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“Look at the guys coming back from the special military operation. . . they are not going to jump without pants at a party,” Vladimir Putin said earlier this month – after his statement with a chuckle.
The infamous “almost naked” party at Moscow techno club Mutabor in December has been the hottest topic in Russia for weeks, plunging the country’s leading pop stars, party guests, from a life of glamor to shame and public opprobrium. The event, during which guests walked around in semi-transparent clothing and jewelry worth as much as an apartment in the capital, provoked the ire of the Russian president, who believes that so much nudity and excess are not suitable for a country at war.
Putin was particularly enraged by a video of guests pretending to lick a Balenciaga sock that the otherwise naked rapper Vacio was wearing on his nether regions. “The inhabitants of the provinces suffer from war and inflation. . . and here you are in Moscow, licking penises,” an ally explained to Russian media Agentstvo.
Revelers, desperate to show their contrition, are now recording apology videos, fending off legal action, traveling to annexed Donbass and even risk being sent to the trenches of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.
A few years ago, an event like this would have barely registered. However, since the large-scale implementation invasion of Ukrainethe Kremlin’s moral compass has changed dramatically – although few people were prepared for it because, on the surface at least, life in Moscow has not changed much.
When Mutabor opened in 2019, the annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in Donbass were already in the past and seemed distant to the capital’s revelers. Mutabor, who regularly threw queer parties and tolerated drug use, fashioned an alternative, more “progressive” Russia, seemingly sheltered from the Kremlin’s conservative ideology.
The party extended beyond the club or Moscow. In 2021, I stood in line for an Aperol Spritz alongside journalists now labeled “foreign agents” at a traveling circus-themed party hosted by Yandex, the Russian tech giant. It was a hot midnight in St. Petersburg, and several federal officials were among the party guests. I even spotted Maria Zakharova, press secretary for the Russian Foreign Ministry, peering into a two-meter aquarium where a nearly naked gymnast twisted and turned, hanging from a large hook.
At that time, Russia had already taken a conservative turn: laws against “LGBT propaganda” and “insulting the feelings of believers” marked a decisive shift towards traditional values. Yet many believed it to be a Potemkin facade created for the masses, behind which the elite could maintain their extravagant lifestyles – as long as they avoided politics. Their uncertainty was reinforced by widespread confusion about the real nature of the values being promoted.
The state’s attempt to define its new restrictions has done little to help. They prioritized “spiritual over material,” “patriotism,” and “strong family ties,” the latter of which is particularly ironic since Putin himself is divorced and refuses to talk about his daughters. These ideals also do not match public opinion: Levada Center pollsters report that when asked to identify social ills, Russians consistently cite rising prices, poverty and corruption, rather than LGBT activists.
The plight of “progressive” Russia is perhaps best symbolized by the GES-2, a former power station transformed into a contemporary art museum designed by Renzo Piano and opening in 2021, just months before the invasion of Ukraine. It could have been Moscow’s Pompidou Center, but the war deterred foreigners and caused many local artists to emigrate, leaving the project worth at least $300 million as an empty shell.
However, the nearly naked party attendees suffer an even worse fate. Vasio, the rap singer whose outfit so angered Putin, was sent to prison for disorderly conduct, fined for “spreading LGBTQ propaganda,” then, in a sign of the times, summoned to a military recruiting center . The organizer of the event, TV presenter Nastya Ivleeva, avoided two multimillion-dollar lawsuits, but lost commercial sponsors.
Other partygoers, fearing that their presence would prevent them from performing on screen or being allowed back on air, made very public donations to bombing victims. Club owner Mutabor surprised everyone by donating the relics of St Nicholas – which he claimed came from the Vatican – to a local church. It later turned out that the relics were probably fake; a Moscow court, unmoved by his action, temporarily closed the club for non-compliance with hygiene standards.
It seems fitting that in today’s Russia, Mutabor, meaning “I will be changed” in Latin, has failed to change social attitudes. Instead, it changed the lives of the Russian elite – and not in the way they hoped.