Pop icon Filipp Kirkorov’s problems didn’t start until he accused a state media boss and vocal supporters of Russia’s war on Ukraine of inflaming divisions inside the country.
The 55-year-old performer took to Instagram on May 1 to lash out at RT editor in chief Margarita Simonyan for asserting that popular comedian Maksim Galkin was hiding his sexual orientation through his marriage to Alla Pugacheva, a legendary singer 28 years his elder.
Simonyan had attacked Galkin on national television after he spoke out against Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and left Russia for Israel along with Pugacheva. Kirkorov accused Simonyan of trying to “humiliate” the comedian and taking part in a “witch hunt” against dissenters that is pushing performers to flee the country.
“You have no right to sow discord. You are a journalist and not a bawdy old woman at a bazaar, spreading filthy rumors and gossip,” said Kirkorov, who was previously married to Pugacheva.
The post on Instagram has been viewed more than 1.2 million people, making it his most popular video on the platform this year.
Kirkorov made the comments less than 24 hours after he finished a four-day performance at a venue inside the Kremlin before a combined audience of nearly 25,000, including members of the nation’s elite.
The standing ovations signaled a promising start to what was scheduled to be a year-long cross-country tour.
Then the pressure started.
Two hours after publishing his video addressing Simonyan, in which he told her he had no doubt there are people ready to comb through her “dirty laundry,” the vocally pro-Kremlin actress Maria Shukshina reposted a short video from Kirkorov’s concert to her more than 350,000 subscribers on Telegram, insinuating that it was offensive to Russian Orthodox believers.
Kirkorov’s concert features a new performance of his 2002 hit song Maria Magdalene in which he climbs onto the side of a large cross with a female model inside and sings the last 30 seconds of the song.
In an interview with a pro-Kremlin TV station posted the following day, Shukshina, an anti-vaxxer who supports President Vladimir Putin and the war and regularly criticizes show business figures, accused Kirkorov of “trampling” on the cross at a time when Russian soldiers -- some of whom wear a cross on their chest -- are dying in Ukraine.
Other state media soon picked up the story, claiming he “danced” on the cross, and turning it into a scandal. Though he later issued an apology, Kirkorov said that “no one cared about the cross” until he defended Galkin and others, suggesting it was a politically motivated attack.
Now at least two of Kirkorov’s shows have been scrapped, allegedly due to concerns about offending religious sensitivities – a development that comes as Putin’s government is using legislation, propaganda, and other levers to try silence all opposition to the continuing invasion of Ukraine.
Performers Are 'Freaking Out'
Russian authorities and venue owners often hide political motives for canceling performances behind other pretexts, such as safety or health concerns.
Unlike other performers who are facing canceled shows, Kirkorov has remained silent about the war, and he had not been in involved in any recent public conflicts with the Russian authorities or state media prior to his criticism of Simonyan.
Accepting a state award from Putin at a Kremlin ceremony in 2017, Kirkorov said it was “incomprehensible” how much the president had done for the country and its citizens.
However, Kirkorov was “pushing boundaries, especially on topics of ethnicity and gender/sexuality” by speaking out against a pro-Putin journalist and by “speaking freely on his own terms,” said Clementine Fujimura, an anthropologist at the U.S. Naval Academy who focuses on Russia and popular culture.
In protecting Galkin, Kirkorov was also defending the right to free speech, which activists say has been subjected to increasing restrictions since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. In March, Putin signed a law criminalizing the distribution of what the state considers false information about the war.
The state also prohibits Russians from calling it a war, insisting on the term “special military operation.”
Putin’s critics say the Kremlin uses allies like Simonyan and Shukshina to rile up the population in support of its objectives, such as quashing dissent.
In addition to Galkin and Pugacheva, several other performers have left the country since the invasion for various reasons, including disgust at the war and fear of prosecution.
When asked about Kirkorov’s video statement, Boris Grozovsky, a columnist and editor of the Telegram channel Events And Texts, said it was a reflection that members of the Russian elite, including performers, are “freaking out” right now.
“People simply cannot be sure of their personal safety, and…they are losing a lot of money” as concerts are canceled.
“It is very difficult to deal with this calmly,” he told RFE/RL.
Fujimura said the message delivered by attacks on performers goes beyond the individual artists.
“For citizens, the censorship and punishing of public personalities communicates that regular citizens should be afraid, very afraid, of protesting,” she told RFE/RL.
As for Kirkorov climbing on the cross, it was “not the bottom-line concern” but merely “added fuel to the fire,” Fujimura said. “The Kremlin will seize any opportunity to crush anti-war sentiment.”
'It Is Nothing New'
Ironically, the crackdown on performers at home comes as the Kremlin has been strenuously accusing the West of “canceling” Russian culture amid the war in Ukraine.
On June 5, Shukshina went after ethnic Tajik singer Manizha, who represented Russia in the Eurovision contest in 2021, for her anti-war views: On her social media page, the actress reposted a call for Manizha’s June 13 performance at a St. Petersburg festival to be canceled.
Two days later, Manizha announced on her Instagram page that the festival had scrapped her appearance.
Last week, a Russian philharmonic canceled a concert led by conductor Vassily Sinaisky allegedly on the grounds of “health” issues. However, as in the case of Manizha, the philharmonic faced calls to cancel the concert on account of Sinaisky’s vocal opposition to the war.
Sinaisky posted a statement on February 28 calling the war “vile” and defended Ukraine’s national identity.
Georgian-born Valery Meladze was among the first Russian musicians to criticize the February invasion, taking to Instagram hours after it began to call on Russia’s leadership to end the fighting.
Two weeks later his concert at the upscale Barkhiva Luxury Village outside Moscow, less than 5 kilometers from Putin’s suburban residence, was canceled. Soon, too, were his subsequent performances around the country.
The 56-year-old singer’s career now appears in doubt. In late May, Meladze announced he had lost interest in show business and would now focus on a startup extracting elements from seawater.
Russian rock group B-2 had its concert in St. Petersburg on June 17 during the Kremlin’s splashy annual economic conference canceled. The band has had several performances scrapped after it declined to perform at a stadium in the Siberian city of Omsk in April due to a large banner above the stage that expressed support for the war.
Meanwhile, iconic rock group DDT had its June 10 concert in Moscow canceled after lead singer Yury Shevchuk criticized the war during a show in Ufa, in the Bashkortostan region. He was charged with an administrative misdemeanor for his comment.
Another longtime rock star who has criticized the war in Ukraine, Boris Grebenshchikov, had a radio program he presents cancelled by two state stations -- and then a commercial station that had announced plans to take on the show abruptly reversed course amid a pressure campaign and a reported threat of an office search by prosecutors.
The pressure on Russian musicians today harks back to the repression some of them faced during Soviet times.
Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine), one of Russia’s oldest rock groups, was labeled subversive by Soviet media, with an infamous 1982 article describing its music as “dangerous injections of very dubious ideas.”
All of the group’s concerts were banned for half a year following the article’s publication and it was not allowed to officially perform in Moscow until 1986, more than a decade after the group was formed.
Mashina Vremeni’s concerts have been canceled for the foreseeable future in Russia and the band's leader, Andrei Makarevich, an outspoken critic of the war, has joined other Russian performers in exile in Israel.
“The history of canceled concerts in its native country is long for Mashina Vremeni,” Makarevich wrote in a social media post in April. “It is nothing new. We have lived a long time. We will carry on.”