In 2003, Yulia Volkova, 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.
Images of the event were viewed millions of times around the world and, according to Vice magazine, the performance “brought female queerness to the forefront of the mainstream.”
Last year, Volkova appeared in a very different video.
In it, he spoke of his intention to run in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, with the ruling party United Russia, in the next legislative elections on 19 September.
“I am going to the Duma with United Russia to make sure that real, not verbal, decisions are made for the benefit of the majority of our citizens,” Volkova, now a mother of two, 35, said in a May 13 video with an Orthodox Christian cross.
The clip was intended for the United Russia primaries in the western region of Ivanovo, known for the poverty and catastrophic shortage of men.
Volkova lost to an obscure male officer.
But its failure has not stopped other Russian celebrities who want to become politicians, mainly with a pro-Vladimir Putin ticket, either with United Russia or the so-called “systemic opposition”, a trio of parties nominally opposed to the giant. ruler, never critical of the Russian president.
The Kremlin welcomes these celebrities with open arms.
His smiling faces on television, billboards and fact sheets contrast with the crush dissent this intensified before the Duma elections.
But activists strongly doubt the sincerity of the pro-Kremlin luminaries.
“I suspect that they will not defend the interests of the citizens of Russia, but will pursue their own autonomous interests,” said Violetta Grudina, an opposition activist in the northwestern city of Murmaks, who has faced arrests. interrogations and slanderous accusations. after announcing his decision to run in the municipal elections.
“This is the Kremlin’s way of creating spoilers, of creating an illusion of choice,” Grudina told Al Jazeera.
For celebrities, the Duma is not a springboard for a mayoralty, government or a presidential campaign.
It is a safe haven for many terms, a source of publicity and countless benefits, including envelopes with cash cups, says 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 way of life,” said Vitali Shkliarov, who worked on the campaigns of Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders. promoted opposition candidates in Russia and was imprisoned and tortured in Belarus after working with an opposition candidate in last year’s presidential election.
Russian celebrities want to get involved in politics “not because they want to serve, but because they want to live well,” he told Al Jazeera.
While the weakest pro-Putin parties are demanding luminaries to raise their approval ratings, United Russia needs their support to legitimize its inevitable victory, experts say.
Inevitably because for years the party has been accused of matching the vote by electoral monitors, critics and hundreds of thousands who concentrated a decade ago on the largest protests since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
“He is not afraid to lose, because the Central Electoral Committee will fake his victory,” Gennady Gudkov, a former opposition lawmaker, told Al Jazeera.
“But he’s desperate to legitimize himself in some way in the public eye,” he said.
Artists and war criminals
This year’s list of aspiring politicians is a manned one and includes a rapper who calls himself Purulent, reality stars, and a couple of pop singers.
One is Denis Maidanov, among his patriotic achievements is “Russia, forward!” and “Who are the Russians”
“Many parents say they educate their children with my songs, and this is a sign of their confidence,” he told the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper in early June.
Another aspiring legislator is Zakhar Prilepin, a novelist and former activist for the Bolshevik National Party who defended ideas the Kremlin once banned as “extremists”: the annexation of Crimea and Russian-speaking regions in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
Prilepin’s 2006 novel Sankya was hailed as a “manifesto” by anti-Kremlin youth, and in 2008 he formed a nationalist party with new anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny.
But after Moscow annexed Crimea and supported pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, many national Bolsheviks pledged allegiance to Putin and joined the rebels.
Prilepin led a squad of “volunteers,” who served as an “advisor” to a separatist leader who was exploited in 2018 and confessed to having committed war crimes.
“I led a military unit that killed people. Many of them. No other battalion in Donetsk could match the rates of my battalion, ”he said in a 2019 interview.
Last year, Prilepin founded the party For the Truth with Orthodox actor and priest Ivan Okhlobystin, who wants to reinstate the death penalty in Russia and crown Putin as a “monarch.”
Then they hired a famous international celebrity.
Steven Seagal, an action hero from the 1990s Hollywood movies, joined For Truth in December.
He received a Russian passport from Putin in 2016 after praising him as “one of the world’s greatest living leaders” and supporting the annexation of Crimea.
In May, For Truth merged with A Just Russia, a pro-Putin socialist party. He is the weakest of the three “systemic opposition” parties with 23 seats in the 450-seat Duma.
However, he may lose them in September because only five percent of Russians want to vote for the party, according to a March poll by the Levada center.
Meanwhile, United Russia seems light years away from this struggle for survival.
It has tens of thousands of members, offices in every city and town, and what critics call the “administrative resource,” a national system that forces government employees, faculty, and medical workers to vote for their candidates.
In May, a “cooperation agreement” was signed with the Donbas Volunteer Union that fought for the separatists.
“Not only do we count on your support, but also on your maximum turnout in the elections,” Andrey Turchak, secretary general of the United Russia, told a “veteran” conference on May 10th.
“We must show that not only can we fight, defend our homeland on the battlefields, but we can also do something in peaceful life,” Union leader Alexander Borodai replied.
Borodai is best known for his two-month term as “president” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” in 2014.
Ukraine accused him and his “government” of thousands of murders, kidnappings, evictions and expropriations.
But Borodai feels good at home and wants his brothers-in-arms to join the political current.
“Russian volunteers must come to power,” he said in a video posted on the United Russia website.