his rule by another six years, the episode has been presented by Kremlin mouthpieces as proof of popular power.

In an interview with Sputnik radio, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described the furor as the result of “the entire country” standing up against “darkness.” She added the “ordeals” faced by those who had attended the party were “not a punishment, but medicine.”

The main takeaway for the creative classes in Russia, however, is that they can no longer expect to escape politics.

Until now, those artists and music stars who stayed in Russia and kept out of the political fray would have been rewarded with lucrative deals or, at least, left alone.

This allowed some of the wealthy urban elite like Ivleyeva to be sheltered from the Kremlin’s increasingly conservative and homophobic policies, despite several carefully critical posts on Instagram.

The Kremlin also stood to gain from this laissez-faire approach, eager as it has been to maintain a facade of normality despite the war.

But those days are over.

As the war has become the new normal, the impunity of the elites looks like a political liability for Putin, who faces a small but vocal group of ultranationalists who are frustrated at Russia’s lack of progress on the battlefront and demanding an escalation.

Seen that way, Ivleyeva’s naked bash represents an act of defiance against the Kremlin, placing it in the same category as the mutiny of renegade mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, says Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “They violated the sacred rules of how a person should behave in wartime,” he told POLITICO.

These days, that no longer means just avoiding explicit criticism of Russia’s military or the Kremlin, but also embracing a new wartime morality of frugality and conservatism — at least in public.

Ivleyeva’s naked bash represents an act of defiance against the Kremlin, placing it in the same category as the mutiny of renegade mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin | Pool photo by Sergei Ilnitsky via AFP/Getty Images

As summarized by Andrei Nechayev, a former economics minister turned Putin-critic: “Orgies are not forbidden, but you shouldn’t flaunt them.”

Bullfighter

While the partygoers are being publicly bludgeoned, Putin’s cheerleaders are offering routes to absolution.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Chechnya, invited the revelers to sign up as volunteers to the front-line.

Russia’s practice of recruiting criminals into the army was evidence that everyone deserves a second chance, “including these people,” a state TV journalist cited a Russian soldier as telling her.

Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of state-controlled broadcaster RT, gave out the company’s bank account number, saying redemption did not require “blood,” but could also come in the form of donations to charity.

Those with a longer memory, however, recall a story from 24 years ago.

In December 1999, amid the Second Chechen War, a younger Vladimir Putin, then-prime minister, reportedly sat in the front row for an erotic dance show involving a half-naked bull fighter at a St. Petersburg club.

Six days later he was named acting president.

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