Socialite Ksenia Sobchak and football commentator Vasily Utkin are perhaps the most high-profile celebrities to have made their dissent public, the latter leading a crowd in a chant of “Russia without Putin!” at a mass Moscow demonstration against alleged poll fraud on December 24.
Sobchak - the daughter of the late St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, a man often referred to as Putin’s mentor – was also in attendance at the rally. I’d always kind of hoped that “Moscow’s Paris Hilton” would turn into a Patty Hearst-type figure for Russia, and her rich girl revolutionary posing was just one of the more surreal moments of the recent unrest.
Watching her address the crowd, I willed her to pump her fist in the air and urge “death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.” She didn’t, of course, but her appearance at the rally was still a great piece of political theatre – even if she did get booed by some of the crowd.
But Sobchak was not the first star to shine her light away from Putin. She was beaten to that honor by a good nine months or so.
The first stirrings of dissent among Russia’s celebrities came way back last April, when ex-Bolshoi Theatre ballerina Anastasia Volochkova announced she was quitting Putin’s United Russia party.
“I thought I was joining a party, not some kind of criminal gang,” she told me when I spoke to her in her office not far from the Kremlin. It was an unexpected turn of events for a woman better known for a bitter 2003 court battle with the Bolshoi over her dismissal because of “weight issues”.
Volochkova had long been one of the many celebrity faces of United Russia. The government’s golden girl, she was a smiling fixture on daytime TV.
Her decision to leave coincided with the first major slump in the party’s popularity – the week she jumped ship, United Russia’s approval rating fell beneath 50 percent for the first time.
Volochkova also predicted Russia could see unprecedented unrest unless genuine change was forthcoming.
“Young people today don’t care at all about United Russia,” she told me. “They don’t believe in the authorities or in any kind of future. Hosni Mubarak was in power for so many years and thought that’s how things would go on, but the people overthrew him just like that. Of course such a thing is possible here.”
Some nine months on, while Russia has yet to see scenes quite like those that unfolded in Egypt, Volochkova’s remarks seem oddly prescient.
Not that she has continued her role as unlikely dissident – both her official website and Live Journal account are almost entirely free of politics, choosing to concentrate on her New Year holiday and trips Then again, she did tell me that she wanted to “avoid getting into another party – or more s**t!”
But it’s not only the stars who have gone lukewarm on Putin and his United Russia. The heavens, at least in the form of the Russian Orthodox Church, also seem to be taking a pretty dim view of things. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but the fact that the notoriously conservative church here has spoken out against “lies” in politics is even a greater sensation than Volochkova and Sobchak’s disenchantment with the powers that be. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the head of the church, Patriarch Kirill, set up residence in the Kremlin.
But on January 7, Orthodox Christmas, there Kirill was, right on state TV, telling viewers that: "It would be a very bad sign if the authorities remain insensitive to the sentiments of the protests - a sign of their inflexibility,”
“The authorities must readjust…and change their policies,” he added. “Society must have the right to express its dissatisfaction.”
His comments came two days after a senior Orthodox Church figure, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, said that the demonstrations had changed Russia forever. Chaplin, who is responsible for church and society relations, also warned that the authorities could be "slowly chewed up," if they did not listen to opposition voices. Of course, the Church made sure to stress its neutrality in the dispute.
While none of this would be massive news in the West, where it’s almost par for course that leading religious figures and stars knock the authorities, even mild dissent by Russia’s usually sycophantic celebrities and its compliant Orthodox Church would have been unthinkable a year ago.
The next mass protest is set for Moscow on February 4. Will more stars join the protests? They may well do. Celebrities are notoriously fickle folk, and the way things are going, it could be wise to be seen to be anti-Putin before it’s too late. Who knows? It could even turn out to be a great career move...
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIR
Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).
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