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Bearded Drag Queen Grips Russia Amid Eurovision Fever

Conchita Wurst has said she would "love to spend at least a week" with Russian President Putin in order to grasp what it means to "be President Putin."
Conchita Wurst has said she would "love to spend at least a week" with Russian President Putin in order to grasp what it means to "be President Putin."

Russia just can't quit Conchita Wurst.

After the Austrian drag performer triumphed at least year's Eurovision Song Contest, Russia's culture minister fretted about explaining Wurst's win to his kids, while Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin mockingly said it "showed supporters of European integration their European future: a bearded girl."

This year, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church has plunged into a national discussion of the hirsute, cross-dressing crooner, warning that if this year's Russia's Eurovision entrant wins, "all of those bearded singers" who "impose that which is repulsive to our culture" will come to Russia for next year's event.

"We need to support lullabies and patriotic and spiritual songs. We need our own contests and must promote our own culture, including those that show it to the whole world," Patriarch Kirill said in a May 21 speech in Russia's central Ulyanovsk region.

The Russian Orthodox Church has become a powerful pillar of Russian President Vladimir Putin's rule, promoting itself as a bulwark against what it portrays as pernicious liberal Western values.

Vienna is hosting this year's event thanks to last year's win in Denmark by Wurst, the stage name of 26-year-old openly gay performer Thomas Neuwirth. Wurst will co-emcee the finals on May 23.

Her victory came less than a year after Russian enacted laws denounced by Western governments and rights groups as discriminatory toward LGBT individuals and amid reports of a spike in grassroots antigay violence in Russia.

Wurst has again sparked widespread derision -- but also support -- in Russia after its contestant, Polina Gagarina, posted a video on her Instagram account showing her exchanging kisses with the Austrian singer.

Prominent St. Petersburg lawmaker and antigay activist Vitaly Milonov said in a May 19 interview with the Govorit Moskva radio station that Gagarina has no right to speak for Russia.

"Don't you dare soil Russia by hugging Euro-perverts," said Milonov, the author of controversial legislation banning the spread of "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors, a version of which was adopted in St. Petersburg before it became a national law in 2013.

Being Vladimir Putin

With its kitschy, bubblegum songs and campy costuming, the Eurovision contest is a virtual twin of Russia's "popsa" music that is a programming staple on state-owned television networks.

Like American Idol in the United States, it has also catapulted Russia's entrants in the contest to lucrative post-Eurovision careers back home, and every year the event inspires in Russian fans heartfelt patriotism and fervent interest in scandals surrounding the contest.

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Wurst ignited a fresh surge of bile in the Russian-language blogosphere with a Facebook post in Russian earlier this month that appears to have since been deleted. In the post, Wurst thanked "all of my Russian-speaking fans for your unstoppable support."

The Kremlin-loyal television network NTV transcribed several of the responses to the post, including calls for Wurst to be "burned at the stake."

Another commenter added: "Who let that monstrosity on stage? Where is Europe headed? Dear lord, people, come to your senses."

It wasn't all vitriol, however.

"Thank you, Conchita," one Facebook user wrote. "Especially for such cheerful comments."

Even the Kremlin has been roped into the wave of Conchita fever.

At a May 21 presentation of her new album, Wurst said she would "love to spend at least a week" with Putin in order to grasp what it means to "be President Putin."

Asked what he thinks about such a proposed meeting, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow on May 21: "I don't think anything about it."

News about Russia's participation in Eurovision is communicated to Putin as part of a broader picture of the daily news, Peskov added. "But, of course, the president is not in a position to follow it closely."

'Let Them Sing And Dance'

One prominent Russian politician who appears to have changed his tune on Wurst is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the flamboyant leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party.

Last year, he called Wurst's victory "the end of Europe," which he said has "turned wild."

But Zhirinovsky leaped to the singer's defense on May 20 after fellow lawmaker Oleg Nilov said on the floor of Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, that the "bearded monstrosity Conchita will fill up our screens and newspaper pages all week."

"OK, an Austrian singer-songstress with a beard and mustache: What difference is it to you?" Zhirinovsky said. "We need to be more gentle here. All of Europe enjoys this, and like Russian bears we reject all of this. Let them sing and dance. People will decide with their votes, so let's not incite such hatred. All minorities deserve respect."

In the meantime, Patriarch Kirill may face another few days of handwringing over the prospects of armies of "repulsive," "bearded singers" traveling to Russia in 2016.

The country represented by the contest's winner is given the right to hold the event the following year. Less than 24 hours after Kirill made his remarks about Wurst, Russia's entrant, Gagarina, secured a spot in the Eurovision finals.

With reporting by RIA Novosti, TASS, AFP, AP,,,, and
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.