Popular rapper Alisher Morgenshtern landed in hot water this week when he criticized Russia’s lavish annual celebrations to mark the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. His words brought an angry response from the Kremlin and the head of the powerful Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin.
- In a video interview with TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak released last Monday, Morgenshtern said he didn’t understand why Russia spent millions of rubles on military parades and other Victory Day events. “Perhaps there isn’t anything to be proud of,” he said. “Remembering that once upon a time we won something, and doing this every year for almost a century … I don’t understand.” Morgenshtern said it was time to celebrate more recent triumphs, like achievements in IT or space.
- Victory in the Second World War is a key ideological pillar, and the response was swift. The following day, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said the musician was ignorant of history. “Go and ask any of our veterans, of whom there are fewer and fewer left but who still live among us. Ask them why Victory Day is so important,” he said.
- Morgenshtern apologized for his remarks. “I in no way sought to diminish the significance of the event, I just admitted honestly that I don’t understand and that phrase was taken out of context,” he wrote Tuesday on Instagram. The rapper added that he is proud of veterans but “failed to properly express his ideas”, and pointed out that his call for more funds for veterans “didn’t even make it into the interview”.
- But it was too late. Bastrykin ordered an investigation into Morgenshtern’s words. A press release from the Investigative Committee asserted the popular rapper had insulted “the historical memory of the defenders of the fatherland”. Following a new law passed earlier this year, this is a criminal offense carrying a potential five-year jail term. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was fined under a previous version of the same law for allegedly slandering a veteran.
- Presenter Sobchak pointed out that Morgenshtern had only said he didn’t understand the scale of the celebrations. “He’s 23! He represents a different generation, which cannot, on an emotional level, respond to what happened 76 years ago,” she wrote.
- Moscow’s Victory Museum invited Morgenshtern for a guided tour following his comments. His lawyer said that the musician would be happy to visit. “I think that’s a sensible initiative as young people should not be punished for things they do not know or understand but, instead, should be enlightened,” the lawyer added.
- Morgenshtern was rated the most “influential influencer” for young Russians in a poll earlier this year. But this is not his only brush with the law. In early June, he was fined 100,000 rubles ($1,400) for promoting drug use in his lyrics. The musician insisted he was “absolutely innocent” and unsuccessfully appealed the fine.
- For Bastrykin, the investigation into Morgenshtern is the latest attempt to burnish his image as a defender of conservative values. The same day, Bastrykin ordered an investigation into St. Petersburg artist Kirill Miller, alleging he had offended war veterans because of a painting he did that depicts a group of people holding placards with deformed human heads.
- However, Bastrykin’s attempts to push himself to the top of the news agenda do not always work out. At the start of the week he said he was “taking control” of the reported disappearance of actor Svetlana Svetlichnaya. However, the actor was quickly found — and it emerged the whole incident was a PR stunt. The attention on Svetlichnaya meant resources were diverted from efforts to find real missing people and search-and-rescue organization Liza Alert said this was one of the reasons it failed to find a man in the woods of Moscow Region who ended up dying.
Why the world should care: Morgenshtern’s experience is a warning to the younger generation about the dangers of being apolitical, according to blogger Ilya Varlamov. A year ago, the musician gave an interview in which he said he has no interest in politics. “We have a wonderful country in which to build a business,” he said at the time. However, within a year, he has been forced to apologize after pressure from officials — in order to save that same business.