Putin youth protest at 'pornography' in Bolshoi

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Outraged by what they claim is "vulgar pornography", members of a youth movement loyal to the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, have picketed outside the Bolshoi against an experimental new opera.

In scenes reminiscent of China's Cultural Revolution, the pro-Putin activists tore up texts penned by the opera's author - Vladimir Sorokin -- and trampled them in the snow.

The group, called Walking Together, claims that the opera, Rosenthal's Children, will sully Russia's greatest cultural institution and that Sorokin, the librettist, is a "pornographer". Yesterday's action was designed to put pressure on MPs who are conducting an inquiry into the opera's morality after a deputy insisted it should be cancelled and moved elsewhere.

Deputies are due to make up their own minds soon by watching a dress rehearsal. The two-act opera is the first original production to be commissioned by the Bolshoi in almost 30 years. It is due to premiere next week.

It tells the bizarre story of a Soviet scientist called Rosenthal who creates clones of the composers Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Mussorgsky and Verdi. The clones fall on hard times after the collapse of Communism, however, and are forced to busk in a Moscow square.

The storyline is unconventional. Mozart's girlfriend is a soprano called Tanya; she is managed by a baritone pimp working near one of the capital's main railway stations.

Sorokin, a well-known postmodernist author, has courted controversy in the past, notably in his novel Blue Lard which features homosexual scenes between the Soviet leaders Stalin and Khrushchev.

Boris Yakomenko, one of Walking Together's leaders, protested: "A pornographer should never be staged at the Bolshoi. It's the face of the country, a symbol."

Protesters, whose numbers fluctuated between 50 and 150, carried placards reading "Kick the pornographer out of the Bolshoi" and "Deputies defend Russia from pornographers". The management of the Bolshoi has reacted furiously to what it calls attempts at censorship, insisting it will show what it likes when it likes.

Sorokin has said he finds the scandal ludicrous and alarming. "There is nothing vulgar or pornographic in the text," he said. "More than anything such attempts to control culture are reminiscent of the 1930s. The authorities should be ashamed."

The political establishment's distaste for Rosenthal's Children appears to be part of a Kremlin-sponsored campaign to clean up Russia's morals which are deemed to have fallen into disrepute.

The deputy who initiated a parliamentary vote on the opera, Sergei Neverov, is a member of Mr Putin's United Russia party.But the fact that Mr Neverov, a coal miner by profrssion, has criticised the opera without seeing it has irked the Bolshoi's leaders.

The controversy appears to have done little harm to ticket sales, though. Yesterday, only 18 tickets for the premiere were unsold out of more than a thousand.