"Now the average Russian must make an uncomfortable choice," journalist and prominent YouTube personality Ivan Yakovina wrote on Facebook on September 18. "Who's the hero and who's the villain? And the answer is far from clear."
Yakovina's comment came in the wake of a stunning statement by legendary pop diva Alla Pugacheva denouncing Russia's war in Ukraine as "causing the deaths of our boys for illusory goals and making our country a pariah" and asking the Justice Ministry to include her on its list of so-called foreign agents. Within days Pugacheva's post had racked up three-quarters of a million likes and more than 100,000 largely supportive comments.
Pugacheva issued the statement two days after Moscow included her husband, popular comedian Maksim Galkin, on the foreign agent list for allegedly conducting political activities on behalf of Kyiv and receiving funds from Ukraine. He and supporters say he was designated because of his own criticism of the war.
Pugacheva, who has been a household name in Russia and throughout the former Soviet bloc since the 1970s, has become the most prominent and beloved cultural figure to speak out against the war and President Vladimir Putin's leadership. Her statement lit up the Russian-language Internet, with hashtags related to the controversy still trending days later.
"Her statement was not, of course, aimed at the opposition or at those who have been fighting against the regime," said music and cultural critic Artemy Troitsky. "It was aimed at her core audience, at people aged 40 to 80 who remember and love the Soviet Union and, of course, remember and love and know in great detail Alla Pugacheva, who is now undoubtedly the No. 1 Soviet personality in Russia."
That audience, Troitsky said, numbers in the tens of millions.
"I think she is the most well-known Russian citizen of all, excepting maybe Putin himself," he added. "Of course the opinion of this citizen on this topic is of interest to a great many Russians and is extremely important."
'The Pugacheva Era'
A joke has been making the rounds in recent days in which a person asks about the longtime leader of the Soviet Union, "Who was Leonid Brezhnev?" The answer: "He was a minor political figure of the Pugacheva era."
In 1976 Pugacheva sang several songs on the soundtrack of the classic Soviet film The Irony Of Fate, which to this day is aired every New Year's Eve and watched by large audiences across Russia and in some other former Soviet republics. The following year, she appeared in the film The Woman Who Sings, the soundtrack of which sold 55 million copies.
The 73-year-old has numerous state awards, including People's Artist of the Soviet Union and three Orders of Merit for the Fatherland, the most recent bestowed in 2009 by then President Dmitry Medvedev to mark her 60th birthday.
For many Russians, Troitsky added, Pugacheva's statement is more real and more personal than whatever they may have heard about Ukraine's recent successful counteroffensive or the setbacks and retreats of the Russian military. Those events, he said, "are totally abstract and distant and, in fact, most [Russians] haven't even heard about them because they get information only from official media."
"Alla Pugacheva's is a much more serious story for the mass of the public," he said.
"Alla Borisovna is much more than just a singer," said political consultant Stanislav Belkovsky, using Pugacheva's name and patronymic. "Without a doubt. Alla Borisovna is a legend."
Taking On A Star
The Kremlin made a major miscalculation, several social-media commentators argued, by slapping the foreign-agent designation on Galkin, whose comments against the Ukraine war have been relatively low-profile and unnoticed.
"A Putin bureaucrat thinks first and last about what will please the boss, Vladimir Putin," said Belkovsky, who used to advise Putin's presidential administration. "They don't think about how an attack on a popular figure might have a negative effect on [Putin's] popularity or on the stability of his political machine."
Although Galkin, who is 27 years younger than Pugacheva, is not nearly as popular as his wife, he also appeals to a core Russian demographic that has so far largely maintained a willful ignorance about the war and about Putin's harsh crackdown on dissent in which the state has used increasingly restrictive foreign-agent laws and new legislation against "discrediting the armed forces."
"Now it will be very convenient to explain to your relatives in the provinces what a 'foreign agent' is," the Gorod Glupov Telegram channel wrote. "It is simply Maksim Galkin."
Political analyst Aleksandr Kynev said that naming Galkin a foreign agent was "the complete propagandistic self-destruction of the very label" because it had now been extended to include "the most apolitical people."
Former Kremlin speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov agreed.
"Giving foreign-agent status to Galkin discredits the status more than it discredits Galkin," he wrote. "People know perfectly well that Galkin is not a foreign agent or even a political figure. Now even the most naïve citizen will see clearly that this status has no rhyme or reason…. The word of the government has been degraded and will cease to carry any meaning at all."
Russia's foreign-agent legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly despite criticism within Russia and abroad as being an unjustified assault on independent media and civil society. It requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and are deemed by the government to engage in political activity to be registered, identify themselves as foreign agents, and submit to audits.
Later modifications targeted foreign-funded media and individual foreigners and Russians.
The attacks on Galkin -- which were amplified by hard-line pro-Kremlin commentators like Vladimir Solovyov on Russian state television -- made it difficult for Pugacheva to maintain the near silence she had kept since Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February. Although the couple left Russia shortly after the invasion, Pugacheva returned in late August. She was seen at the funeral of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on September 3, an event that the Kremlin downplayed and Putin skipped, with his spokesman saying he was too busy.
"I haven't cried like this in a long time," Pugacheva wrote on Instagram on September 4. "An epoch is gone -- one in which we acquired freedom, stopped being an 'evil empire' for the entire world, and that saw the disappearance of our fear for the future of our children. Gorbachev rejected violence as a means of politics or of maintaining personal power."
Silencing A Singer?
"Pugacheva has not been an oppositionist or a political figure in the normal sense," Belkovsky said. "So I think what she did was a lot -- more than many people expected from her."
While it is unlikely to bring Russians out into the streets to protest the actions of Putin's government, her statement is a landmark, Belkovsky argued.
"I would say that it is the voice of some sort of popular intuition," he said. "She has always been in tune with the ideas of certain parts of her audience. She was able to say what they wanted to hear from her and to verbalize a sort of music inside their souls. And that, to a significant extent, is still true. And that is why her statement is important, regardless of what kind of singer she is or how popular she is today [musically]."
There are signs that the government has sought to censor Pugacheva's message, with several some state-run and loyal media outlets leaving out the part about Russian soldiers dying and the country becoming a "pariah."
Troitsky said the Kremlin would now try to "isolate" Pugacheva as much as possible, not merely silencing her statements but "the very fact of her existence."
But what she has already said "will remain in the heads of millions of Russian citizens," he added.
Writing on Facebook on September 18, economics journalist Sergei Shelin downplayed expectations that Pugacheva's high-profile dissent would have any short-term, tangible effect.
"Hopes that because of [her statement] the regime would crash stem from a culture-centered mythology and not from reality," he wrote. "Let's just be happy that one more reputation has been saved."