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Why This Austrian Drag Queen Is the New Bête Noire of Putin Cronies

Why This Austrian Drag Queen Is the New Bête Noire of Putin Cronies

Russia’s leading politicians have a stark warning for Ukraine and it involves a bearded lady who just took home top honors in Europe’s annual tribute to kitschy stage acts, Eurovision.

Over the weekend, Conchita Wurst, an Austrian drag queen, won the annual competition with her song "Rise Like a Phoenix." That turn of events has two Russian politicians warning countries seeking closer relations with Europe that their future holds nothing but moral decay and decadence. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted that Wurst’s victory "showed supporters of European integration their European future: a bearded girl."

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalist legislator, did him one better by speculating aloud whether perhaps the Red Army should have remained in Austria and fought to prevent such a breakdown in morals. "Fifty years ago, the Soviet Army occupied Austria…. We should have stayed there," Zhirinovsky said. "It’s the end of Europe. It has turned wild."

But nevermind those outbursts: Wurst’s victory is being hailed as a symbol of growing acceptance in Europe for gays and lesbians. "This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in peace and freedom," Wurst said, trophy in hand. "You know who you are. We are unity, and we are unstoppable." (Her name, Wurst, literally translates as "sausage" but is also a reference to a German slang term meaning roughly "who cares?")

Here’s her winning performance:

But why are two Putin cronies concerning themselves with a trashy European singing contest? In his attempt to build a new ideological foundation for the Russian state, Russian President Vladimir Putin has rushed headlong into the embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was harshly oppressed during Soviet times. By casting himself as a defender of traditional Russian values, the church has played a bit part in Putin’s attempt to define his country against the West. Russia, Putin frequently argues, stands opposed to the moral decadence of the West.

It’s a clever ploy. By playing on widespread homophobia in Russia, Putin has stumbled upon a group upon which he can project all his country’s fears. It’s an old tactic, and Putin plays the role of enforcer well, for example passing a law outlawing homosexual "propaganda." It is no accident that the performance that landed the punk band Pussy Riot in jail occurred in an Orthodox church.

The leadership of the church has described growing acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage as a sign of the coming apocalypse and has strongly endorsed Moscow’s crackdown on gays, lesbians and transgendered Russians.

So when a moment like this weekend’s Eurovision win comes along, Putin’s cronies of course jump at the opportunity to join in on some state-sanctioned homophobia. Moreover, the comments have an obvious target: eastern Ukraine. While their true motives may lie elsewhere, Putin and his allies have attempted to describe their annexation of Crimea and efforts to foment unrest in eastern Ukraine as an effort to stop the spread of Western values and decadence. More broadly, Putin’s expansionist doctrine can be seen as part of a project to restore a greater Russia rooted in the country’s Orthodox history.

Either way, the West, on this reading, is collapsing in on itself amid moral decay. Putin and a culturally conservative Russia, meanwhile, stand ready to defend a more old-fashioned set of values, one which don’t particularly like the notion of a sequined drag queen being feted on televisions across Europe.

But controversy wasn’t limited to Wurst, as this year’s Eurovision contest was among the most politicized in recent memory. Against the backdrop of the crisis in Ukraine, Russia’s act, the twin Tolmachevy Sisters, were booed by the crowd in Copenhagen. That wholesome-looking pair finished close behind the Ukrainian submission, one of the more hyped geopolitical subplots of this year’s contest. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan and Armenia put on a good show of mutual distaste, ranking each other’s acts last.