Among the more pressing international disputes of the week is the question of whether Vladimir Putin rang up Elton John. John’s Instagram post on the matter is pretty unambiguous—“Thank-you to President Vladimir Putin for reaching out and speaking via telephone with me today,” he wrote Monday. “I look to forward to meeting with you face-to-face to discuss LGBT equality in Russia.” But a representative for the Kremlin later said that the call never happened.
The alleged communication would have followed a conversation between John and the Ukranian leader Petro Poroshenko about the subject of gay rights, after which the singer told the BBC he wished he could have a similar chat with Putin about Russia’s laws targeting “gay propaganda.”
If Putin did indeed reach out to Elton John, rather than to any of the many other Western celebrities who have decried Russia’s treatment of gays in the past few years, it wouldn’t be the strangest thing in the world. John has a long relationship with the country—historical roots, many fans, musical compatibility. In 1979, he became the first major Western pop star to perform in there, and Cold War tensions were high. “I knew we were being watched all the time: I had an interpreter that they’d clearly set up,” John recalled to The Guardian in 2013. “Actually, I ended up having sex with him on the roof of my hotel.”
In recent years, John has resisted calls for Western stars to boycott the country—and defied Russian antigay protestors—by making pro-LGBT political statements during his tour stops there. “‘On one hand, I want to say, ‘I’m not going and you can go to hell, you guys,’” he told Terry Gross two years ago. “But that’s not helping anyone who’s gay or transgendered over there … I’ve always had a wonderful rapport with the Russian audiences and with the Russian people … I, as a gay man and a gay musician, cannot stay at home and not support these people who have been to lots of my concerts in the past.”
Is it strange that an openly gay performer like John would have a fervent fanbase in Russia, given its reputation for homophobia? Not necessarily. As The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan has written, “whereas flamboyant artists might be marginalized in other, similarly conservative nations, Russians heartily embrace performers that embody anything other than the country’s avowed heteronormative ideals. From Sergey Zverev, who sings decked out in long blond tresses and blush, to Zemfira, a fierce tomboy rumored to be having an affair with an actress, many of the country’s most renowned musicians are (or appear to be) gay, bisexual, or cross-dressing.”
Another point: Putin plays piano.