It has been a tough week for punk rockers in Vladimir Putin's Russia. The irreverent U.S. rock band Bloodhound Gang has been kicked out of the country for defiling the national flag, and criminal charges have been brought against the group's bass player, Jared Hasselhoff.
On Aug. 2, the Bloodhound Gang was playing in Odessa, Ukraine. For some reason, a Russian flag was displayed backstage. When Ukrainian fans started booing, Hasselhoff pulled down the tricolor. Saying "Don't tell Putin," he unzipped his fly, stuffed the flag down his boxers and pulled it out from behind. Then he tossed it into the audience, which made approving noises.
The lead singer, Jimmy Pop, made a point of disagreeing with his bandmate. "Russia is better than America," he said. "I disapprove of that, 'cause America sucks, like every ex-girlfriend I ever had."
That made no difference: A disastrous chain of events had already been set into motion. The offending video was soon on YouTube, and Bloodhound Gang's scheduled concert in the Krasnodar region in Southern Russia was not to be.
"I talked to the leaders of the Krasnodar region," Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky wrote on Twitter soon after the Odessa show. "The rock band Bloodhound Gang is packing its bags. These idiots will not play" in Russia.
Krasnodar Governor Alexander Tkachev was upset, too. On Aug. 2 and Aug. 3, he fired off no fewer than 11 messages on Twitter expressing his disgust with the American band.
When the Bloodhound Gang actually crossed the border into Russia and arrived at the town of Anapa, where the concert was to take place, locals attacked them everywhere they went despite their attempts to apologize. Pop explained, rather lamely, that the musicians were just trying to "appease their fans" and that the band had a tradition: Everything that was tossed into the audience at their shows had to "go through the bass player's pants."
"They had to flee the hotel in disgrace, out the back door, but even there people were waiting for them, and at the airport, too," Governor Tkachev exulted on Twitter. "They got off lightly. They ought to be behind bars for stunts like these. And by the way, let them wipe themselves on their apologies."
Russian soil was suddenly burning under the feet of the musicians, who had hoped to command stadium-sized audiences here. The Federal Migration Service cut short the musicians' visas. On Aug. 5, the police opened a criminal investigation into the Odessa incident -- though the Bloodhound Gang had already flown out of Russia via Moscow.
"It is obvious to everyone that such actions are a crime in any country of the world," Irina Yarovaya, head of the parliamentary anti-corruption and security committee, told the website of the ruling United Russia party. "They will not be able to justify themselves before Russian citizens by referring to their originality and eccentricity. We all understand that this is premeditated criminal activity."
Another Russian parliament member, Ruslan Gattarov, demanded that Bloodhound Gang members be permanently banned from Russia.
Lest the incident take on diplomatic proportions and further strain already tense U.S.-Russian relations, U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul distanced himself from the band on Twitter: "I find the Bloodhound Gang's act disgusting. I also condemn the violence against them."
Absurd as the whole story may seem, it is indicative of a few sad truths about both Americans and Russians. If Jimmy Pop had been a bit more aware of post-Soviet political geography, he might not have hung a Russian flag on a Ukrainian stage. And had Hasselhoff bothered to consider the laws of the country where he was planning to perform, he would have known that defiling the Russian flag is a crime punishable by up to one year in prison. In short, the authors of such lyrics as "You and me, baby, ain't nothing but mammals" reaffirmed the stereotype of Americans as an ignorant bunch.
The Russian reaction reinforced the stereotype of a nation ever nursing its wounded pride. A punk rocker trying to be outrageous is hardly a serious threat to Russian statehood. It hardly seems a matter worthy of so much official attention. The inferiority complexes of the rulers of a lost empire are evident in the universal hounding of the Bloodhound Gang.
Neither party seems about to learn its lesson.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter.)