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Russia’s Madonna, Mariah, Dolly, and Bette, wrapped in one Historian Victoria Smolkin explains the significance of Alla Pugacheva’s antiwar challenge to the Kremlin and Putin’s world

Source: Meduza
guest essays

Russia’s Madonna, Mariah, Dolly, and Bette, wrapped in one Historian Victoria Smolkin explains the significance of Alla Pugacheva’s antiwar challenge to the Kremlin and Putin’s world

Source: Meduza

By Dr. Victoria Smolkin

On Sunday, September 18, the “Russian World” was shaken — by an Instagram post. The message in question came from Russian singer and Soviet icon Alla Borisovna Pugacheva, perhaps the only person more famous in Russia than its president. Responding to the Russian state declaring her husband, the comedian Maxim Galkin, a “foreign agent,” Pugacheva requested that the Justice Ministry add her “to the ranks of foreign agents” in solidarity with her spouse, whose only crime was “wishing for prosperity, a peaceful life, and freedom of speech for his motherland and the end of the death of our boys for illusory goals that are turning our country into a pariah,” she explained. The message — a cultural bombshell — reached millions of Russians, but the Kremlin largely avoided addressing it directly.

Two days later, Russian forces in four regions of occupied Ukraine announced “referendums,” opening the way to another round of Moscow’s annexations. Then, on September 21, Vladimir Putin announced a nationwide draft that will mobilize between 300,000 and 1.2 million men. In a guest essay for Meduza, historian Victoria Smolkin explains how Russia’s most beloved pop legend humiliated the Kremlin leadership before this latest, dramatic escalation in the invasion of Ukraine.

Since it was introduced into Russian law in 2012, the “foreign agent” label has been used aggressively against NGOs, human rights groups, and the press to suppress internal dissent. Until the war, it was not applied to pop culture figures like Galkin, who managed to remain palatable to the authorities even when parodying the Russian political elite. Unsurprisingly, since the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s list of so-called “foreign agents” has grown and the category has become more capacious, with the law “expanded” to include anyone suspected of falling under “foreign influence.” 

Yet, while the law’s parameters have shifted, the function has remained consistent: to mark the borders between acceptable and alien elements within the body politic—between “us” and “them”. 

This is what makes Pugacheva’s appeal to the category of “foreign agent” so preposterous. Given her inextricable ties to Soviet and Russian society, her positioning herself as “foreign” to the current regime raises a dangerous question for millions of people whose lives were lived alongside All Pugacheva: is it Putin’s regime itself that has become an alien element? 

It is difficult to find the right analogy to explain Pugacheva’s stature in the Soviet and post-Soviet world. As human rights lawyer Mark Feygin put it recently on his YouTube program, “Pugacheva is a special kind of Russian. She is neither good, nor bad — she’s special.” For the outside world, she is most often compared to Madonna, and while this communicates something of her fame and ubiquity, it fails to capture her cultural capital. She is Madonna, Mariah Carey, Dolly Parton, and Bette Midler, wrapped in one. Yet even that is not quite enough, because it fails to capture her unique social and political heft. 

As Oleksiy Arestovych, adviser to the Office of the President of Ukraine put it, “[Pugacheva] is a giant. For all people over forty in Russia — and not only in Russia — she constitutes a part of their identity. She embodied everything that they invested in their youth — everything good.” In the Soviet Union, Pugacheva was unique, “She was beloved by the people, and at the same time by the state that was oppressing these same people.” 

This was even more remarkable as the chasm between the state and the people deepened over the course of Pugacheva’s career, which bloomed in the 1970s and grew as Soviet power entered its denouement. 

Pugacheva was also singular in her ability to behave in ways that were not permitted to others. She lived her life as if she were free. Perhaps this was because she stayed out of politics — something that makes her unprecedented antiwar declaration even more of an “event” — and the Kremlin saw her as it saw entertainers in general: as domesticated court jesters that posed no political threat. But more likely Pugacheva could live freely because the Kremlin understood that they needed her more than she needed them, as Soviet society became more and more disillusioned with Soviet power. As a famous late Soviet joke puts it, “Leonid Brezhnev was just a minor politician in the age of Alla Pugacheva.” 

Pugacheva may have revealed Putin to be another such “minor politician.” She has also raised the question of whether Putin’s “Russian World” can survive without Pugacheva’s Soviet world?

The remains of the Soviet world

The Soviet world has lived many lives and died many deaths, but, for many people in the so-called “Russian World,” it is not yet past.

As a geopolitical project with global ambitions, it met its death in 1989, when the USSR decided to withdraw from Eastern European rather than use force to keep socialist satellite states in its orbit, thus bringing an end to the Cold War. 

As an economic project that offered an alternative to capitalism, it died, after a long period of decline, when Gorbachev introduced market reforms into the central planning system. 

Determining the death of the Soviet political project is more complicated. Historians differ on the specific time of death, and the answer depends on how one defines socialism and revolution, as well as their relationship to Soviet power. For some, the Soviet political project died in 1956 with Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech,” which condemned Stalin’s crimes and by extension implicated the Soviet system that had been formed during his thirty years in power. For others, it died shortly after birth with Lenin’s radical elimination of all opposition, which culminated with his famous 1921 “ban on factions” and established the infrastructure for Bolshevik terror. For others still, it died with Gorbachev’s Perestroika reforms, which dismantled the pillars of Soviet economic and political power. 

But these historical debates are ultimately academic, in that they link the time of death to its cause. For most people, the Soviet political project died on December 25, 1991, when Gorbachev lowered the Soviet flag over the Kremlin and formally dissolved the USSR as a juridical entity.  It was a political fact — and then suddenly it wasn’t. 

