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‘I’m going to make him a star’ Yaroslav Dronov was the frontman of a struggling cover band. Then he married a PR agent and became Shaman — wartime Russia’s most famous singer.

Source: Meduza

Before he became Shaman, Yaroslav Dronov competed in televised singing competitions and performed in a struggling cover band. In 2017, his whirlwind marriage to well-known PR agent Elena Martynova — a top manager at Russian-Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov’s holding company USM — took Moscow’s glitterati by surprise. According to the couple’s acquaintances, Martynova was determined to see her husband become famous. But Dronov’s career really didn’t take off until he reinvented himself as Shaman — and became a full-throated supporter of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Meduza special correspondents Svetlana Reiter and Kristina Safonova report on the rise of Russia’s most popular pro-war pop star.

Meduza originally published this article in Russian on April 1, 2024.

The boy who would one day go by Shaman was born in the city of Novomoskovsk in Russia’s Tula region. Dronov’s musical talent emerged early, and by 15, he had enrolled in music college and begun performing at a local restaurant. At 20, he moved to Moscow to study pop and jazz singing at the Gnessin State Musical College (it took Dronov two attempts to get into the college and Dissernet later flagged his graduation project for plagiarism).

While in Moscow, Dronov tried to “find himself” in the television industry. In 2013, he took part in the third season of Factor A (Russia’s version of the X Factor), where he caught the attention of legendary pop star Alla Pugacheva, one of the judges. Two of Dronov’s acquaintances told Meduza that Pugacheva even took Dronov shopping for new clothes, having deemed his outfits unsuitable for television.

Dronov’s talent propelled him to third place on Factor A, earning him a special prize from Pugacheva. The next year, he was the runner-up on Russia’s version of The Voice.

Yaroslav Dronov’s 2014 audition for The Voice Russia
The Voice Russia

According to one of Dronov’s acquaintances, the singer was still living in a college dorm at the time and earning money exclusively from music. In 2014, shortly after competing on The Voice, Dronov became the lead singer of the cover band Chas Pik (“Rush Hour,” in Russian) at the invitation of the group’s guitarist, Konstantin Polyakov.

Meduza’s sources who worked with Chas Pik said that in 2016–2017 the band’s appearance fee ranged from 200,000 to 300,000 rubles (the equivalent of $2,140 to $3,210 today). However, the band’s drummer, Alexey Demin, told Komsomolskaya Pravda that they received 130,000 to 140,000 rubles per performance (this detail was later deleted from the interview). Dronov’s acquaintance told Meduza that the band members split their earnings equally, “despite the fact that Yarik was already approaching star status.”

Other sources said that the future Shaman didn’t act like “star” at the time. A producer who worked with Chas Pik described Dronov as an “absolutely calm, humble, and somewhat shabbily dressed” guy. But he also said that the singer was the reason Chas Pik managed to book shows. “They didn’t invite Chas Pik the band, they invited Dronov,” he said. “He really is a very talented artist.”

When Chas Pik performed at Nashestvie, Russia’s biggest rock festival, they struggled to draw a large crowd. Despite suggestions from band members to seek help from Alla Pugacheva or rock singer Alexander Gradsky (a judge on The Voice), Dronov refused. “It seemed shameful to him to ask someone, to beg. He had a sense of self-worth,” explained the singer’s acquaintance. “Everyone thought that Yarik had great potential, but didn’t know what to do with it,” he added.

In late November 2017, Dronov abruptly left Chas Pik, reportedly after meeting Elena Martynova. “When she appeared in his life, I immediately understood that he would soon leave the group,” the acquaintance recalled.

‘The PR woman from God’

Longtime acquaintances describe Elena Martynova as “a very clever woman with the flair of an intelligent family,” adding that few would have predicted that she’d become a pop star’s wife. Having said that, she also loved to sing and even attended Moscow’s well-known Voskhod Children’s Music and Choral School in her youth.

After graduating from Moscow State University in the early 2000s, Martynova started working in PR. “We met in the mid-2000s,” a former Russian state media worker recounted:

“She was the PR manager for RVC [Russian Venture Company], which produced Flagman Vodka. Lena was very friendly, she knew how to communicate and had a good sense of how journalists live. She sent our editorial office a five-liter bottle of vodka with a tap, and when this bottle ran out, she sent [us] another one.”

