It has taken world-famous ballet dancer Sergei Polunin a few Instagram posts to fall from grace in his native Ukraine, in a collapse as dramatic as his gravity-defying leaps.
The star had already earned himself the “bad boy of ballet” moniker when he shocked the dance world in 2012 by quitting the Royal Ballet, amid reports of drug use and hard partying.
The 2015 YouTube video of Polunin’s dance to Hozier’s Take Me to Church has notched up more than 25 million views.
He has since appeared in Kenneth Branagh’s film of Murder on the Orient Express, as well as alongside Jennifer Lawrence in the Russian-themed spy thriller Red Sparrow.
Now his praise for Vladimir Putin – just as tension with Russia is escalating over the seizure of three Ukrainian boats and their crews – has prompted anger and incredulity back home.
‘I see light when I see him’
As Polunin is no stranger to controversy, social media responded cautiously in September when he uploaded a video to Instagram in which he stood in Moscow’s Red Square and declared he wanted to “unite England, Russia and Ukraine”.
Some Facebook users argued that his devotion to his art left him little aware of developments at home. “This supposedly innocent act shows how detached he is from reality,” one user said.
But another Instagram post on 20 November – his 29th birthday – caused an immediate backlash.
He said Vladimir Putin had been treated unfairly by the media “in some parts of the world”, and proclaimed: “I see light when I see him”.
Some social media users reacted with disbelief, speculating that the account had been hacked but most were furious.
“Let the mothers of our soldiers sing you an ode,” one said, referring to the conflict in the Donbass area of eastern Ukraine, which has been partially seized by Russian-backed insurgents.
Five days later, Polunin went a step further, and posted a photo of his chest emblazoned with a Putin tattoo, and thanked “Vladimir and everyone who is standing for good”.
The Ukrainian celebrity news site Tabloid pointed out that this was the day when Ukraine remembered the millions who starved to death in the Soviet man-made famine of the 1930s. President Putin frequently praises the record of the Soviet Union.
Most online comment in Ukraine was angry, with one social media user suggesting that the dancer should have tattooed a “swastika on his backside” while he was at it.
There have been a handful of posts expressing sympathy for the performer. “I am a Ukrainian, but support Sergei, who is an amazing person and not afraid of public opinion,” wrote one.
The dancer responded the following day by posting an image of the same tattoo, which Ukraine’s One Plus One TV said had been done some time ago, over the comment: “Good has to be as aggressive as evil.”
Polunin’s next step was to announce that he had become a Russian citizen, posting a photo of his new passport on 30 November.
“I am happy to become Russian and to take a stand against evil and unscrupulous people who create revolutions and wars in Ukraine, Georgia and many other countries,” he wrote, prompting more online anger.
Polunin could be seen as just the latest casualty in a “culture war” echoing the real conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Since October, the Ukrainian State Film Agency has banned almost 800 Russian films and TV series that it says glorify the Soviet military or security services, or portray the Soviet Union in a favourable or nostalgic light.
Over a hundred Russian performers have also been blacklisted by Ukraine’s Security Service since 2014 as “posing a threat to national security”, either for trips to annexed Crimea or insurgent-held areas of Donbass, or for public support for President Putin’s policy towards Ukraine.
Ukrainians who continue to perform in Russia, like Eurovision contestant Ani Lorak, or express any sympathy for the annexation of Ukraine have also come in for criticism at home.
Crimean Tatar film director Akhtem Seytablayev dubbed these entertainers “whores” in a YouTube interview, and Deputy Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kyrylenko has warned they could face special tax bills.
Polunin has more recently tried to suggest that the two countries need one another. He posted a photograph of his two passports on 1 December, insisting that “Russia and Ukraine will always be together, no matter how hard they try”.
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