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How an 'almost naked' party turned political in Russia

Juri Rescheto
January 2, 2024

Pop stars loyal to the Kremlin are being punished for "immoral behavior" at a party in Moscow, exposing a shift toward totalitarianism in Russian ideology.

Guests queue outside the Mutabor nightclub
Guests queue outside the Mutabor nightclub, where the party took placeImage: Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

On December 20, a nationally-known blogger organized a party in a Moscow techno club. She invited the big names in the Russian music business, including pop icon Philipp Kirkorov, singer Lolita, Eurovision winner Dima Bilan and star journalist Ksenia Sobchak. Admission cost up to 1 million roubles, which is more than €10,000 ($11,000).

True to the "almost naked" dress code, guests appeared in sheer fabrics and skimpy lingerie. One rapper arrived wearing only a white sock to cover his genitals — a homage to the a famous Red Hot Chili Peppers poster from the 1980s, as he later explained to the court.

Pictures and videos of the event don't indicate any particularly indecent behavior and would unlikely arouse interest from tabloids outside of Russia, however.

TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak attended the partyImage: Denis Tyrin/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Guests posed exuberantly for photos and videos and the party appeared to be a success. That is, until numerous pro-government activists and associations complained to police and the public prosecutor's office about allegedly immoral behavior, such as pop king Kirkorov dancing "in rhinestone-adorned fishnets and tight pants," and called on the organizers to review the so-called "gay propaganda" and "drug propaganda" regulations.

These morality watchdogs complained that, of all times, the party took place while Russia doubles down on traditional values amid its engagement in the "special military operation," as the country's war of aggression on Ukraine is officially called.

'Gay propaganda' vs. Russian values

A Duma deputy also asked authorities to determine whether the event is in line with the recent "ban on LGBT propaganda" and Russian President Vladimir Putin's decree on preserving and strengthening "traditional Russian spiritual and moral values."

Russia outlaws LGBTQ+ content as 'extremist'

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The story gained momentum as party participants initially mocked such reactions on social media. But then a video appeared in which singer Kirkorov tried to justify attending the party in a private conversation with Kremlin spokesman.

The story reached its climax when the rapper with the sock on his penis was arrested and sentenced to 15 days in prison along with a fine by a Moscow court. The charges: hooliganism and "gay propaganda." Authorities also threatened the organizer with an extensive tax investigation and fined her 100,000 roubles (€1,000).

Stars show remorse

As a result, the partygoers quickly changed their tune and began posting repentance videos in which they claimed not to have known about the "true nature" of the event or what would "really happen there."

Russian singer Philipp Kirkorov issued a public apology for attending the partyImage: Valery Sharifulin/Tass/dpa/picture alliance

Kirkorov, 56, whose popularity in Russia would be comparable to Madonna-level fame in the West, said that artists should be "more careful" when choosing events "in this difficult time, a time of heroism."

"I am only an artist of my country. I am only a patriot of my country. I have never tried to sit on two chairs, I have never abandoned or betrayed anything. I only love my viewers and listeners. I recognize the mistake I made," he said.

Despite such apologies, event organizers have already begun canceling upcoming concerts by the repentant stars. TV stations also announced that they would make last-minute cuts to musical numbers by party participants from their pre-recorded New Year's Eve concerts. Even a comedy movie, which was due to premiere shortly before New Year's Eve, was re-shot. The very people who demonstrated their loyalty to the Kremlin by staying and performing in Russia after the war began are now experiencing an unprecedented crackdown before an audience of millions.

Singer Lolita Milyavskaya was also at the partyImage: Sofya Sandurskaya/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Unexpectedly harsh Kremlin reaction

The turn of events indicates "the totalitarian degradation of Putin's Russia," said Artemy Troitsky, a Russian music critic who lives abroad.

"People thought the Kremlin was only waging a war against the political activists taking part in the anti-war protests," he told DW. "In reality, however, things are happening that would have been atypical for this country just a year ago."

Russia is now a state that demands total control, Troitsky added. And the Russian pop industry doesn't appear in a favorable light either, he said. "Almost all talented musicians have now left Russia. What remains are either a few brave fighters or bumbling conformists who support those in power to guarantee their prosperity and security."

The country's culture will develop along the lines of North Korea, he predicted: "In the future, only military marches will be heard there."

For Russian political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin, who also lives in exile, it is clear that punishing the pop stars was a coordinated campaign. "If they didn't understand that the order came from the very top, they wouldn't show their remorse in an effective media chorus," he told DW.

The war enters daily life

Oreshkin said that he sees a paradigm shift in Russian ideology. In the past, the Kremlin's policy was aimed at keeping the war away from the masses, "according to the motto: our lives go on, nobody has to suffer, everything is fine and we celebrate our parties. The stores are full, the sanctions are being successfully combated, the economy is growing, everyone is dancing and singing."

The war is no longer being waged somewhere on the periphery but is now part of everyday lifeImage: Alexander Reka/ITAR-TASS/IMAGO

Apparently, the partying pop stars hadn't detected the shift. "Nothing is as it was. The whole country has to do without important things, the whole country is in a state of war" and it's not acceptable for some people to "show their bare bottoms," Oreshkin said.

The message is clear: the war is no longer being waged somewhere on the periphery. It is now part of everyday life, he added.

Oreshkin also suggested that the party in Moscow was a perfect opportunity to distract attention from current problems. Propaganda needs a common enemy, a scapegoat, to consolidate the people in difficult times, according to the populist stance: "Let's punish these decadent elites, then the common people will be better off too."

This article was originally published in German.

Juri Rescheto DW Riga Bureau Chief
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