Celebrities and the cult of Russia’s President Putin

With legislative elections in months, famous figures sanctioned by the Kremlin are coming out in force.

Steven Seagal, an action hero in Hollywood films of the 1990s, joined the pro-Putin For Truth party in December [File: Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Government Press Service Pool Photo via AP]

In 2003, Yulia Volkova, one half of the Russian pop duo TATU, performed Not Gonna Get Us, a famous song about two schoolgirls in love, at the MTV Music Awards in California.

Footage of the event was watched millions of times across the world, and according to Vice magazine, the performance “brought female queerness to the forefront of mainstream”.

This year, Volkova appeared in a very different video.

In it, she talked about her intention to run for the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, with the ruling United Russia party, in the upcoming September 19 legislative elections.

“I am going to the Duma with United Russia to make sure that real, not verbal decisions, are made to benefit the majority of our citizens,” Volkova, now a 35-year-old mother-of-two, said in the May 13 video, sporting an Orthodox Christian cross.

The clip was intended for United Russia’s primaries in the western region of Ivanovo, known for poverty and a catastrophic shortage of men.

Volkova ultimately lost to an obscure male official.

Volkova (left) intended to stand in Russia’s upcoming legislative elections for the ruling United Russia party, but lost in a primary race [File: Andrej Isakovic/AFP]

But her failure has not stopped other Russian celebrities who want to become politicians – mostly on a pro-Vladimir Putin ticket, either with United Russia or the so-called “systemic opposition”, a trio of parties nominally opposed to the ruling behemoth, but never critical of the Russian president.

The Kremlin welcomes these celebrities with open arms.

Their smiling faces on television, billboards and handouts contrast with the squashing of dissent that intensified ahead of the Duma elections.

But activists very much doubt the sincerity of pro-Kremlin luminaries.

“I suspect they’re not going to defend the interests of Russia’s citizens, but pursue their own, self-serving interests,” said Violetta Grudina, an opposition activist in the northwestern city of Murmaks, who has faced detentions, interrogations and slanderous accusations after announcing her decision to run in municipal elections.

“This is the way for the Kremlin to create spoilers, to create an illusion of choice,” Grudina told Al Jazeera.

Limited ambitions

To the celebrities, the Duma is not a springboard for a mayorship, governorship or a presidential campaign.

It is a safe harbour for many terms, a source of publicity and countless perks, including envelopes with wads of cash, claims a campaign manager who worked in Washington, Moscow, Berlin and Minsk.

“In the West, politics is just a sphere of activity, a sphere of service, but in Russia, politics is a lifestyle,” said Vitali Shkliarov, who worked on Barack Obama’s and Bernie Sanders’ campaigns, promoted opposition candidates in Russia, and was jailed and tortured in Belarus after working with an opposition candidate in last year’s presidential election.

The Russian celebrities want to be in politics “not because they want to serve, but because they want to live well,” he told Al Jazeera.

Putin has methodically weeded out opposition to his rule by jailing opponents and clamping down on dissent [Sputnik/Sergei Savostyanov/Pool via Reuters]

While weaker pro-Putin parties enlist luminaries to boost their approval ratings, United Russia needs their support to legitimise its inevitable victory, experts claim.

Inevitable because for years the party has been accused of rigging the vote – by election monitors, critics and hundreds of thousands who rallied a decade ago in the largest protests since the 1991 Soviet collapse.

“It is not afraid to lose, because the Central Election Committee will fake their victory,” Gennady Gudkov, a former opposition lawmaker, told Al Jazeera.

“But it is desperate to legitimise itself somehow in the eyes of the public,” he said.

Artists and war criminals

This year’s list of wannabe politicians is a motley crew and includes a rapper who calls himself Purulent, reality TV stars and a couple of pop singers.

One is Denis Maidanov, whose patriotic hits include “Russia, forward!” and “Who Russians Are.”

“Many parents say that they educate their children with my songs, and that is a sign of their trust,” he told the Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid in early June.

Another aspiring lawmaker is Zakhar Prilepin, a novelist and ex-activist of the National Bolshevik Party that advocated ideas the Kremlin once banned as “extremist” – the annexation of Crimea and the Russian-speaking regions in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Prilepin’s 2006 novel Sankya was hailed as a “manifesto” of anti-Kremlin youth and, in 2008, he formed a nationalist party with fledgling anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny.

But after Moscow annexed Crimea and backed pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, many National Bolsheviks pledged allegiance to Putin – and joined the rebels.

Prilepin headed a squad of “volunteers,” served as an “adviser” to a separatist leader who was blown up in 2018 and confessed to committing war crimes.

“I led a military unit that killed people. Lots of them. No other battalion in Donetsk could match my battalion’s rates,” he said in a 2019 interview.

‘Systemic opposition’

Last year, Prilepin founded the For Truth party with actor and Orthodox priest Ivan Okhlobystin – who wants to restore the death penalty in Russia and crown Putin as “monarch”.

Then they enlisted a washed-up international celebrity.

Steven Seagal, an action hero in Hollywood films of the 1990s, joined For Truth in December.

He received a Russian passport from Putin in 2016 after lauding him as “one of the world’s greatest living leaders” and supporting Crimea’s annexation.

In May, For Truth merged with A Just Russia, a socialist, pro-Putin party. It is the weakest of the three “systemic opposition” parties with 23 seats in the 450-seat Duma.

However, it may lose them in September because only five percent of Russians want to vote for the party, according to a March survey by the Levada Center.

Peaceful ‘veterans’

United Russia, meanwhile, seems light years away from this fight for survival.

It has tens of thousands of members, offices in each city and town, and what critics call the “administrative resource,” a nationwide system of coercing government employees, teachers and medical workers to vote for its candidates.

In May, it struck a “cooperation accord” with the Union of the Donbas Volunteers who fought for the separatists.

“We don’t just count on your support, but also on your maximal involvement in the election,” Andrey Turchak, United Russia’s secretary-general, told a “veteran” conference on May 10.

“We must prove that not only can we fight, defend our Motherland on the battlefields, but that we also can do something in peaceful life,” the Union’s head Alexander Borodai responded.

Borodai is mostly known for his two-months-long tenure as “chairman” of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk” in 2014.

Ukraine accused him and his “government” of thousands of killings, abductions, evictions and expropriations.

But Borodai feels fine at home – and wants his brothers-in-arms to join the political mainstream.

“Russian volunteers must get to power,” he said in a video posted on United Russia’s website.

Source: Al Jazeera