In 2012, Martynova started working in the PR department of Alisher Usmanov’s USM Holdings. “She looks a bit like a doll and one might think that she’s a bit of a fool. Far from it: she’s very cunning, tough, and smart,” said a former employee of a Russian business magazine. 

Meduza’s sources in the Russian media industry recalled how Martynova followed every word written about Usmanov. One journalist described her as “one of those rare people” who has a knack for “reading between the lines.” Martynova’s long-time acquaintance, journalist and author Mikhail Zygar, called her “the PR woman from God.”

Elena Martynova
Elena Martynova’s Facebook page

Martynova soon rose through the ranks at USM, becoming the deputy CEO of the entire holding company. From then on, her acquaintances recalled, she would attend parties “in her official capacity” but because of busy schedule, could only swing by her friends’ birthdays “for about twenty minutes.”

It was at one such party that she introduced Zygar to her first husband, Alexander Tsypkin. She said he was a writer, but admitted that “not many people know about him, because he’s from Petersburg and just moved to Moscow.”

Martynova and Tsypkin had crossed paths professionally. He was the PR director at the northwestern branch of the Russian telecom operator MegaFon. She was his boss. And at least chronologically speaking, Tsypkin’s writing career began to take off after he married Martynova in 2015 (as one of her acquaintances cautiously pointed out).

Alexander Tsypkin in 2021
Picvario Media / Alamy / Vida Press

According to Martynova’s acquaintances, she had “fairly ordinary values” during her marriage to Tsypkin and lived in an environment “free from propaganda.” “People [like her] wanted money, fame, and freedom. [They wanted] to go to Courchevel and didn’t want to fight [the authorities] for it,” a friend explained.

“[She] really didn’t like the Soviet Union,” another acquaintance said. This person also recalled that even before Moscow’s full-scale invasion Ukraine, Martynova convinced a friend to leave Russia, since “nothing [good] will ever happen here.”

“She supported independent media,” said Alexey Ametov, the former publisher of the media holding Redefine, who worked with Martynova on several advertising projects for MegaFon. “She said: ‘Let’s do a special project with you, because it’s important that the budgets don’t just go to big media outlets.’”

Ametov is convinced that had Martynova lived in another country, she would have made “billions and been super successful.” Instead, he thinks she’s become another example of the “tragedy of a talented person in Russia: One compromise, another compromise, and then you’re up to neck in shit and somehow you live with it.”

‘A younger companion’

Tsypkin and Martynova had an “amicable” break up in 2017, the couple’s friends told Meduza. Soon after, Zygar noticed that she was attending parties with a “new, younger companion.” (Martynova is now 46 and Dronov is 32.)

The writer remembers meeting Dronov for the first time at a party hosted by GQ Magazine in 2018. “Lena introduced me to Yarik — he was young, thin, and didn’t quite yet know how to behave. Meanwhile, Lena, conversely, is a socialite. You could see that she was no longer interested and he was still intimidated.”

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Referencing George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, Zygar compared Dronov to Eliza Doolittle. Martynova’s other acquaintances were less diplomatic: one said their first impression was that Dronov was a “trophy husband.”

The couple met at a corporate event in Moscow in 2017. Chas Pik gave a performance and Martynova was in the audience. Martynova’s friend told Meduza that the lead singer won her over “at first sight and with the first song.” “She said that at that moment she realized that in life one should only follow love,” the friend recalled.

According to Dronov’s acquaintance, Martynova wrote to the singer after the event and they became “friends” on social media. (By that time, Dronov had already separated from his first wife, Marina Roschupkina, a voice teacher from Novomoskovsk.) Dronov moved into Martynova’s apartment in downtown Moscow soon after, the acquaintance said. The singer himself has said in interviews that his relationship with Martynova moved quickly.

Dronov began showing up to corporate events in taxis or a Maybach with a driver, a longtime friend recalled (luxury cars later became part of the singer’s rider). Martynova, meanwhile, wanted her husband to be famous. “I immediately realized that she wasn’t happy with Yarik singing in restaurants with a cover band,” said Dronov’s acquaintance. “Apparently, she started telling him, ‘You deserve more, better.’”

This source claimed that Martynova “constantly tried to drive a wedge” between the members of Chas Pik. Demin, the drummer, told Komsomolskaya Pravda that she imposed “unbelievable conditions,” such as giving more than half of the band’s performance fee to Dronov instead of dividing it up equally. Like the other band members, Demin declined to speak to Meduza.

