Want to be famous in Russia? Back Putin and his war

time:2023-06-08 23:49:54 source:The Washington Post

The war with Ukraine has split Russia's artistic community.

Those who support it have enjoyed government backing, but those who oppose it have come under huge pressure to toe the line.

Speaking out comes at a price in Russia. You can get killed, jailed or forced into exile, and if you are a person of culture, you can also be frozen out of key platforms and venues.

Andrei Makarevich is one of the best-known performers to fall from favour after criticising government policies in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

He rose to prominence during the Soviet era as the frontman of a rock group called Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine). State TV once called him "a Beatle of Perestroika", referring to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's wide-ranging programme of reforms.

But over time Makarevich grew increasingly critical of President Putin. After Russia's initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Makarevich wrote a song titled My Country Has Gone Mad and attended anti-war rallies. After this, a string of his concerts across Russia were cancelled, and Makarevich accused the Kremlin of orchestrating a campaign of persecution.

After the start of the full-scale war in February 2022, Makarevich left Russia a deeply disillusioned man. "People have turned out to be much easier to manipulate. More ignorant and aggressive," he said in an interview.

Nikolai Rastorguyev, on the other hand, is an example of a performer favoured by the state. He is the lead singer of Lyube, which is often described as "Putin's favourite band". He is a vocal supporter of the Kremlin's policies including the "special military operation" in Ukraine.

Unlike Makarevich, Rastorguyev appears to have enjoyed easy access to Russia's best venues for years.

On 15 March 2014, the day Makarevich was nearly assaulted by anti-Ukraine activists following a peace march in Moscow, Lyube celebrated its 25th anniversary at the capital's Olympic Stadium.

The following day, his band performed in Crimea in support of a vote that had no international recognition but was used by the Kremlin to justify its annexation of the Ukrainian region.

Rastorguyev and his band have played at Kremlin-organised mass rallies held at Russia's largest stadium, Luzhniki, and attended by President Putin. It has also authored a song celebrating a bridge linking annexed Crimea to Russia.

In a sign of the band's influence, police searching for political subversives have even forced patrons at a bar in Moscow to sing a Lyube song, as proof that they support the government.

Nikolai Rastorguyev is subject to EU sanctions imposed for their role in "the Kremlin's disinformation and information manipulation ecosystem".

In Russia, numerous performers critical of the Kremlin, such as Makarevich, have been officially designated as "foreign agents".

Divisions run deep among stars of film and theatre, too.

Nikita Mikhalkov is one of Russia's most celebrated actors and film directors. One of the pinnacles of his career is Oscar-winning drama Burnt By The Sun (1994), which he both directed and starred in. The film is about lives wrecked by terror in the USSR under Soviet leader Stalin.

Mikhalkov's views are also very close to the Kremlin's official ideology: he is a religious conservative, and he espouses extreme anti-Western views.

He shares these conspiracy theories in his TV show Besogon (Exorcist), which is aired on state television and is said to number President Putin among its viewers.

Mikhalkov is an ardent supporter of Vladimir Putin.

In 2007, he co-authored an open letter calling on the Russian president to seek a third presidential term in violation of the constitution. The same year, Mikhalkov made a film celebrating Putin's 55th birthday, which was shown on the day by state TV.

The film director has headed Russia's Union of Film-Makers since 1997, and he has received numerous awards and funding from the state, including the Defence Ministry's award for "developing the Fatherland's culture and art", and $2m in state funding for a sequel to Burnt By The Sun.

He has supported Russia's war on Ukraine in 2022, parroting the president's rhetoric that Ukraine is ruled by a "Nazi regime" and that the very Ukrainian language is a manifestation of hatred towards Russia.

Months after the invasion started, Vladimir Putin awarded Mikhalkov the title of a "Hero of Labour" at a ceremony in the Kremlin. Thanking the president, the film-maker referred to the fighting in Ukraine and said that "a new Russia" was being forged there.

For his role in spreading "Kremlin propaganda narratives", Mikhalkov has been sanctioned by the EU.

Actress Liya Akhedzhakova holds very different political views, and her career has followed a different trajectory. She rose to fame in the 1970s thanks to roles in hugely popular Soviet films such as The Irony of Fate and Office Romance, as well as numerous performances at Sovremennik, one of Moscow's best theatres.

Since the break-up of the USSR, the diminutive actress has never shied away from making her political views public, and has often been harshly critical of government policies.

At a rally in Moscow in 2014, she praised the so-called Euromaidan - protests in Kyiv that led to the toppling of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and Russia's initial invasion of Ukraine.

There was applause and chants of support as Akhedzhakova urged the crowd to honour the pro-democracy demonstrators killed in the Ukrainian capital.

By the time President Putin had launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine eight years later, rallies like this were unimaginable in Russia. Speaking on the day of the invasion to independent Dozhd TV, Akhedzhakova urged fellow performers and celebrities to oppose it.

"I'm calling on all people of culture - the time has come to speak out. We have to speak out. We won't get another chance. A war is going on, and there are so many lies, a whole sea of lies," she said.

Less than a week later, Dozhd was forced to relocate abroad due to tightening censorship and concerns for the welfare of its staff.

A year later, Akhedzhakova lost her last role at Sovremennik after 45 years of working at the theatre. According to the actress, the theatre's newly appointed director told her it had been "inundated" with letters criticising her - a practice reminiscent of state-orchestrated persecution campaigns in the Soviet Union.

In another echo of Stalinism, a pro-government activist recently asked prosecutors to check if the actress was guilty of treason.

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