A pair of Russian pranksters have claimed they duped British rock star Elton John into believing he spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Kremlin's initiative.
John, who is openly gay and has criticized Russian laws widely seen as discriminatory against sexual minorities, said in a September 14 Instagram post that he and Putin had spoken by telephone earlier in the day -- a claim promptly denied by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
On September 16, well-known Russian prankers Vladimir Krasnov and Aleksei Stolyarov -- who use the nicknames Vovan and Leksus -- told Russian media that, in fact, they were behind the phone call.
"Aleksei speaks excellent English, so he introduced himself as Dmitry Peskov and translated our conversation," Krasnov told the popular Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda. "And I was Vladimir Putin."
Krasnov said an excerpt of the prank call would be aired on September 16 on a late-night talk show hosted by Russian media personality Ivan Urgant, and that "the full 11-minute recording" of the conversation with John would be released "later."
Krasnov and Stolyarov have claimed responsibility for previous pranks on prominent entertainment, athletic, and political figures in Russia and the former Soviet Union -- including former Georgian President Mikheil Saakasvhili and Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the authoritarian president of Belarus.
In his Instagram post, John wrote: "Thank you to President Vladimir Putin for reaching out and speaking via telephone with me today. I look forward to meeting with you face-to-face to discuss LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] equality in Russia."
Peskov said the following day that "Putin did not have a conversation with Elton John. What's more, we have not received any requests from him for a meeting."
Peskov said Putin "has always been open to discuss human rights issues. The president, I'm sure, will be ready to meet with Elton John, too, if there is such a request."
John has joined a chorus of human rights advocates and Western governments who criticize legislation signed by Putin two years ago that has made it illegal to spread "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships" among minors.
The law was passed amid what rights activists say is an orchestrated government campaign of discrimination against sexual minorities in Russia and a growing sense of impunity among antigay activists in the country who carry out violent attacks against LGBT individuals.
Putin has said critics of the gay "propaganda" law are "making a mountain out of a molehill" and that "there's nothing scary or terrible happening here in our country" when it comes to LGBT rights.
Stolyarov said in a radio interview with Russian News Service that he would like to apologize to Peskov.
The Kremlin spokesman, in turn, said the pranksters should apologize to Elton John instead, describing the musician as a "rather respected and popular artist" in Russia.
"It probably wasn't very nice to pull a stunt like this on him," Peskov was quoted by Interfax as saying.
Peskov added that if Elton John truly proposes a meeting with Putin, "I have no doubt that the president of Russia will be ready to meet him and provide any clarifications about the issues he has."