Russian Celebrities Caught ‘Almost Naked’ Are Now Dressing to Appease

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The Russian pop star winced as the black kitten he was cuddling in Russian-occupied Ukraine licked the crook of his neck for about the 15th time.

Several weeks earlier, the musician, Dima Bilan, had been in Moscow, mingling in a see-through shirt with celebrities at an “almost naked” theme party that caused an uproar in Russia and threatened to end his career.

Now Mr. Bilan, who once won the Eurovision song contest, was on an image rehabilitation tour in a winter war zone — the newly prescribed path for celebrities who find themselves out in the cold in wartime Russia and wish to return to the Kremlin’s embrace.

He petted dogs and stroked kittens at animal shelters outside Donetsk. He handed out plush toys to convalescing children at a medical trauma center. He delivered new air-conditioning units to a facility in need.

“Simply from a human perspective, I am worried,” he said in one video from the trip.

Public backlash has persisted since a leading Russian TV personality hosted entertainment stars, including Mr. Bilan, at a hedonistic party in late December. Pro-war culture crusaders excoriated celebrities for engaging in erotic high jinks in scanty attire at a trendy Moscow club while Russian troops died on the front.

Attendees at the party have faced legal consequences, ranging from lawsuits to draft orders. Some stars lost endorsement deals or had appearances canceled. People linked to the event have scrambled to repair their reputations.

The situation has offered President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and his allies an unexpected opportunity to amplify their crusade for “traditional values” ahead of the country’s presidential election in March — while portraying the “almost-naked” party as an example of the moral bankruptcy the Russian leader attributes to the West.

Mr. Putin mentioned the party obliquely for the first time in comments last week, presenting it as the kind of behavior that wartime Russia will no longer tolerate, as troops come back from the front with what he called new values and priorities.

“One won’t be jumping around without pants at some party,” he said.

The anger over the Dec. 21 party has highlighted how the war is changing the rules of the game for a Russian elite that has long been insulated from hardships evident in the rest of the country. New boundaries of acceptable behavior go far beyond abstaining from antiwar dissent in an increasingly militarized and closed society.

“This very significantly changes the mode of thinking and public behavior for virtually the entire Russian elite,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “Because now it is clear that one must behave very carefully. Now everything must correlate with military logic.”

Mr. Putin, Ms. Stanovaya suggested, is afraid of “what sorts of feelings these parties will stir up for those who are fighting, those who are losing their relatives and loved ones,” adding, “He answers to them.”

Officials and activists aligned with the Kremlin have fanned the backlash to the party, just as Russian forces executed one of the largest air attacks of the war against neighboring Ukraine, where thousands of civilians have died from Moscow’s strikes.

The contrast between the uproar in Russia over the raunchy celebrity party and the silence over the deadly attacks on Ukraine highlighted the warped information space that has emerged in Russia in the nearly two years since Moscow’s full-scale invasion.

The scandal over the party ballooned after Mr. Putin was shown images from the event and expressed personal disgust, effectively greenlighting a broadside against the celebrities, according to reports from Russian news outlets and Bloomberg News.

In particular, Mr. Putin was disturbed by a video from the party that showed a little-known Russian musician, Nikolai Vasilyev, whose stage name is Vacio, wearing nothing but a sock on his genitals and surrounded by attendees simulating a sex act, the independent Russian news outlet Agenstvo reported.

Russian officials, pro-war bloggers, conservative activists and members of the Russian Orthodox Church swung into action, delivering a public lashing to the party’s celebrity attendees that extended to legal action and that pulled stars from state TV.

Mr. Vasilyev, 25, was detained for 15 days on charges of promoting L.G.B.T.Q. propaganda and later rearrested for 10 more days after the authorities said he committed hooliganism following his release.

He apologized, then released a public statement that said, “I am a heterosexual guy, I follow the laws of the Russian Federation, and I am interested only in women.” He said he had “never been a supporter of the L.G.B.T. community,” which Russia’s Supreme Court labeled an “extremist” international movement last year.

Mr. Vasilyev, whose party outfit mimicked a style that the Red Hot Chili Peppers pioneered in the 1980s, said in a video released last Tuesday on his Telegram channel that he had received a summons at the military draft office.

“Everything will be OK,” he said. “I’m coming to my senses.”

The Russian authorities also opened a tax investigation into the party’s host, the television presenter Nastya Ivleyeva, and fined her for violating public order. Two Moscow courts have rejected multimillion-dollar lawsuits against her by Russian citizens claiming “moral damage,” though another lawsuit has been filed outside St. Petersburg.

Ms. Ivleyeva was seen showing off diamond and emerald body jewelry in footage from the party that circulated on the internet, and asking, “Have you ever seen 23 million rubles ($261,000) on a butt?”

Ms. Ivleyeva released a number of apology videos, noting that she would not try to take any public actions to rehabilitate herself because nothing would appear sincere — “and honestly in this situation I don’t even know what I could do.”

Nastya Ivleyeva, in a screenshot from a social media post.Credit…Nastya Ivleyeva Telegram Channel, via Reuters

Ms. Ivleyeva, like other celebrities, made an antiwar post on social media after the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 but has since kept relatively quiet about the war.

Mikhail Danilov, the owner of Mutabor, the club where the party was held, sought to atone for the event by donating fragments of a relic of St. Nicholas, a saint revered by Orthodox Christians in Russia, to a church in Moscow.

In footage released on the internet, he professed to the church’s priest his opposition to “devilry” and the “dark arts,” before handing over the fragments, along with a corresponding certificate of authenticity he said he obtained from the Vatican in November. Subsequent reports have suggested both the fragments and the documentation may have been fake.

A Moscow court later shut down Mutabor for 90 days, citing violations of “sanitary and epidemiological” rules.

Mr. Bilan, for his part, emphasized that he attended the party only briefly and wore “a turtleneck, an oversized raincoat, trousers and boots,” without mentioning that the turtleneck was translucent black mesh. He said he understood “the indignation of our people, especially those who are defending us on the front.”

He rejected accusations of his indifference to the situation in Russia, noting that on Dec. 5, weeks before the party, he gave a concert for families of Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine.

Still, there he was at the animal shelter in Donetsk, where he adopted the black kitten, his own cat having died three months earlier.

After a 16-hour drive back to Moscow, Mr. Bilan set down his new cat’s crate, opened the door and began coaxing the animal onto a carpet in his home.

“Don’t be afraid. Everything’s OK,” the pop star said. “You have a new, different life.”

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.

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