Yet even post-mortem, something of the Soviet political project remained. The USSR’s former “republics” — now 15 independent nation-states — continued to be described as “post-Soviet,” still tethered in the global political imagination to their Soviet past, whether they liked it or not. The notable exceptions, of course, were Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which — by formally joining the European Union in 2004 — were able to shed the label. 

It was only in 2014, with Russia’s occupation of Crimea in the name of the “Russian World,” that the Soviet political project finally died, because the category of the “Soviet” no longer worked as the main point of reference for understanding the tectonic shifts underway.. 

This rupture with the Soviet political project had also been taking place within Russia, where the “Russian World” had been rolled out as a new ideological model. Putin’s Russia — the Russia of the “Russian World” — regarded the nations that had comprised the Soviet empire, and especially those in its “near abroad,” not as sovereign states but as patrimony. Like the Muscovite Tsar Ivan III, who subjugated the democratic Republic of Novgorod by force in the 1470s when its elites refused to identify as the tsar’s patrimony, Putin was prepared to use force against those who resisted the encroachment of the “Russian World.” 

But there was a problem. The “Russian World” was too culturally thin and too ideologically weak to do the Russian state’s political and geopolitical heavy lifting alone. Even after the “Russian World” went on the offensive in 2014, Russia could not dispense with the Soviet world, which, despite glaring political differences, was like the “Russian World” in imperial ambitions. Indeed, while Putin denounced Ukraine’s sovereignty as an illegitimate Bolshevik “gift” on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he has been largely careful not to alienate those for whom the “Soviet” remains a significant cultural category. 

Pugacheva’s rebellion

Even after the Soviet geopolitical, economic, and political projects died, the Soviet project lived on through culture. For multiple generations of Soviet people, Soviet culture created symbols, meanings, artifacts, and experiences that were shared across the USSR. It was a matrix that formed a collective “us” for people who were otherwise divided across ethnic, national, religious, and historical lines, and spread across a vast geographic territory.

Whether they were Kazakh or Estonian, Tatar or Georgian, Ukrainian or Russian, and whether they lived in Vladivostok, Riga, Murmansk or Odesa, they were raised reading the same books, watching the same films, and singing the same songs. Regardless of their attitudes to the Soviet Union as a political project, Soviet people lived among the same material objects, built environments, and cultural products. Inasmuch as “Soviet society” existed, it was created, shaped, and maintained by this shared cultural world. 

In short, people across the Soviet Union had a shared “Soviet” repertoire, and at the center of this repertoire was Alla Borisovna Pugacheva. 

While geopolitical, economic, and political life transformed in ways that were ideologically confusing and often socially devastating, Pugacheva remained one of the few deep continuities between the Soviet past and the post-Soviet present. When the Soviet world dissolved, people carried her into the uncertainty of their new lives in the new post-Soviet nation-states, as well as in post-Soviet emigration (which numbered in the millions). If you attended a birthday, wedding, or anniversary celebration — whether it was in Moscow, Odesa, Berlin, or Brighton Beach — you would hear the songs of Alla Pugacheva.  

Whereas the so-called “Russian World” is an ideological construct that exists only on the level of Russian state rhetoric, the “Soviet world” – a world of shared dreams and memories, a certain way of life and way of feeling – continues to be materially real. Even if it was not the best of all possible worlds, it provided a sense of belonging. Even if it was a communal apartment, it still felt like home.

They cannot coexist 

Shortly after Pugacheva posted her antiwar statement, Russian journalist Ivan Yakovina noted, “For many of Putin’s followers, his personal conflict with Pugacheva is a situation that presents a difficult ethical choice. Everyone will have to decide for themselves one or the other: either [Putin] has seriously lost it, or [Pugacheva] is a real foreign agent? Both cannot coexist inside one Russian head.” 

Until now, Russian people could continue to live simultaneously in the Soviet world of their past and the Russian world of their present without having to make a choice between the two. During his twenty-two years in power, Putin has both proclaimed Russia’s superiority to, and autonomy from, the USSR, and continued to rely on the Soviet past (and especially on Soviet culture) for legitimacy. In this sense, Russia’s relationship to the Soviet project has been parasitic, and the viability of the “Russian World” depends on the remaining vitality of the Soviet world.

Can Putin’s world exist without Pugacheva’s world?

In a YouTube interview with the Russian opposition journalist Yulia Latynina, Arestovych proposed, with some irony, that the decision to proceed with the referendums and to declare mobilization were so sudden because they were a reaction to Pugacheva’s Instagram post. “I said this would launch significant consequences. Now Putin, this wounded animal, is howling because Alla Borisovna has kicked it in its side.” Pugacheva’s post, he joked, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. For Putin’s regime, “The most frightening thing just happened: the Soviet Union rebelled against Russia.”

* * *

It is an amusing historical coincidence that Alla Pugacheva shares a name with Yemelyan Pugachev, a Cossack rebel who led the largest popular revolt against the Russian state in the country’s history: the infamous “Pugachev Rebellion” of the late eighteenth century. Pugachev’s rebellion brought together Cossacks, disaffected peasants and serfs, indigenous minority groups, and foreign powers seeking to capitalize on the opportunity, and posed a serious challenge to the Russian state. In the end, Catherine the Great’s army put down the rebellion, and Pugachev was beheaded and dismembered in the center of Moscow. 

Of course, history never provides perfect analogies. Pugacheva is not Pugachev. But then again, Putin’s Russia is not Catherine’s Russia, either. 

Guest essay by Dr. Victoria Smolkin

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