Talking to Elton John would be right call for Vladimir Putin

The Russian president did not phone the singer to discuss the anti-gay policies for which Putin has been shunned by national leaders and the Kremlin isolated, says Masha Gessen

RUSSIA’S president, Vladimir Putin, did not call singer Elton John to meet to discuss LGBT rights in his country, but many people believed that he did.

On Monday, John wrote a post on Instagram saying he had received the phonecall. On Tuesday, the post went viral, penetrating even the Russian pro-government print media.

By close of business, Putin’s spokesman had denied that the call had ever taken place. On Wednesday, Russian pranksters, nicknamed Vovan and Lexus, released a recording of a conversation in which they impersonated Putin and Putin’s press secretary.

It says something about the Russian media that neither opposition nor pro-government journalists called the Kremlin press office for corroboration before publishing.

Both sides know that social networks are usually a more reliable source than the Kremlin. But it is remarkable that both sides (and a number of foreign media outlets) believed that Putin personally called the singer. Why would they so easily believe something so improbable? Try imagining the way the world looks from Moscow, and it will all make sense.

Just two years ago this month, Putin scored the biggest foreign-policy victory of his career: He hijacked Syria. US President Barack Obama had just failed to get congressional support for intervention there. Swooping in when the American president stumbled, Putin suddenly positioned himself as the arbiter of war, peace, and chemical weapons.

Talking to Elton John would be right call for Vladimir Putin

He published an op-ed in the New York Times that was the single best example of Soviet propaganda techniques since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Appealing to international institutions and calling out American exceptionalism, Putin used American ideals and American terminology to put America in its place. He was on top of the world.

Now, two years later, Putin is an international pariah. His country is subjected to economic and diplomatic sanctions and is facing the pressure of lowered oil prices.

The economy is in a death spiral, Putin’s cronies cannot travel abroad, and Putin has been shunned and shamed by Western leaders. All this because of two things: the war in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s anti-gay campaign.

Last month, the Kremlin announced that Putin would attend the United Nations General Assembly; he will address it on September 28. Putin has not graced the UN in a decade, but he is returning to the site of his foreign-relations triumph of September, 2013: It was in the Security Council session then that Russia took control of the Syrian issue.

Now, he wants, once again, to talk about Syria. This means that he needs to push Ukraine and gay rights off the agenda. For the last few weeks there has been a de facto ceasefire in eastern Ukraine (where many de jure ceasefires have failed) — and the Western media have noticed. But how was he to communicate that Russia could be more reasonable on the LGBT issue?

Talking to Elton John would be right call for Vladimir Putin

Enter Elton John. The singer attended a political conference in Kiev last week, met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and talked LGBT rights with him. He seemed to be positioning himself as a sort of global LGBT ambassador. Over the weekend, John told the BBC that he would like to meet with the Russian president and discuss the issue with him, as well.

In the Kremlin, John’s proposal could be taken literally. The Russian leadership believes in a worldwide gay conspiracy, even a backroom global gay government that is trying to take over the world. Back in December, 2013, when the Russian parliament was discussing the protests in Ukraine, the chairman of the foreign relations committee, Alexei Pushkov (who will be accompanying Putin to the UN), warned that if Ukraine moved toward the West, it would become part of “the sphere of influence of gay culture” — as directly opposed to the Russian sphere of influence.

Reporting on John’s speech in Kiev last week, Russia’s highest-circulation daily stated that John “invited Ukraine to join the gay community”. So the same newspaper could imagine that if Putin had, indeed, picked up the phone to call John, he would have secured a direct line to the gay rulers of the world — and he could communicate to them that he was a reasonable man who shouldn’t be criticised quite so harshly.

If John would get that message to the gay power establishment, then Putin could have his reset and the conversation in New York would focus on Syria. After a few weeks of obfuscating about what it’s doing in Syria, Russia is saying that it is trying to protect what remains of the Syrian state, because if it fails then things will get even worse. The meta-message here is that Russia is reasonable and rational while the West, with its sanctions, is hysterical and unfair.

Talking to Elton John would be right call for Vladimir Putin

Why is Putin coming to the UN, and why is he working so hard to reframe the conversation?

The sanctions have impacted on Russia and its politicians, and Putin may be hoping that they will be lifted or relaxed. But, more likely, reestablishing himself as an equal partner in a conversation with the United States is an end in itself.

He needs it for his domestic audience, which has not seen a demonstration of Russia’s international stature in a while. He also needs it for himself: while he doesn’t care what the West thinks of Russian politics, he personally does not enjoy being shunned.

This is the man who worked tirelessly to host a big party in Sochi (and then almost nobody came): He likes to hang out with the big guys and throw his weight around.

Really, he should have called John.

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist and author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, and The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy.


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