At the age of 22, rapper Ivan Dryomin stood onstage in Moscow before a protest crowd of 50,000 people and issued a call for the Russian authorities to respect basic human rights.
"I am not good at politics," Dryomin, who goes by the stage name Face, said at the rally in August 2019. "But I can say one thing: freedom of speech and freedom of choice are the most fundamental things everyone should have, and I hope we will have them someday."
The Russian capital was engulfed at the time by demonstrations against the exclusion of opposition candidates from Moscow city-council elections, and Dryomin was among multiple celebrities speaking out against a perceived purge of the political field.
He was praised for his public stance at a time when protesters were facing long jail terms, and he later participated in other anti-government rallies, most recently in support of imprisoned Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny in April.
Fast forward two years, as a sweeping crackdown on dissent ahead of September 17-19 parliamentary and local elections shows no sign of abating even after the vote, and Dryomin appears to be facing punishment for that defiant activism.
"Over the past week, concert venues across the country have faced serious pressure that has made staging my concerts impossible," he wrote in an Instagram post on September 28, citing the cancellation of gigs in two large Siberian cities and saying that venues in other destinations on his big fall tour were also being pressured to cancel.
In the post, Dryomin claimed that regular attempts to scupper his performances had been going on for the past five years, but some of them had always managed to go ahead. Yet in recent weeks, he said he had received reports from multiple venues citing the same warnings from unnamed officials.
"The phrasing is everywhere the same," he wrote. "'It's highly inadvisable for you to host this specific artist. If you don't listen, you should expect serious problems.'"
He cited several examples. In Krasnoyarsk, he said, officials from the city administration called Dryomin's intended venue threatening to cut the electricity if it hosted the artist. In Nizhny Novgorod, east of Moscow, concert venues had received a list of "undesirable performers" that included Dryomin, he wrote.
"Apparently they decided that the concert industry, which they've been dismantling for 18 months through various pointless restrictions, must be finished off with the help of blackmail and repressions," his post concluded.
'Sex, Drugs, And Protest'
The latest reports of politically motivated concert cancellations in Russia hark back to a similar trend in 2018, when rappers credited with channeling young Russians' frustration with the political system began coming under growing pressure to censor their statements.
A clampdown on the country's rap and alternative-music scene led to more than 40 concerts being cancelled that winter. A heated debate about the influence and utility of rap music even reached Russia's lower house of parliament -- and Putin called rap the music "of sex, drugs, and protest."
That November, the rapper Husky -- who is known for songs mocking the authorities and criticizing police brutality -- was dragged off a car roof by police in the southern city of Krasnodar and arrested after staging the impromptu performance because a local venue canceled his appearance.
Sentenced to 12 days in jail for hooliganism, the rapper, whose real name is Dmitry Kuznetsov, wrote in a post on Russian social network VK that his decision to cancel subsequent gigs was a response to "pressure imposed by you-know-who."
A concert in Moscow in support of Kuznetsov and other censored acts on November 26, 2018, sold out within hours. Responding to his Instagram post this week, fans of Dryomin suggested a similar event should be organized again, to express solidarity for his plight and decry the pressure on other performers amplifying views at odds with the official narrative.
But most expressed support for the rapper, who has galvanized protest sentiment and earned respect from prominent opposition activists.
One comment beneath Dryomin's post, which had received more than 200 likes by September 29, said simply, "I'll wait for your concert as long as it takes."