Dronov left Chas Pik to concentrate on his solo career in late 2017. He married Martynova that same November, just months after they first met.

Yaroslav Dronov and Elena Martynova in 2022
Elena Martynova’s Facebook page

Dronov released a few songs and continued performing at corporate and private events — for a much lower fee, according to the producer who worked with the singer. Dronov later openly admitted that his lack of popular success affected his relationship with his wife.

Sources told the news site that Martynova was directly involved in promoting her husband at the time, something the singer has denied repeatedly. According to Meduza’s sources in the media industry, Martynova sought advice from major media managers she knew and asked them to “promote” Dronov. Martynova’s friend recalled her saying, “I’m going to make him a star.”

The voice of wartime Russia

Dronov says he adopted the pseudonym Shaman in early 2020 because he wanted to “separate” his on-stage persona from his real life. He also says that his fans “gave” him this nickname, but Meduza was unable to verify this claim.

In September 2021, Dronov deleted all his Instagram posts, leaving his subscribers a link to a new account with the handle “At the behest of the artist,” some of his old songs and clips were taken down, such as the music video for the song “Immortal.” According to Demin, Dronov also demanded that some of Chas Pik’s videos be deleted. “Yaroslav gets very angry when Shaman is compared to the early Yaroslav Dronov or people admire his former repertoire. He wants to erase the past,” the drummer said.

Shaman’s first big hit, “Fly Away,” came out that same month. “Everything started to click when I found my songs,” Dronov later said in an interview with the state news agency TASS.

“Fly Away”

In fact, the singer’s career really took off after the release of “We Rise” on February 23, 2022 — the eve of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Shaman dedicated the song to unspecified “heroes” who died “for victory.” A few months later, in July, the music video for his smash hit “I am Russian” was released. And just like that, Dronov became the voice of wartime Russia.

In September 2022, he shared the stage with Vladimir Putin himself during a concert rally on Red Square marking Russia’s proclaimed annexation of four Ukrainian regions. He later shared a video of the rally on social media with the caption, “A duet I could never have dreamed of!” (Dronov would go on to endorse Putin’s 2024 “re-election” campaign.)

According to two of Meduza’s sources close to the artist, Dronov previously kept his distance from politics. However, one of them said that even during his time with Chas Pik, Dronov believed that people should “support the government [and] our country” and “trust that we’re doing everything right,” “so there are no upheavals or coups.”

Another acquaintance is convinced that the singer’s work is sincere — just like his shows of religiosity. Shaman often appears in public wearing a large cross. In January 2023, he released a song called “Confession” that he described as a “dialogue with God.”

“Among my friends, there’s no one more Russian than him,” said Dronov’s longtime friend. “He was always a believer. He would worship the Bible, he believed in it in his soul.”

Shaman and Vladimir Putin sing the Russian national anthem at a concert rally on Red Square. September 2022.

The team behind Shaman

In January 2023, Shaman performed for Russian soldiers and local residents in the occupied Ukrainian cities of Mariupol and Luhansk. “As musicians, we try to distract people. I hope I’m doing a good job of that. In any case, I know that I am needed there,” he later said of his concerts in the occupied territories.

These performances came after a long-running conflict between Shaman and Vladimir Kiselyov, the head of the “patriotic” Russian Media Group. The producer had claimed repeatedly that Shaman’s wife “wouldn’t let him” perform in the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.” In turn, the singer explained that Martynova hadn’t hindered his trips, but was very concerned for his safety. “Like any other woman, she’s a very emotional creature. Of course she gets very worried. But this is my path,” Dronov said in August 2023. 

According to Meduza’s sources in the media industry, the conflict with Kiselyov didn’t end there and the Russian Media Group head is still trying to “squeeze [Shaman] out of the ‘presidential feeding trough.’” (This is why Shaman wasn’t invited to Putin’s recent concert rally marking tenth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, one industry insider told Meduza.)

Shaman performs for Russian soldiers in the occupied territories of Ukraine’s Kherson region

Today, Elena Martynova handles her husband’s stage image and wardrobe, her friend said. Two other sources told Meduza that she accompanies the singer to meetings with media companies and radio stations. Martynova’s email address is also linked to the domain of Shaman’s official website.

