At least until now, this formula has worked. Indeed, the genius of Putinism has always been its ability to keep the apolitical masses ignorant of or apathetic about the regime’s opponents, while at the same time eschewing mass arrests. Putin understood this very well: The modern elite Russian doesn’t want to live in a pariah state, and he doesn’t want to be cut off from the outside world. He might not care if his foreign friends think Russia unpleasant, but he isn’t keen to be compared to North Korea either. Putin’s solution was to keep the pressure on serious opponents while studiously ignoring those he deemed unserious. Political speech is controlled, but entertainment media are free.
But in a Russia open to global pop culture, it’s getting harder to recognize who is serious and who isn’t. Three punk rockers, members of a band known more for its desire to cause outrage than to make music, surely didn’t look like much of a challenge to the Kremlin. But when one accounts for the vast potential for copycats—the same radical Ukrainian women’s group has recently protested not only in Kiev but also in Minsk and Davos, while others have protested in Marseille and New York—as well as the inevitable eye-catching photos, not just on news pages but also in the entertainment sections, one can see how this story could run and run. The simple fact is that Madonna and her ilk are more likely to defend stylish fellow musicians than serious journalists or activists—and far more likely to attract widespread attention for doing so.