In 2003, Yulia Volkova, half of the Russian pop duo TATU, performed Not Gonna Get Us, a popular song about two schoolgirls in love, at the MTV Music Awards in California.
Footage of the show was viewed millions of times worldwide, and according to Vice magazine, the show “brought female queerness to the forefront of the mainstream”.
This year, Volkova appeared in a very different video.
In it, he talks about his intention to run for the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, with the ruling United Russia party, in the September 19 legislative elections.
“I went to the Duma with United Russia to make sure that real decisions, not verbal ones, are made to benefit the majority of our citizens,” Volkova, now a 35-year-old mother of two, said in May. 13 videos, Orthodox Christian cross sports.
The clip was meant for the United Russia primaries in the western region of Ivanovo, known for its extreme poverty and male shortages.
Volkova eventually lost to an unknown male official.
But his failure has not stopped other Russian celebrities from wanting to become politicians – many with pro-Vladimir Putin tickets, either with United Russia or the so-called “systemic opposition”, a trio of parties that nominally oppose the ruling giant but have never been critical of the Russian president.
The Kremlin welcomes these celebrities with open arms.
Their smiling faces on television, billboards and flyers contrasted the growing beating of dissent ahead of the Duma election.
But activists strongly doubt the sincerity of pro-Kremlin figures.
“I suspect they will not defend the interests of Russian citizens, but pursue their own interests,” said Violetta Grudina, an opposition activist in the northwestern city of Murmaks, who has faced detention, interrogation and defamation charges. after announcing his decision to run in municipal elections.
“This is the Kremlin’s way of creating spoilers, to create the illusion of choice,” Grudina told Al Jazeera.
For celebrities, the Duma is not a stepping stone for mayoral elections, governorships, or presidential campaigns.
It is a safe harbor for many terms, a source of countless publicity and perks, including envelopes with wads of cash, claims a campaign manager who worked in Washington, Moscow, Berlin and Minsk.
“In the West, politics is just a field of activity, a field of service, but in Russia, politics is a lifestyle,” said Vitali Shkliarov, who worked on the campaigns of Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, promoted opposition candidates in Russia, and was jailed and tortured in Belarus after work. with opposition candidates in last year’s presidential election.
Russian celebrities want to get into politics “not because they want to serve, but because they want to live well,” he told Al Jazeera.
While weaker pro-Putin parties are asking figures to increase their approval ratings, United Russia needs their support to legitimize its inevitable victory, experts claim.
Inevitably for years the party has been accused of vote-rigging – by election monitors, critics and hundreds of thousands of people who rallied a decade ago in the biggest protests since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
“Not afraid of losing, because the Central Election Committee will fake their victory,” Gennady Gudkov, a former opposition lawmaker, told Al Jazeera.
“But it’s desperate to legitimize itself somehow in the eyes of the public,” he said.
Artists and war criminals
This year’s roster of wannabe politicians is a diverse crew and includes rappers calling himself Purulent, reality TV stars and several pop singers.
One of them is Denis Maidanov, whose patriotic hits include “Russia, come on!” and “Who is the Russian.”
“Many parents say that they educate their children with my songs, and that is a sign of their trust,” he told tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda in early June.
Another candidate for MP is Zakhar Prilepin, a novelist and former National Bolshevik Party activist who advocates ideas that the Kremlin once banned as “extremist” – the annexation of Crimea and the Russian-speaking territories of Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
Prilepin’s 2006 novel Sankya was hailed as an anti-Kremlin youth “manifesto” and, in 2008, he formed a nationalist party with anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny.
But after Moscow annexed Crimea and backed pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, many National Bolsheviks pledged allegiance to Putin – and joined the rebels.
Prilepin leads a squad of “volunteers”, serving as “advisers” to a separatist leader who was blown up in 2018 and confessed to war crimes.
“I lead a military unit that kills people. Many of them. No other battalion in Donetsk can match my battalion level,” he said in a 2019 interview.
Last year, Prilepin founded the For Truth party with actor and Orthodox priest Ivan Okhlobystin – who wants to reinstate the death penalty in Russia and crown Putin “king”.
Then they registered an international celebrity who had been washed clean.
Steven Seagal, an action hero in 1990s Hollywood films, 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 joined A Just Russia, a pro-Putin socialist party. It is the weakest of the three “systemic opposition” parties with 23 seats in the 450-seat Duma.
However, it may lose them in September as only five percent of Russians want to vote for the party, according to a March survey by the Levada Center.
United Russia, meanwhile, seems years away from the struggle for survival.
It has tens of thousands of members, offices in every city and town, and what critics call “administrative resources,” a national system that forces government employees, teachers, and medical workers to vote for its candidates.
In May, he reached a “cooperation agreement” with the Donbas Volunteer Union which is fighting for the separatists.
“We rely not only on your support, but also on your maximum involvement in the elections,” Andrey Turchak, secretary general of United Russia, told a “veterans” conference on May 10.
“We have to prove that we can not only fight, defend our Motherland on the battlefield, but that we can also do something in a peaceful life,” replied the head of the Union Alexander Borodai.
Borodai is mostly known for his two-month term as “chairman” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” in 2014.
Ukraine accuses him and his “government” of carrying out thousands of killings, kidnappings, expulsions and expropriations.
But Borodai is feeling fine at home – and wants his brothers to join the political mainstream.
“Russian volunteers must be in power,” he said in a video posted on the United Russia website.