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Why This Austrian Drag Queen Is the New Bête Noire of Putin Cronies

Russia's leading politicians have a stark warning for Ukraine and it involves a bearded lady who just took home top honors in Europe's annual tribute to kitschy stage acts, Eurovision.

Over the weekend, Conchita Wurst, an Austrian drag queen, won the annual competition with her song "Rise Like a Phoenix." That turn of events has two Russian politicians warning countries seeking closer relations with Europe that their future holds nothing but moral decay and decadence. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted that Wurst's victory "showed supporters of European integration their European future: a bearded girl."

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalist legislator, did him one better by speculating aloud whether perhaps the Red Army should have remained in Austria and fought to prevent such a breakdown in morals. "Fifty years ago, the Soviet Army occupied Austria.... We should have stayed there," Zhirinovsky said. "It's the end of Europe. It has turned wild."

But nevermind those outbursts: Wurst's victory is being hailed as a symbol of growing acceptance in Europe for gays and lesbians. "This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in peace and freedom," Wurst said, trophy in hand. "You know who you are. We are unity, and we are unstoppable." (Her name, Wurst, literally translates as "sausage" but is also a reference to a German slang term meaning roughly "who cares?")

Here's her winning performance:

But why are two Putin cronies concerning themselves with a trashy European singing contest? In his attempt to build a new ideological foundation for the Russian state, Russian President Vladimir Putin has rushed headlong into the embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was harshly oppressed during Soviet times. By casting himself as a defender of traditional Russian values, the church has played a bit part in Putin's attempt to define his country against the West. Russia, Putin frequently argues, stands opposed to the moral decadence of the West.

It's a clever ploy. By playing on widespread homophobia in Russia, Putin has stumbled upon a group upon which he can project all his country's fears. It's an old tactic, and Putin plays the role of enforcer well, for example passing a law outlawing homosexual "propaganda." It is no accident that the performance that landed the punk band Pussy Riot in jail occurred in an Orthodox church.

The leadership of the church has described growing acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage as a sign of the coming apocalypse and has strongly endorsed Moscow's crackdown on gays, lesbians and transgendered Russians.

So when a moment like this weekend's Eurovision win comes along, Putin's cronies of course jump at the opportunity to join in on some state-sanctioned homophobia. Moreover, the comments have an obvious target: eastern Ukraine. While their true motives may lie elsewhere, Putin and his allies have attempted to describe their annexation of Crimea and efforts to foment unrest in eastern Ukraine as an effort to stop the spread of Western values and decadence. More broadly, Putin's expansionist doctrine can be seen as part of a project to restore a greater Russia rooted in the country's Orthodox history.

Either way, the West, on this reading, is collapsing in on itself amid moral decay. Putin and a culturally conservative Russia, meanwhile, stand ready to defend a more old-fashioned set of values, one which don't particularly like the notion of a sequined drag queen being feted on televisions across Europe.

But controversy wasn't limited to Wurst, as this year's Eurovision contest was among the most politicized in recent memory. Against the backdrop of the crisis in Ukraine, Russia's act, the twin Tolmachevy Sisters, were booed by the crowd in Copenhagen. That wholesome-looking pair finished close behind the Ukrainian submission, one of the more hyped geopolitical subplots of this year's contest. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan and Armenia put on a good show of mutual distaste, ranking each other's acts last.

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

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Selfie, Putin-Style: Tanks, Planes, and Nukes Mark Victory Day

Sixty-nine years have passed since the end of World War II, and on Friday Russia put on an incredible show to mark the occasion. In a deep-throated paean to military might, the country's armed forces paraded their hardware through the streets of Moscow. The spectacle of Victory Day provided a moment for President Vladimir Putin to deliver a perfect visual metaphor for a resurgent Russia.

From tanks to fighter planes to intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers to goose-stepping troops, the Russian army proved itself fully fluent in the visual language of power. With Russian troops massing on Ukraine's border and the Crimean peninsula fully in Moscow's hands, this year's Victory Day went far beyond the usual commemorations of Russian sacrifices during what is known as the Great Patriotic War in Russia and as World War II virtually everywhere else.

For an American audience, the importance of the holiday might be difficult to understand, but the scale of Soviet losses during the war -- an estimated 27 million deaths -- means that huge swaths of Russia lost a friend or relative during the war. While the United States is no stranger to tributes to military might, the Russian holiday is on a far larger scale than its American equivalent, Memorial Day. In a moving remembrance of her own family's experience during the war, the New Republic's Julia Ioffe gives a sense of how deeply the war is still felt in Russian society, nearly seven decades after the guns fell silent.

Today, the political significance of Friday's events in Moscow can't be disconnected from the continuing unrest in eastern Ukraine. The day -- and its political significance -- might be summed up in the following two videos. The first is an AP summary of the Moscow parade. Be sure to consider the scale of military might on display here:

The second video comes to us from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, where a gunfight broke out between elements of the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists. The following news report shows footage from the running gun battles on the city's streets. The footage is the latest testament to unrest in the country's east, which U.S. officials say has been largely orchestrated by Russia as a pretext for a possible invasion:

Taken together, these two videos show the two sides of military power that Putin has put into play during the Ukrainian crisis -- the conventional forces perched on Ukraine's border and the special forces and intelligence operatives allegedly fomenting unrest inside Ukraine's borders.

Meanwhile in Slavyansk, a city in eastern Ukraine still under the control of pro-Russian militants, a group of separatists decided to roll out a set of armored personnel carriers seized from the Ukrainian army. Needless to say, they looked pretty pleased with themselves:

In what might be described as the day's crowning video, the Kremlin-funded RT network put out a magnificent piece of propaganda showing Putin arriving in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. While there, he reviewed elements of the Russian navy and delivered remarks defending his decision to annex the peninsula from Ukraine. "I think 2014 will also be an important year in the annals of Sevastopol and our whole country, as the year when people living here firmly decided to be together with Russia and thus confirmed their faith in the historic memory of our forefathers," Putin said.

While in Crimea, Putin took in a performance by a group of Russian fighter aces. The strongman looks wonderfully bored:

Throughout the day, the Russian government delivered a similarly blunt message of military might. The image below was posted on Twitter by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. It shows a mobile ICBM launcher. Few more terrifying military devices exist in the world:

For ordinary Russians, Friday was also a day to indulge in a bit of Soviet nostalgia, embodied here by a wonderful little dance performed in Soviet-era military garb:

And we defy you to find a more fabulous band leader:

Meanwhile, here's video from the reviewing stand in Moscow, which gives a sense of the power projected by troops marching in formation and at speed:

And if there was ever any doubt, the selfie phenomenon has decisively arrived in Moscow. This correspondent can report that the day's most frequent trend on Russian social media networks involved selfies of Russian women in Red Army caps. This post very easily could have involved nothing more than a collection of myriad selfies featuring beautiful Russian women in Red Army gear. Instead, we end with this postcard from Moscow:

SERGEI ILNITSKY/EPA