Russian and Ukrainian activists protest against Russian pop star Valeria at the Royal Albert Hall: a few comments on the media coverage

On 21 October 2014, a joint Russian-Ukrainian protest took place outside the Royal Albert Hall in London ahead of a concert by Russian pop singer Valeria.

Nicknamed ‘Kremlin cheerleaders’, the singer whose real name is Alla Perfilova, and Soviet-era crooner Iosif Kobzon were supposed to perform together in London (Kobzon cancelled his trip at the last moment). Both are known as staunch supporters of the Russian regime who signed an open letter supporting Putin’s policies in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. London-based Russian refugee and political activist Andrey Sidelnikov with his campaign group ‘Govorite Gromche’ (‘Speak up’) initiated a petition calling for banning the singers’ entry to the UK on the grounds of their public political activities and support of the Russian regime. To date, the petition has gathered over 4,000 signatures. It was handed to Downing St in mid-October. (Probably the most detailed overview of the events preceding the protest in English can be found in Luke Harding’s Guardian piece). London-based Ukrainian activists took active part in campaigning and protesting.

Of all the numerous protests that took place in London in the last year, organised by the vocal group ‘London Euromaidan’, or those campaigns that Andrey Sidelnikov’s activist group initiated in the 4 years of its existence, this one was among those which received significant media coverage. Indeed, in the weeks preceding the concert, Russian media concentrated on Sidelnikov’s plans to urge the UK government to deny entry to the country to Kremlin supporters. Personal attacks on the activist by pro-Russian media ensued almost immediately, stressing the ‘anti-Russian’, provocative (or downright ‘treacherous’) nature of his plans and making links to his personal history as a refugee and opposition activist (sometimes presented in ridiculously misinformed ways). On the other hand, the interest to the campaigner has re-emerged from those from the same side of the barricades, including Ukrainian media. Ukrainian Radio Svoboda published a brief interview with him, praised his activity as ‘fighter for peace and human rights campaigner’, another piece stressed the ‘conscientious’ character of his activity and collaboration with the Ukrainian diaspora.

The reaction of the media after the concert (and the protest) took place was, in a way, also predictable. BBC Russian observed the protest, producing a reasonably balanced material. ‘Angliya’, UK-based Russian language newspaper, provided a brief overview. Ukrainian sources, including diasporic media, stressed the collaborative character of the Russian-Ukrainian protest, and in general paid more attention to the protest as well as to the cultural event’s political underpinnings, rather than to the concert itself. The general message of the pro-Russian media, on the other hand, focused on the success of the show and the presumed futility of the attempts to disrupt it by the alleged provocateurs. Russia’s 1st channel notes: ‘Not having succeeded in their attempts to cancel the concert, the protesters with Ukrainian flags and anti-Russian banners rallied outside Albert Hall, but they did not meet any compassion from the spectators. Valeria wasn’t particularly worried by the events outside the stage’. NTV asserts: ‘The voices of the protesters were not heard inside the walls of Albert Hall. The local authorities did not listen to them, either’. ‘ claims: ‘The marginal campaign [of Govorite Gromche group] would have failed completely, if not for the support from the representatives of the Ukrainian diaspora from ‘London Euromaidan’. Ukrainians only attracted the attention because of coming to Albert Hall with flags and banners’.

By accentuating the marginality of the protest, its small scale, lack of influence, or by ridiculing the protest organisers, pro-Russian media are putting forward messages that are hardly new or surprising. However, there was also one more important issue that was touched upon by both ‘sides’ and raised in a discussion led by Mikhail Kozyrev at Dozhd channel. To put it briefly, the question is that of a risk of possible ‘double standards’ approach. The dilemma entails, in this particular case, similar attitudes of the supporters of the regime and its opponents to expression of political views by artists. Attacks on musicians and cancellations of concerts have been actively employed by the regime supporters; should the opposition resort to the same methods? At the same time, if the artist is vocally supporting international aggression and oppressive laws, that should be making him/her more of a propaganda tool and less of a purely cultural activist – shouldn’t this invoke any counteraction?

Evgeny Chichvarkin, an exiled Russian businessman and protest activist who also took part in the rally, writes in his blog: ‘Banning people’s professional activity because of their political views is the prerogative of dictators, like the same Putin. […] I am for the artists, whoever they support, to perform and travel freely to any country. […] But I think that it would be right to remind the thousands of people who will come to listen to their favourite singer about her civic and political position. People like her, and especially Kobzon, have a serious influence on their huge audiences, and one cannot close their eyes on this’, ‘I want and demand from the celebrities not to call for voting for Putin’, he states. His position is perhaps one of the least radical among the protesters, though.

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