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In Russian Pop Culture, It's 50 Shades Of Gay

Elton John in Leningrad during his first trip to the U.S.S.R. in 1979.
Elton John in Leningrad during his first trip to the U.S.S.R. in 1979.
What -- apart from musical ability -- is the difference between British legend Elton John and Russian pop star Boris Moiseyev?

Both men have a taste for flamboyant costumes. Both are openly gay. It stands to reason, therefore, that both men would also raise objections among the Kremlin establishment, which has banned "gay propaganda" in a much-criticized crackdown on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights.

But in fact Moiseyev -- a 59-year-old former dancer with negligible singing skills and a penchant for Pierrot-like stagewear -- is a darling of mainstream Russian pop music, the kitschy, synthesized tunes known generally as "popsa."

Instead, it's 66-year-old John -- one of the world's most famous musicians, who has performed frequently in Russia since 1979 -- who is facing calls for a boycott from religious leaders and community groups when he returns for concerts in Moscow and Kazan in December.

No to Elton John. Yes to Boris Moiseyev -- and Filip Kirkorov, Sergei Zverev, and a host of other male performers who, if not openly gay, could be mistaken for looking the part.

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It's a situation that has perplexed observers like music critic and activist Artemy Troitsky, who says attempts by Russian President Vladimir Putin to sweep gayness off the map is at odds with what appears to be a positively thriving gay aesthetic in the country's popular culture.

"These artists like Nikolai Baskov, Filipp Kirkorov, Sergei Zverev -- the way they look, the way they perform, is absolutely campy and in a very, very gay style," says Troitsky. "At the same time, of course, we now have state-sponsored homophobia all over the Russian Federation. The success of all those campy singers probably says that Russian society is not as homophobic as Putin believes it is. The whole situation is seriously twisted."

Do You See What I See?

In a country like Russia, where popular entertainers are dependent on state-sponsored television and concert venues for their success, the world of popsa -- an extension of the Soviet-era musical tradition of "estrada" -- can seem insular, even dusty.

A small clutch of pop stars have dominated the Russian airwaves for years, many of them epitomizing what could be called the Eurovision mold of camp appeal, despite heavy press coverage of their reported marriages, affairs, and babies, frequently delivered by surrogate mothers.

There is the doe-eyed Kirkorov, who shares a recent video with a Brazilian male model. There is Maksim Galkin, a cross-dressing comedian and classically trained singer.

There is Zverev, a stylist-turned-singer whose look is equal parts mascara and Botox. And there is singer-songwriter Vitas, whose refined features and high falsetto have earned him the nickname "Prince of the Dolphin Voice" among fans in China.

Nor is the group exclusively male. Many estrada-era songstresses continue to dominate the pop scene, including 64-year-old Alla Pugacheva, Russia's answer to Liza Minnelli and the grand dame of lung-popping love ballads. (In a nod to the inbred nature of the Russian pop music, she is also the ex-wife of 46-year-old Kirkorov, the current wife of the 37-year-old Galkin, and a client of stylist Zverev.)

Pugacheva and her effeminate coterie may strike many Western observers as plucking a definite gay note. But Moscow-based journalist Anna Malpas says that's not necessarily the case for Russians, whose theatrical tradition, from music to ballet, has always emphasized high emotion and drama.

"Someone like Alla Pugacheva, she trained as that kind of singer. We think of them as pop stars, but actually they don't think of themselves as pop stars. She would say that she was an actress," says Malpas. "So it's almost like a different genre that we as Westerners don't quite get. I know that people look at what Russian stars do, and obviously it's extremely camp-looking. But I'm not sure that people in Russia see it that way."

'Hotbed Of Sodomy'

Whatever way they view their own stars, it's clear that Elton John, for some, is a different matter altogether.

A parents' group and an imam in Kazan have both objected to the singer's scheduled performance in the Muslim-majority republic's capital, an event which the imam, Seidzhagfar Lutfullin, has referred to as a "hotbed of sodomy."

"His visit will mean the start of problems," Lutfullin told RFE/RL, rattling off a host of ills that some might argue are already well-established in Russia. "Attending the concert will lead to adultery, drugs, and alcohol. Orphans, single mothers, and sick children -- all of them are the result of lechery."

The imam's startling prophecy does not appear to have turned many music fans away in Kazan, where tickets for the concert have sold briskly.

And in Moscow, John will appear onstage with Maria Bulavina, a golden-haired singer well within the tradition of state-sanctioned culture. (One of Russia's campiest popsa performers, Sergei Penkin, has even paid John the ultimate compliment by performing his hit "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" in full Elton regalia.)

If anything, John may be facing a harsher backlash in the West, where some gay-rights activists have criticized him for proceeding with his Russian tour at a time when many artists with a strong gay fan base, including Cher, Lady Gaga, and Madonna, have either canceled appearances or used their concerts as a platform for criticizing the Russian anti-LGBT legislation.

The impending Winter Olympics, to begin in the Russian city of Sochi in February, has only increased the calls for foreign athletes, artists, and tourists to take a principled stance against Russia and Putin -- a man whose growing collection of shirtless photographs, it has been acknowledged, have set off some homoerotic alarm bells of their own.

Don't Say It Loud, Or At All

John, whose music has never touched on explicitly gay issues, says he prefers to keep his activism off the stage. Instead, he says he hopes to use his time in Russia to quietly reach out to government officials.

"I'm aware of the situation and I will be diplomatic," he said in a recent interview with the U.S. National Public Radio. "I'm not going to go into Russia and tell Putin to go to hell and things like that.... You chip away at something and you hope there will be dialogue and that the situation can get better."

That, says Troitsky, is what ultimately raises objections among Russians who might happily flock to see Nikolai Baskov or Valery Leontyev, might even defend Russia's gay cultural icons like Tchaikovsky and Rudolf Nureyev, but shake their heads at Elton John.

It's not the gay identity, he says, it's the gay activism -- something that Russians see as insidiously Western.

"What's happening in Russia right now is not only a wave of homophobia, but also a huge wave of xenophobia. So one thing about Elton John is simply the fact that he's foreign," says Troitsky. "Plus, he's openly gay. So those gays like Baskov, who try their hardest to disguise themselves as macho guys, you know they're not promoting homosexuality. Whereas Elton John, who is openly gay, is of course someone who may promote it."

Landysh Kharrasova of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service contributed to this report

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

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