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Why Russian pop star Alla Pugacheva dissent against Russia matters

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Russia, dissent against the war in Ukraine is surfacing among some unlikely voices.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALLA PUGACHEVA: (Singing in non-English language).

FADEL: Pop diva Alla Pugacheva, heard here, is the latest and arguably the most famous Russian to criticize Vladimir Putin's war. NPR's Charles Maynes joins us now from Moscow. Good morning, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Morning.

FADEL: So for those who don't know, tell us about this artist and what she's done that's grabbing headlines.

MAYNES: Sure. Yeah, Alla Pugacheva emerged as a superstar back in the Soviet Union in the 1970s with this huge voice. So we got a little taste of that in your intro.

FADEL: Yeah.

MAYNES: In an age that saw Soviet artists, you know, either serve as a megaphone for the state or imitate Western musical tastes, you know, Pugacheva's songs were genuine, you know, occasionally even daring and certainly popular. You know, for decades, she's provided the soundtrack to the experiences of Soviet and Russian women in particular. And her star, it never faded. You know, even today, at age 73, she remains this major celebrity whose songs and personal life are of intense interest.

And she's currently married to her fifth husband, this popular television comedian named Maxim Galkin. Now, he's been critical of Russia's actions in Ukraine and been labeled by the government as a foreign agent because of it. And that was apparently enough for Pugacheva. You know, she publicly came to the defense of her husband. And in a post to social media, she wrote about wanting to put a stop to, quote, "our boys dying" for what she called illusory goals. And she lamented that her beloved country had turned into a pariah state. So, you know, no mention of Ukraine directly, but the message couldn't have been clearer.

FADEL: Yeah. And how is that message being received?

MAYNES: Well, you know, the Kremlin dismissed it. State media selectively edited her comments. But meanwhile, it seems everyone's talking about it. I reached out to Yuri Saprykin. He is a Russian journalist who often writes about the intersection of culture and politics. And Saprykin argues this is a hugely significant moment.

YURI SAPRYKIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here Saprykin says it's a sensation that Pugacheva has weighed in on politics, really for the first time in her long, storied career. Now, Saprykin points out that Pugacheva has carefully chosen her language here, using patriotic phrases, like our guys and our beloved country, that appeal to her audience, which often overlaps with President Vladimir Putin's own fan base - in other words, his electorate. And that, Saprykin argues, gives everyone, really, a license to discuss and debate events in Ukraine in ways that they haven't so far but also in ways that the government hasn't wanted them to.

FADEL: And this isn't the only criticism the Russian president has faced in recent days, right?

MAYNES: Yeah, that's right. You know, he's now facing criticism from nationalists who question his military strategy in Ukraine, you know, arguing that the Kremlin hasn't done enough to achieve its goals. Meanwhile, Russian liberals and the opposition, of course, never had much love for the president and vice versa. And now you have Pugacheva, you know, this megastar, not only defending her husband from the state but also projecting to her vast audience her displeasure with the direction of the country, which for some, you know, also brings a new kind of twist to her music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PUGACHEVA: (Singing in non-English language).

MAYNES: So songs like this one, where she sings defiantly about leaving a lover in the dust, can now be reinterpreted through a political lens.

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thanks so much.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PUGACHEVA: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.