Russian critic faces prison for calling 'pro-Kremlin' star a poodle

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The Independent Online

In his career as Russia's foremost rock music critic, Artemy Troitsky has got used to a turbulent relationship with those in power – grappling with Soviet-era censorship and yet raising funds for Chernobyl victims. But it is unlikely he imagined he would find himself facing a jail term for calling an allegedly pro-Kremlin guitarist a "poodle".

Troitsky, 55, one of Russia's top cultural commentators, will enter a Moscow court room today for the start of an action brought against him by a prominent musician under a rarely-used charge of criminal slander which carries a sentence of two years in prison.

The prosecution is one of four court cases being brought against him, which he and supporters say are evidence of a Kremlin-sponsored crackdown on dissent in Russian artistic circles – one of a dwindling number of areas where critics of Moscow's increasingly authoritarian elite express discontent.

Mr Troitsky, lauded for his gritty insights into Soviet music, has become increasingly vocal on the environmental and political transgressions of politicians and oligarchs. But his latest court room adversary comes in the form of a mop-haired former member of Agata Kristi, a well-known gothic rock band.

Vadim Samoylov, the group's singer and guitarist until it disbanded last year, says he was slandered when Mr Troitsky referred to him in a television documentary as a "trained poodle for Surkov" – a reference to Vladislav Surkov, deputy chief of staff to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and a rock music fan who had previously worked with Mr Samoylov on an album. Mr Samoylov, 46, who sits in the Public Chamber, a consultative body appointed by the Kremlin and legislators to scrutinise new laws, has launched a separate civil case against Mr Troitsky claiming damages of a million roubles (£22,000).

Mr Troitsky told The Independent: "I am facing up to two years' imprisonment for calling a person a 'poodle'. It is truly absurd, like something out of Kafka... This is an attack on the freedom to comment and criticise by artists, journalists and others."

The preliminary hearing today is likely to see judges call for some expert evidence on whether describing Mr Samoylov as a "poodle" constitutes a criminal offence.

Mr Samoylov has declined to make any public comment on the issue, but in his lawsuit he claims that a "poodle is a dog" and that "dog, when applied to a person, is an insult".

Even an acquittal, or a conviction punished by a fine rather than a term of imprisonment, will not be an end to the troubles of Mr Troitsky, whose case has been highlighted in Britain by the campaign group Index on Censorship.

The critic, who was founding editor of the Russian edition of Playboy in 1995, but who has more recently become an outspoken campaigner on issues such as plans to build a motorway through a forest in the Moscow region, was last month handed a 130,000 rouble (£2,800) fine for describing a policeman as the "worst cop" of the year at a mock awards ceremony.

The police officer has also launched a criminal slander case against Mr Troitsky over criticism of his investigation of a fatal car crash involving a prominent oil executive, whose driver was cleared of blame despite an eye witness claiming the car swerved into oncoming traffic to jump a queue of vehicles.

Mr Troitsky said: "I am no politician but I have watched how political opposition in Russia has been neutered. There is so much frustration at the grassroots. I will not be made to shut up, I won't give in to pressure."

The rock critic, who helped to organise Russia's first Live Aid-style concert for victims of Chernobyl in 1986, has become the latest cultural figure to incur the displeasure of his critics.

Two members of a radical art collective known as Voina were arrested last year after stunts including a public orgy in protest at the election of Mr Medvedev and the painting of a 65-metre penis on a movable bridge situated opposite the St Petersburg HQ of the FSB, the KGB's successor.