But the person responsible for ensuring that Dronov is constantly making headlines across the Russian press is his publicist, Anton Korobkov-Zemlyansky. A journalist by training, Korobkov-Zemlyansky moved to Moscow in the early 2000s and quickly became an ultra-patriotic blogger and PR agent. (He was best known for working with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.) Today, he balances promoting Shaman with his other job as the communications director for the broadcast holding European Media Group.

Korobkov-Zemlyansky openly supports Russia’s war against Ukraine. He has also suggested that independent journalists should be sent to the Gulag and blamed the United States for organizing the terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall. Neither Shaman nor his publicist responded to Meduza’s request for comment on why he chose to work with Korobkov-Zemlyansky.

According to an acquaintance, Korobkov-Zemlyansky’s main task is to come up with “the most provocative creative ideas” that will keep Shaman in the news when required. For example, the singer’s team timed the premiere of his music video “Alive” with the anniversary of Alexey Navalny’s arrest, sparking a debate over whether or not the song contained hidden references to the Kremlin critic.

“Then they sought out a guy who’d agree to lodge an LGBT [propaganda] complaint against Shaman with the Interior Ministry, so it could be purposefully thrown out,” Korobkov-Zemlyansky’s acquaintance said.

An activist by the name of Yan Korobkov accused Shaman of “LGBT propaganda” in January 2024, citing the fact that the singer wore eyeliner in his “I am Russian” music video. Interior Ministry Spokeswoman Irina Volk subsequently denied that Dronov was under investigation and wished the singer “creative success.” Meduza’s sources in the media industry also said that the story about the “LGBT propaganda complaint” was planted to get people talking about Shaman again.

Korobkov-Zemlyansky also cooperates with the Putin administration — according to his acquaintance, the publicist negotiates with famous artists to get them to perform in the occupied territories of Ukraine. This work falls under the purview of the Putin administration’s point man for Social Projects, Sergey Novikov.


‘They’re ready to forgive you’ How the Kremlin’s ‘penance system’ for artists works — and the compromises they make to keep their jobs


‘They’re ready to forgive you’ How the Kremlin’s ‘penance system’ for artists works — and the compromises they make to keep their jobs

Meduza’s sources have previously referred to Novikov as Russia’s “chief censor.” According to a state-affiliated music producer and a source close to the Russian Culture Ministry, Novikov’s department also coordinates Shaman’s most important performances — including his concerts in the occupied territories and his “duet with Putin” on Red Square.

* * *

Many of the spectators who came to Dronov’s first concerts got their tickets for free from “higher-ups,” recalled a Russian state media reporter who covers Shaman’s performances regularly. “I saw people in line for the concert discussing how the municipalities gave them a pack of tickets,” she said. “But people don’t go to these concerts with long faces, as they would to a rally. It’s more like they’re going to a New Year’s party. That is, they take these tickets gladly and with gratitude.”

The reporter also observed that Dronov’s concerts are carefully staged, to the point that each performance is practically identical. “It’s impossible to tell from a video of a concert when or in which city it took place,” she said. Shaman, who now rakes in between three and 12 million rubles (around $32,800 to $131,400) per performance, invariably refers to his fans as “family.”

Elena Martynova still tries to attend all of her husband’s performances and “has great respect for his work,” her former colleague said. “Lena made Yarik a big fish in a small pond — I think for her this is a great human happiness. At first, I even found it funny to watch,” said Mikhail Zygar, the journalist and author.

Zygar doesn’t find Dronov’s popularity funny any more. “It’s criminal bullshit,” he said, explaining that Shaman’s star status is due to “huge demand” for fascism in Russia. Martynova, he added, realized that this “unique historical moment” was a career opportunity for her husband that “couldn’t be missed.” “She practically threw herself and her husband into a swimming pool of blood — as if to say, You’re all afraid of getting dirty, but we’re going to swim.”

Elena Martynova, Yaroslav Dronov, and Anton Korobkov-Zemlyansky did not reply to Meduza’s questions in time for publication.

Shamanmania Meduza’s dispatch from a concert by one of Russia’s most popular pro-war singers


Shamanmania Meduza’s dispatch from a concert by one of Russia’s most popular pro-war singers

Story by Svetlana Reiter and Kristina Safonova, with additional reporting by Andrey Pertsev

Abridged translation by Ekaterina Rahr-Bohr

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