Celebrities and the cult of Russian President Putin | Elections News
In 2003, Yulia Volkova, half of Russian pop duo TATU, performed Not Gonna Get Us, a famous song about two schoolgirls in love, at the MTV Music Awards in California.
Images from the event have been viewed millions of times around the world, and according to Vice magazine, the performance “brought female homosexuality to the forefront of the mainstream.”
Last year, Volkova appeared in a very different video.
She spoke about her intention to run for the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, with the ruling United Russia party, in the upcoming parliamentary elections on September 19.
“I am going to the Duma with United Russia to make sure that real decisions, not verbal ones, are made for the benefit of the majority of our citizens,” Volkova, now 35 and mother of two, said in the newspaper of May. 13 video, featuring an Orthodox Christian cross.
The clip was intended for the United Russia primaries in the western Ivanovo region, known for poverty and a catastrophic shortage of men.
Volkova lost to an obscure male official.
But its failure hasn’t stopped other Russian celebrities who want to become politicians – mostly on a pro-Vladimir Putin ticket, either with United Russia or with the so-called “systemic opposition,” a trio of nominally opposed parties. to the giant in power, but never critical of the Russian president.
The Kremlin welcomes these celebrities with open arms.
Their smiling faces on television, billboards and flyers contrast with the crush of dissent that escalated ahead of the Duma elections.
But activists very much doubt the sincerity of pro-Kremlin luminaries.
“I suspect they are not going to defend the interests of Russian citizens, but pursue their own selfish interests,” said Violetta Grudina, an opposition activist in the northwestern town of Murmaks, who was the subject of detentions, interrogations and slanderous accusations. after announcing his decision to run for municipal elections.
“This is the Kremlin’s way of creating spoilers, of creating an illusion of choice,” Grudina told Al Jazeera.
For celebrities, the Duma is not a springboard for a town hall, a governorship or a presidential campaign.
It’s a haven for many terms, a source of publicity and countless benefits, including envelopes with wads of cash, says a campaign manager who has worked in Washington, Moscow, Berlin and Minsk.
“In the West, politics is just a sphere of activity, a sphere of service, but in Russia, politics is a way of life,” said Vitali Shkliarov, who has worked on Barack Obama’s campaigns and Bernie Sanders, promoted opposition candidates in Russia, and was jailed and tortured in Belarus after working with an opposition presidential candidate last year.
Russian celebrities want to be in politics “not because they want to serve, but because they want to live well,” he told Al Jazeera.
As weaker pro-Putin parties appeal to luminaries to increase their approval ratings, United Russia needs their support to legitimize its inevitable victory, experts say.
Inevitable because for years the party has been accused of rigging the vote – by election observers, critics and hundreds of thousands of people who rallied ten years ago in the biggest protests since the Soviet collapse of 1991.
“He is not afraid of losing, because the Central Election Commission will fake victory,” Gennady Gudkov, a former opposition MP, told Al Jazeera.
“But he’s desperate to somehow legitimize himself in the public eye,” he said.
Artists and war criminals
This year’s roster of future politicians is a motley crew and includes a rapper who calls himself Purulent, reality TV stars, and a few pop singers.
One is Denis Maidanov, whose patriotic hits include “Russia, Forward!” and “Who are the Russians”.
“A lot of parents say they educate their children with my songs, and that’s a sign of their confidence,” he told tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda in early June.
Another budding lawmaker is Zakhar Prilepin, a novelist and former National Bolshevik Party activist who championed ideas the Kremlin once banned as “extremists” – the annexation of Crimea and the Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine and Kazakhstan. .
Prilepin’s 2006 novel Sankya was hailed as an anti-Kremlin youth “manifesto”, and in 2008 he formed a nationalist party with nascent anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny.
But after Moscow annexed Crimea and supported pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, many national Bolsheviks pledged allegiance to Putin – and joined the rebels.
Prilepin led a squad of “volunteers”, served as an “advisor” to a separatist leader who detonated in 2018 and confessed to committing war crimes.
“I led a military unit that killed people. Many of them. No other battalion in Donetsk could match the rates of my battalion, ”he said in a 2019 interview.
Last year, Prilepin founded the For the Truth party with actor and Orthodox priest Ivan Okhlobystin – who wants to restore the death penalty in Russia and crown Putin as “monarch”.
Then they enlisted a failed international celebrity.
Steven Seagal, an action hero in 1990s Hollywood movies, joined For Truth in December.
He received a Russian passport from Putin in 2016 after hailing him as “one of the greatest living leaders in the world” and supporting the annexation of Crimea.
In May, For Truth merged with A Just Russia, a pro-Putin socialist party. It is the weakest of the three “systemic opposition” parties with 23 seats in the 450-seat Duma.
However, he could lose them in September, as only five percent of Russians want to vote for the party, according to a poll conducted in March by the Levada Center.
United Russia, meanwhile, seems light years away from this struggle for survival.
It has tens of thousands of members, offices in every town and village, and what critics call the “administrative resource,” a nationwide system to compel government workers, teachers and medical staff to vote for its members. candidates.
In May, he concluded a “cooperation agreement” with the Union of Donbass Volunteers who fought for the separatists.
“We are not only counting on your support, but also on your maximum involvement in the election,” United Russia Secretary General Andrey Turchak said at a “veterans” conference on May 10.
“We must prove that not only can we fight, defend our homeland on the battlefield, but that we can also do something in a peaceful life,” replied Union leader Alexander Borodai.
Borodai is best known for his two-month tenure as “President” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” in 2014.
Ukraine has accused him and his “government” of thousands of murders, kidnappings, evictions and expropriations.
But Borodai feels right at home – and wants his brothers in arms to join the mainstream politics.
“Russian volunteers must come to power,” he said in a video posted on the United Russia website.