Making friends with the Russian youth has long been a part of the Kremlin’s governing strategy. But, what seems to be the latest move to encourage younger Russians to be loyal may be backfiring.
When young people in former Soviet republics organised "colour revolutions" to push out undemocratic leaders a decade ago, the Kremlin lent support to Nashi. This is a nationalist, pro-state youth organisation whose ideals thrive in other, smaller, groups to this day. When the West began protesting Russia’s annexation of Crimea earlier this year, the Russian government introduced a new patriotism curriculum to emphasise the territories' historic bond.
Striking a nerve
But when Russian authorities started going after outspoken pop icons this autumn, they struck a nerve with many young people who claim to be largely apolitical but suddenly became wary of officials trying to silence stars of their generation.
"I'm not that involved in politics. I'm more interested in what's happening to my idols, and politics only as a consequence of that," said Alexei Kornev, 19, a student from Tomsk who studies in Moscow. "But nobody and nothing should be in the way of music."
For Kornev and many others, the performer whose experience inspired such concerns is Russia’s biggest homegrown hip-hop star, Ivan Alekseev - better known by his rap alias, Noize MC.
Noize MC has been a figure on the Russian music scene for the past seven or eight years, building a following as a skilled song writer with a knack for selling catchy riffs and social commentary through storytelling. His audience is young - mostly teens and 20-somethings. And though he often shows a healthy disregard for authority, he had never really went head-on with the government until the past few months, when he began to get trouble for accepting a Ukrainian flag from a female fan during a music festival in Lviv, Ukraine.
Flagging the issue
It happened in August as Ukrainian officials were openly accusing Russia of sending troops and tanks to aid rebels fighting a war in the east of the country. Other Russian headliners had already decided not to go to the Lviv concert. But Noize MC performed and accepted the flag as he sang Tanzy, a remix of a Ukrainian song that he has been rapping in Russian since 2012.
"I didn't think of it as something specific or important," Alekseev said during an interview in Moscow. "I was just in Ukraine and sang in Ukrainian, and someone gave me a Ukrainian flag. And in Ukraine, everything was okay - it was totally fine."
But when the pictures from the show emerged, Russia was not fine with the display of solidarity with its Slavic neighbour.
Within weeks, most of the star's live shows were canceled under pressure from authorities, he said, or raided by federal drug officials and bomb squads reporting tips of criminal activity. Alekseev said more than 60 per cent of his shows were canceled, including almost every stop on a tour of Siberia and Russia’s Far East - where authorities even met him and his band at their hotels and train stations, he said, to keep them from playing alternative venues.
"It was [like] if you were doing a three-day tour of gigs in Ohio and you have guys from the CIA, FBI and local police coming and telling you to go," Alekseev said.
Confusion, shock and anger
Each time, the reaction on Noize MC’s social-media pages - he claims he has more than 75 times the number of fans on the VKontakte social network as Network, the pro-Putin youth organisation of the moment - was a mixture of confusion, shock and anger, especially from fans in far-flung regions, where a Noize MC show is a rare and precious event.
Even at a recent show in Moscow, frustration was still resonating among many Noize MC fans.
"It's stupid. It happened because Noize appeared onstage in Ukraine, and they called him a traitor," said Egor Kaluga, 21, who likened the cancellations to something out of Soviet times. "Then, there were persecutions of non-conformist artists, but with Noize MC, there is no politics. He only speaks his opinion - he doesn't organise demonstrations or call on anyone to do anything."
Others said Noize MC was being unfairly targeted because of his popularity - much like Andrei Makarevich, often called Russia’s Paul McCartney. Makarevich had concerts canned after performing this summer for children in eastern Ukraine.
"In Russia, we always have to have a guilty party," said Pyotr Semekevich, 19, explaining that just as Makarevich had been singled out as "a symbol" for his parents' generation, "for us, it’s Noize MC."
As concerts are called off, Russian sociologists are wondering what effect criticising artists such as Noize MC will have on young fans, a generation brought up in an environment of what one called "exaggerated patriotism," in which Putin has held almost unrivaled power.
You can't stop the music
"You cannot ban people from listening to the music that they want to - this is not efficient, and it is dangerous," said Elena Omelchenko, director of the Centre for Youth Studies at Russia’s Higher School of Economics. She said she receives letters from all over Russia asking about banned shows.
If things continue, it could give rise to new youth subcultures, Omelchenko said, much like those that developed during the Soviet Union, when direct bans drove many rock artists and their fans underground.
There is a chance that performers such as Noize MC could lose their audience to other artists. While there are other exceptions, the vast majority of Russian pop stars, as Alekseev put it, "don't protest against anything. They just play music about love."
But the more noise Noize MC makes about the apparent political target on his back, the more his fans are waking to political realities in Russia.
"I don't care about politics, but I care that this is happening and it’s having an influence on my life, my favorite musicians," Elena Talalina, 21, said of the canceled Noize MC concerts. "It's disturbing. But I guess it's normal in this country."