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Russian celebrities contest ‘foreign agent’ designations


May 16, 2023

Several artists who left the country are now appealing to a Moscow court

Several Russian artists who were designated “foreign agents” for publicly siding with the Ukrainian government have submitted appeals against the measure, a Moscow court revealed on Monday.

The Zamoskvorechye district court told TASS that it had received motions from TV host and comedian Maksim Galkin, actor and musician Semyon Slepakov, blogger Ilya Varlamov, and singer Zemfira. All four left Russia last year, and were designated foreign agents after making public statements in support of Kiev.

Galkin was designated in September 2022, for “practicing political activities” on behalf of a foreign government. A video recording of him shouting the slogans of Ukrainian nationalists at a concert in Dubai emerged in January.

A comedian who hosted Russia’s version of the quiz ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ (2001-2008), Galkin performed alongside the future Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky in a 2013 New Year’s Eve special. The 46-year-old Galkin and his wife, 73-year-old Soviet pop idol Alla Pugacheva, fled to Israel when the Ukraine conflict escalated. Pugacheva condemned Galkin’s designation and demanded to be listed as well.

Zemfira, a rock musician who shot to stardom in the early 2000s, filed her court motion last week. Born Zemfira Ramazanova, she made the foreign agent list in February 2023, after denouncing the “war in Ukraine” and moving to France. 

Varlamov made the registry at the end of March. According to the Russian Ministry of Justice, the architect and urbanism video-blogger spread false information about government policies and received support from foreign sources. Varlamov had already left Russia at that point, and claimed to have received a passport from Turkmenistan.

Slepakov was designated on April 14. The Justice Ministry justified his designation by saying he received support from foreign sources, opposed the special military operation in Ukraine, and fomented negative attitudes about the Russian people, the Russian military, and the government. In a satirical song published in January, Slepakov portrayed a Russian mother lamenting that her three-year-old can’t go to war yet. The TV comedian, screenwriter and producer had moved to Israel by that point.

The foreign agents law, adopted in late 2012, allows for labeling Russian individuals and nonprofits who engage in political activity and take money from abroad. While it does not provide for civil or criminal penalties – unlike the US law it was modeled on – those designated have to deal with onerous reporting requirements.