President Putin awarded Alla Pugacheva the Order of Merit to the Fatherland in 2014.Image ANP / EPA

    She has been the diva of Russian pop music for half a century. No other artist in Russia sold as many records as her (250 million). Every New Year’s Eve, Russians sing out the year with her songs Irony of fatethe most famous Soviet film that airs standard in Russia on December 31.

    Alla Pugacheva is someone President Putin liked to hang out with until this week. He awarded her the Order of Merit to the Fatherland and regularly received her in the Kremlin.

    But since Sunday, another meeting between the two has become unimaginable. Pugacheva (73) wrote to her millions of followers on Instagram that Russians are dying in Ukraine for “imaginary purposes”. The war, she said, “turns our country into a pariah state and worsens the lives of our citizens.”

    Another defeat for Putin. A sensitive one. Unlike other opponents of the war, such as politician Alexei Navalny, Pugacheva is known and loved by almost all Russians, regardless of whether they were born in the era of Stalin or Putin.

    Husband banned

    Pugacheva publicly opposed the war after Maksim Galkin, her fifth husband, was tackled by the Kremlin for open criticism of Putin’s “special operation.” The well-known comedian and presenter, 27 years younger than his wife, called for an end to the war shortly after Putin’s invasion. State broadcasters immediately banned Galkin. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs added Galkin to the register of ‘foreign agents’, a list of enemies of the state that all kinds of rules make work impossible in Russia.

    Galkin is friends with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was known as an actor until his political career. They were seen together in comedy shows on Russian television, including in a big New Year’s Eve show on state channel Rossiya 1 in 2013. Since the invasion, Galkin has been touring Europe with shows and appearing on stage in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The proceeds of the shows go to Ukrainian aid organizations.

    Galkin and Pugacheva left Russia shortly after the raid and flew to Israel with their twins, conceived through a surrogate mother due to Pugacheva’s advanced age. Pugacheva returned to Russia in the summer. Until this week, Putin assumed the pop diva was on his side. Only Galkin had made “very bad statements,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov said. “I have not heard any statements from Pugacheva.”

    Foreign agent

    Pugacheva asked the Kremlin on Sunday to brand her, like her husband, as a foreign agent. State media tried to hide the news from the public by ignoring it, but it was too late. Pugacheva’s criticism spread like wildfire through Russia.

    Vladimir Solovyov, the leading state television host, declared Pugacheva dead. “Rest in peace, Alla,” he wrote on social media. Pyotr Tolstoy, deputy speaker of the Russian parliament, said that Pugacheva has “lost touch with reality” and said: “We will win without her songs.”

    But can you win in Russia without A million scarlet roses and take me with you? The prestige of Pugacheva is hard to underestimate. Russians joked in the 1970s that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev would be remembered as “a little politician from the Pugacheva era.” Now they say that Putin will also go down in the history books as ‘a little politician from the Pugacheva era’.

    Other Russian stars

    Pugacheva broke through in 1975 with the number Arlekino, which was broadcast on Soviet TV. Since then, she has never left the tube. Her performances look and sound Western through keyboards, electric guitars and glittery dresses. But she never distanced herself from Slavic music. There is always a Russian folk song through her songs.

    Her criticism of the war raises questions about the position of other Russian stars. Some have already spoken out against the war. Ivan Urgant, an Arjen Lubach-esque host of an evening show on state television, turned against the war and disappeared from TV. Other well-known opponents: Oxxxymiron, the most popular Russian rapper, the acclaimed singer Valery Meladze and YouTuber Yuri Doed. But most have kept quiet, possibly for fear of losing their stage. As Putin’s unpopular mobilization brings the war to Russian living rooms, it becomes more difficult for celebrities to ignore the invasion.

    Putin’s critics think they can form a stronger fist with Pugacheva. “Pugacheva has become the de facto leader of the anti-war front in Russia,” said political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky. Pavel Chikov of human rights organization Agora praised Pugacheva for her support ‘against repression and war’. Chikov: ‘A million scarlet roses against evil.’

    3x Alla Pugacheva

    The New York Times after her first performance in the West, at a sold-out Carnegie Hall in 1988, spoke of ‘American and European hues’, but ‘an unmistakable Slavic tone’. This was ‘not only because of the harsh consonants of the Russian texts, but also because of a fleeting, theatrical melancholy and the almost constant use of the minor key’.

    Many Russians want to know what Pugacheva’s ex-husband, Filipp Kirkorov, an icon of Russian pop music, thinks of the war. Pugacheva was married for twenty years to Kirkorov, who has not spoken out against the war, but has spoken out against anti-gay legislation. He also defended comedian Maksim Galkin when he was attacked for his criticism of the war by Margarita Simonjan, the boss of Kremlin channel RT.

    Outside of Russia, Pugacheva never broke through. She participated in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1997, but ended with the song Prima donna in an inglorious fifteenth place.