Days before Russian President Vladimir Putin announced hasty referendums in the occupied regions of Ukraine and the conscription of Russian men, Russian singer Alla Pugacheva posted a message decrying the war on Instagram, where she commands 3.5 million followers.
As someone who has followed Pugacheva’s artistic career and written about her on- and off-stage personas, I knew this was no ordinary anti-war statement.
Despite the fact that Pugacheva is not well known outside of Russia, she is one of the top-selling music artists in the world and is arguably the most famous woman in Russia. In opinion polls over the past two decades, she’s routinely selected as one of the most popular Russians – sometimes appearing second only to Putin.
Her fan base encompasses all elements of Russian society, including millions of everyday Russians who, because they rely on Russian state media for information, are particularly susceptible to the Kremlin’s powerful propaganda machine.
In some ways, Pugacheva is a bridge to the past. Belonging to the same generation as Putin, she represents the stability and predictability of the Soviet era. Yet this isn’t the first time she’s leveraged her fame to challenge the political status quo.
Pugacheva burst onto the Soviet pop culture scene in 1975 with “Arlekino,” a song about a tragicomic clown. With the drama of a jester, she would alternate between laughter and tears, exuberant singing and pantomime.
Pugacheva’s first hit signaled different things to different audiences. The public was enthralled by the catchy tune and her stage presence. Meanwhile, the dissident intelligentsia interpreted it as a tribute to the plight of artists living in a totalitarian state.
Her versatility – and her ability to merge high culture with low culture – would become hallmarks of her art. Though her performing style could be clownish – even grotesque – she became one of the first Russian pop singers to use lyrics drawn from the texts of classical poets such as William Shakespeare and Boris Pasternak.
Her songs, which are a combination of pop, rock, folk and gypsy music, defy categorization, and her performances almost appear to be miniature plays in which Pugacheva – an excellent actor in her own right – demonstrates her gift for assuming a range of characters over the course of a single track.
Today, millions of Russians still listen and sing along to Pugacheva’s songs.