The US rock band Bloodhound Gang has been banned from performing in Russia, beaten up by Cossacks, and could find itself facing criminal charges after one of the group jokingly desecrated a Russian flag during a concert in Ukraine.
The incident suggests that as Russia-US relations plummet to a post-cold war low, unscripted moments like this, as well as the ongoing Edward Snowden saga, are increasingly shaping public perceptions on both sides. And the results can be unpredictable.
The scandal erupted after a video surfaced on YouTube of the band's bassist, Jared Hasselhoff, shouting "don't tell Putin" before shoving a Russian flag into his pants during a July 31 concert in Odessa, Ukraine.
He later apologized, suggesting the stunt was just part of his usual onstage schtick. Seconds after the act occurred, the band's leader, Jimmy Pop, told the audience that he "disagrees" with what Mr. Hasselhoff had just done because "unfortunately, Russia is better than America."
None of those contradictory signals appear to have made it through to the Russian media or blogosphere, where a storm of outrage erupted over the footage of the flag being grossly disrespected.
Bloodhound Gang was scheduled to perform Friday at the Kubana Festival, an annual event featuring about 50 international rock bands, held in Anapa, in the Kuban region of southern Russia. But as they arrived, local authorities were receiving instructions from Moscow to bar their performance.
"I've had a conversation with the Krasnodar region authorities. Bloodhound Gang is packing their suitcases," Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky tweeted Friday.
"These idiots will not perform in Kuban," he said.
As Bloodhound Gang headed for Anapa airport to leave the next day, their minivan was reportedly pelted with eggs and rotten tomatoes by demonstrators who wielded signs with slogans like "Go home, Pigs" and "Get out of Russia." Inside the airport they were attacked by a gang of self-described Cossacks who later posted a YouTube video showing them apparently trying to strangle Hasselhoff with an American flag – which they later placed on the floor and stomped on.
The US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, issued a hand-wringing tweet Sunday, saying "I find the actions of Bloodhound Gang disgusting. I also condemn the act of violence against them."
But on Monday the Kremlin's Investigative Committee, the country's highest law enforcement body, stepped in to announce that it was launching a criminal investigation into the affair.
"Given the cynicism of the crime, expressing blatant disrespect to the Russian state [the Investigative Committee] is organizing a procedural probe into this matter," the statement said. It added that it might appeal to US legal authorities for assistance in the investigation.
Some Russian lawmakers have suggested that Hasselhoff's act was not simply a bit of spontaneous buffoonery, but might have been a "planned provocation" by some anti-Russian forces.
"The organizers of such arrivals should bear full responsibility for what happened and enraged Russian citizens," the State Duma's vice speaker Sergei Neverov told journalists Sunday.
"There are questions to those who invited them to Russia, to those who organized their concerts, offered venues, paid for their activities. Whose orders did the group fulfill? Those who paid them money and they did what they did. Like Madonna did in her time… These are all parts of one chain,” Mr. Neverov is quoted as saying.
Madonna infuriated Russian conservatives by publicly supporting the imprisoned Russian performance art group Pussy Riot during a visit to Moscow a year ago. She and Lady Gaga have become regular objects for abuse by right-wing Russian bloggers because of their outspoken support for gay rights, amid a growing crackdown on LGBT expression in Russia.
So it's no surprise that over the weekend Russian authorities also announced that they are investigating Madonna and Lady Gaga for allegedly violating the terms of their visas when each visited Russia to hold performances last year.
Amid the outpouring of righteous fury over Hasselhoff's act of flag-desecration, it's hard to find any Russian with an alternative opinion.
But Natalia Zimyanina, music critic for the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta, says she worries that public anger will be channeled by the powerful Russian Orthodox Church and other conservative forces to install a new "iron curtain" to once again shut Russia off from Western cultural influences.
"A national flag is to be respected, those are the rules of all humanity. And it's clear that this overgrown child [Hasselhoff] has caused a lot of damage with his stupid act," says Ms. Zimyanina.
"But I worry that our authorities haven't a clue about the nature of punk art. Provocations are an integral part of it, and as we saw in the Pussy Riot case, it has a way of exposing raw nerves in our society," Zimyanina says. "That can be painful, but it's the reaction of the authorities that we should be most worried about.... I fear this incident will become a pretext to close the Kubana Festival itself. It's a wonderful festival, we don't have any others like it in Russia anymore. Our authorities are scared of rock festivals, and always terrified that rock musicians might say or do something odd," she says.