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Pro-Kremlin Russian Jazz Icon Roasted Over U.S. Citizenship

Igor Butman
Igor Butman

A Russian jazz icon and ally of President Vladimir Putin has drawn scorn from the opposition over his U.S. citizenship after Washington purportedly asked him to refrain from attending a music festival in Russian-occupied Crimea.

Kremlin critics have accused Igor Butman, a jazzman whom former U.S. President Bill Clinton once called his “favorite living saxophone player,” of hypocrisy for holding a U.S. passport while serving as a senior official in Putin’s ruling United Russia party.

“A member of the high council of Russia’s ruling party officially renounces his allegiance and fidelity to Russia, having sworn to defend the U.S. by bearing arms,” Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny wrote on August 31, citing the oath of allegiance that naturalized U.S. citizens are required to give.

“Nevertheless, you’re the foreign agent,” Navalny quipped to his readers, a reference to a 2012 law signed by Putin that allows NGOs to be branded "foreign agents" if they received foreign funding and are deemed to be involved in political activities.

Butman, who lived in the United States for several years, is by far Russia’s most famous jazz musician. He joined United Russia in 2008 and currently serves on the party’s high council.

While he does not hide the fact that he has a U.S. passport, he previously faced little public criticism for holding dual-citizenship despite rising tensions between Moscow and the West.

The Russian opposition accuses the Kremlin of isolating the country with a reckless foreign policy -- including the March 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea territory -- while members of the ruling elite own pricey foreign property and send their children to live and study in the West.

“How charming. They are all such ‘patriots,’” Rustem Adagamov, one of Russia's most popular bloggers, said in an August 31 tweet to his 232,000 followers.

The brouhaha over Butman’s American passport erupted on August 31 after he told reporters on August 30 that he received a letter from the U.S. State Department asking him not to attend a jazz festival in the Crimean city of Koktebel, where he performed over the weekend.

He said he wrote a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama saying that Kyiv’s announcement last week that it could ban artists who perform there from entering Ukraine for five years was “improper.”

“Music is above politics,” Butman was quoted as saying by Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency.

He added that he planned to write Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko a letter with the same message.

Washington and Brussels have imposed sanctions targeting Russia’s leadership in response to the Crimea annexation and Russian backing for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The State Department has also warned U.S. citizens “to defer all travel” to Crimea, which it calls “unlawfully occupied by Russia.”

‘Ambassador To The World’

Butman was among more than 500 prominent cultural figures who signed an open letter published by Russia's Culture Ministry expressing "firm" support for the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether it contacted Butman directly about his participation in the festival, called Koktebel Jazz Party.

The event was co-founded in 2003 by Russian state media boss Dmitry Kiselyov, whom the EU calls a "central figure of the government propaganda machine supporting the deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine."

Kiselyov has since fallen out with the Ukrainian co-founder of the event, who organized her own festival under the Koktebel moniker in the Ukrainian town of Zatoka, near the Black Sea port city of Odesa.

The U.S. embassy in Kyiv earlier this month threw its support behind the Zatoka event, saying the Kiselyov-linked festival “is being conducted without the permission of the Government of Ukraine."

Since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 after a four-year stint as prime minister, Russia has enacted numerous laws that critics say are aimed at boosting his popularity by fostering a siege mentality among the population.

These include a 2014 law criminalizing failure to declare foreign passports or residency permits.

Butman, whose fans include Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, said in an August 31 radio interview that he does not plan to relinquish his U.S. citizenship.

“I don’t consider America to be an enemy of our country,” he told the Russian News Service, a Moscow-based broadcaster. “We may have poor relations today, and tomorrow we’ll have great relations. And I’ve always been an ambassador to the world, above all between our great countries.”

With reporting by RIA Novosti,, and The Moscow Times
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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.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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