MOSCOW — It was one of the most bizarre concerts the ABBA tribute group Bjorn Again had ever played. It wasn’t because they were playing for a VIP — they had done that before. Nor was it the tiny audience.
Rather, it was the gauze curtain that separated them from their audience — eight men and one woman in a secure compound in rural Russia, one of whom they were convinced was Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Members of the audience could see the sequins, flares and glitter of the group, but the fake ABBA could not make out through the gauze who was sitting on the three sofas at Lake Valdai, 200 kilometers (124 miles) north of Moscow.
Knowing me but not knowing you, as it were.
Someone rang up late last year "going this is the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia; we want Bjorn Again for a concert," explained Rod Stephen, the founder of Bjorn Agan. "I really thought someone was sending me up."
Before the gig, the performers were told that it was a concert for the No. 2 man in Russia. And on Jan. 22, the group was driven to Lake Valdai, a nine-hour drive from the airport.
The security was not what the group was used to — they were warned that their telephone conversations would be bugged and were told not to wander around. "When one member tried to go for a walk outside they said ‘We suggest you don’t do that — there are snipers about,’" Stephen said.
Another organizer in Russia confirmed Stephen’s account.
Was the concert for Putin? Yes.
Did the government pay for it? No — the payment came from non-state funds. Putin likes Abba, the organizer added.
When the story hit the British papers and my paper, The Moscow Times, the Russian authorities began to pay a lot of attention to this small concert, even though it was hardly making waves in Russia.
Although it may sound like harmless gossip, there are serious questions about who paid for the concert and whether a prime minister should accept such largesse in a country where billions of dollars have been stolen, where the press is heavily controlled, and where it would be naive to think there would ever be much scandal over a private concert.
And after all, compared to the amount spent by other public figures, a fee of £20,000 (about $29,000) is small potatoes. Deep Purple, Dmitry Medvedev’s favorite group, was hired to play at a concert organized by energy giant Gazprom last year. Oligarchs hire the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera and George Michael to play for millions of dollars, rather than hiring cheaper, pale copies of the stars.
But for some reason, the accusation stung Putin, even though the prime minister has been accused of far, far worse in the foreign papers. He’s been accused of being worth billions of dollars, of complicity in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, of war crimes in Chechnya. These accusations have all been denied, but never so fast as his attendance at a concert by Bjorn Again.
The story prompted Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, to write to The Moscow Times denying that Putin had attended the concert, saying that Putin had a cabinet meeting at the time and that he actually preferred The Beatles.
Bjorn Again founder Stephen, meanwhile, was telling CNN that the Russian organizers were telling him not to talk, as the Kremlin was coming down hard on them. This week, Stephen refused to comment, although he still insists that his version is true.
In his letter, Peskov pointed to an interview Putin gave to the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who is writing Britain’s entry for this year’s Eurovision song contest, which Moscow will host. (Eurovision is a sort of "European Idol" in which countries furnish groups to represent them in a televised contest in which each country calls in votes.)
In the transcript posted on Putin’s website, the pair talk of The Beatles and Putin confesses his admiration for Webber’s music, saying that he saw the musical "Cats" when working as a KGB spy in Germany.
"We are grateful to you for your work and for the pleasure you gave us in the past," Putin said.
If you read the interview carefully, Putin shows a remarkable knowledge of the Eurovision song contest, which is famous for its cheesey, camp pop. This speaks either of an excellent briefing team or a love of the contest. What is the most famous group to emerge from the contest? ABBA, who won in 1974 with "Waterloo."
Coincidentally, "Waterloo" was the second song played on the fateful night in Valdai.