If you're a Russian government official leading a press conference, you know it's a bad sign when your otherwise loyally self-censoring press corps is in such disbelief at your announcement that reporters keep asking if it's true. The nightmare came true on Wednesday for the election chair of the ruling United Russia party, who had to explain -- and explain again -- that yes, pop singer Nikolai Rastorguev was going to be a United Russia deputy in the Russian parliament.
Rastorguev is the close-cropped and slightly bloated frontman of Russian pop group Lyubé, which became popular in perestroika days for its gruff, hoodlum-with-a-heart-of-gold quality (the band members came from the working-class Moscow suburb of Lyubertsy, thus the name), its clever lyrics, and its nonchalance toward authority. For nearly 21 years, the band has performed in army tunics and sung jokey songs like, "Stop Fooling Around, America," a half-serious call for the United States to give back Alaska, the video for which is a random soup of Soviet kitsch with Photoshop graphics. (Did Sarah Palin see that one coming from her window?)
Now riddled with liver and kidney problems, Rastorguev has been drifting into the Kremlin's lucrative embrace for years. In 2002, then-president Vladimir Putin mentioned that Rastorguev was his favorite performer and invited the band for an earnest political discussion at his dacha. Then, in 2006, Rastorguev joined Putin's United Russia party, proclaiming, perceptively, that it was the "the only serious political force in the country." The following year, he joined the United Russia ticket for the parliamentary elections in the southern Stavropol region, mostly as a performer at party rallies. Then, a few weeks ago, a Duma seat opened up and Rastorguev, who in 2008 gave Putin a vial of Lyubé cologne, was asked to step in -- partly, observers say, as a "thank you" for all those rally concerts.
But the craziest part of all is that it has ceased to feel unusual. When Rastorguev takes his seat in a few weeks, left vacant by a parliamentarian sent east to Yekaterinburg, he will join a long list of celebrities who have served for United Russia in the parliament during the Putin era. First, there was the raspy strummer Alexander Rozenbaum, who served briefly and with little distinction, followed by the more active, Barry Manilow-esque Iosif Kobzon. The two singers are gone, but over the last three years Putin has replaced them with a bevy of beauties -- a ballerina, a boxer, two gymnasts, and a speed skater -- in a move that's oddly reminiscent of his buddy Silvio Berlusconi's tactic of naming famous busty women, or outright porn stars, to head up Italian ministries. (Notably, the speed skater is now a vice speaker, and one of the gymnasts is Alina Kabaeva, the rhythmic gymnast rumored to be Putin's mistress who recently gave birth to a son she named Dmitry, a name he shares with the current Russian president.)
Now, with Rastorguev's ascendance, the existence of celebrities in the Duma seems to be creating an insane perpetual-motion machine: Responding to stunned journalists at the Wednesday press conference, the United Russia election chair said, "What sensation? Is it so rare for various athletes and artists to become deputies?" Responding in turn to such circular logic, one political scientist joked that the members of Deep Purple -- another Putin favorite -- might be Russia's next parliamentarians.