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Why Celebrities Join Putin's United Russia

Former prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova (in 2009 photo) publicly broke ranks and said she'd been duped into joining United Russia and denouncing jailed former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Former prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova (in 2009 photo) publicly broke ranks and said she'd been duped into joining United Russia and denouncing jailed former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
MOSCOW -- The campaign for the December 4 Russian State Duma elections kicks off properly this weekend, when the ruling United Russia party holds is pre-election congress. The country's political elite will gather to hear President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin make speeches that are widely expected to set the tone for the election season and beyond.

In addition to the country's leading bureaucrats and political figures, the congress will feature a glittering selection from the country's cultural elite. Like other political parties, United Russia has a long record of courting actors, musicians, dancers, and other prominent figures as a way of demonstrating its popularity and coloring its own rather bland image.

The practice has led to a few embarrassing moments for the party. Earlier this year, former prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova publicly broke with the party and said she had been "tricked" into signing a petition denouncing jailed former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In a blog post in February, Volochkova explained that she joined United Russia in 2003 shortly after being fired from the Bolshoi Theater. "In 2003, I really needed to save my life," she wrote.

Other artists who spoke to RFE/RL's Russian Service offered various motives for accepting a United Russia party card. Jazz saxophonist Igor Butman, who lived for many years in the United States and has played for Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton, joined the party in 2008.

"I discussed the matter with my friends -- people like [Kremlin-connected businessman and supporter of the arts] Mikhail Kusnirovich and deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov," Butman said. "I thought -- if the ruling party has some need for people from the arts, then I need to join."

Soviet-era actress Larisa Luzhina became a member of the ruling party by joining the Fatherland movement back in 1999. That party -- which was formed by then-Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, and then-St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev -- was later swallowed up by United Russia.

Easy Come, Easy Go

Luzhina told RFE/RL that she was actively courted by Fatherland: "[By] Yakovlev, Primakov, and Luzkov. I remember that they invited us to their first meeting. I remember it was in the House of Scientists -- they invited me and [actor Lev] Durov. We arrived at an enormous congress. And I really like how they spoke -- inspired and alive. I especially loved Primakov. He is an intelligent man and said some very smart things."

Luzhina said she began "actively participating" in the party about three years ago. "Now I'm a little less active," she added, "but not because I want to leave or anything like that."

Anna Chapman, who was among 10 accused Russian spies expelled from the United States in July 2010, went onstage in December to address United Russia youth in Moscow.

Earlier this year, long-time United Russia top official Luzhkov was removed from his post as mayor of Moscow and ejected from the party. He recently told "The New York Times" that United Russia "has turned into a servant of the Kremlin and the government. It has not worked on one piece of legislation independently." Yakovlev has dropped out of politics and public view, while Primakov has returned to academic life.

Another Soviet-era actor, Sergei Zhigunov, said he joined United Russia in 2003 in order to oppose the Communist Party.

"I had the feeling it was the right thing to do," Zhigunov said. "I did what I considered necessary. It was a long time ago. It was a different situation. The Communists were very strong back in their day."

The Putin Touch

Most of the artists who spoke to RFE/RL expressed their deep support for Putin personally. Asked which United Russia leaders he knows other than Putin, singer and choreographer Boris Moiseyev, said bluntly: "I don't know them. I don't care about the party. But about Putin -- yes, I care."

But they were less certain when asked what the party itself stands for. Zhigunov told RFE/RL that neither United Russia nor any other Russian party really has a platform.

"In our country not a single party has any concretely articulated ideology, even the Communists," Zhigunov said. "Unfortunately, ideology doesn't exist in our country."

Actress Luzhina expressed a similar point of view, saying that "all parties want the same thing."

"I don't see a big difference among them. They all want to live better," Luzhina said. "As far as I understand, United Russia also wants a better life for the people, justice, so everyone has a decent life and can exercise their rights."

She cited public campaigns against "gambling centers, slot machines, and casinos" when she joined the party. "I liked that because I had been a victim of such things," Luzhina said. "I understood that they were doing everything correctly."

Actor Aleksei Guskov (left) and jazz saxophonist Igor Butman
Opera singer Maria Maksakova joined the party in 2008 and, as one of Putin's most active supporters among the glitterati, is expected to be among the party's candidates for the Duma in December.

She described the party's ideology as "the preservation and multiplication of what we have -- the raising of living standards, which must be noticeable to the people."

An Up Side?

In their interviews with RFE/RL, the artists hinted at United Russia's power and influence over cultural life, but all denied that they had benefited significantly personally from their association.

Luzhina said she had used her party connections to get help securing a small apartment for her son. Actor Zhigunov described one project that he had hoped the party would support to honor Soviet-era singer, actor, and general bad boy Vladimir Vysotsky.

"For example, there was a project about the anniversary of Vysotsky's death -- it was a round anniversary and I came up with a grandiose show. I really love doing that," Vysotsky said. "It was really good, emotional, and proper. But for some reason, nothing came of it. I guess that means the party didn't need it, since that is where someone makes such decisions."

Saxophonist Butman said he tried to get the party to finance a project called "Jazz in the Regions" but never received any support. However, he did cooperate with the party on "roundtables called 'Music and Time.'"

"I met with musicians, spoke with them, conducted master classes," Butman said, "United Russia was the only organization capable of arranging such a thing in the regions."

Not all the artists who were involved with United Russia were eager to discuss it. Actor and director Vladimir Menshov, whose 1979 film "Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears" won an Academy Award and who joined United Russia in 2003, refused to discuss the party or to say whether he was still a member. "I have no need for a conversation as a member of the party," Menshov said. "In that capacity, I cannot say anything."

In a 2008 interview with "Esquire," Menshov said United Russia "is a party of bureaucrats and for bureaucrats that was created just for elections. It is not alive." Menshov recently criticized fellow director and United Russia member Nikita Mikalkov for his control over the committee that nominates Russian films for the Academy Awards.

Actor and producer Aleksei Guskov was named United Russia's coordinator for culture and relations with the creative intelligentsia in 2009. However, he has since left under unclear circumstances.

"I don't want to talk about it. I am an artist," Guskov said when asked about why he had quit the party. "Why don't we talk about all my problems instead? I am now working in Europe and everything is fine. I just had a premiere of a German film. I'm not going to talk at all about United Russia. I don't want to participate in any of that from one side or from another side or from a fifth side or a 10th. I reject it all, do you understand?"

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this story from Prague
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    Mumin Shakirov

    Mumin Shakirov is an experienced field reporter and TV host for RFE/RL's Russian Service. He has covered armed conflicts in Tajikistan, Chechnya, Georgia, and the former Yugoslavia. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, Shakirov is the host of the weekly Facets Of Time TV show.