Russians have embraced beauty pageants since the end of the Soviet era, but in recent months at least two beauty queens have triggered media scandal over their criticisms of Russia.
A contestant in a beauty pageant isn't supposed to have any political opinion more incendiary than "peace on earth," and that's probably been a hard-and-fast rule since the first modern one was staged, reportedly by P.T. Barnum in 1854. Russians have taken to beauty contests with enthusiasm since the USSR began collapsing a quarter century ago but it seems that, at least lately, some of the women haven't been getting that memo about steering clear of political controversy.
In recent months at least two top Russian beauty queens have triggered media scandals, and probably irritated the men in the Kremlin, by voicing trenchant opinions about issues that have polarized Russian society.
Worst of all, the views they expressed weren't mainstream.
Over the weekend, newly-crowned "Miss Russia," Elmira Abdrazakova, who is a student at the Siberian Railway University, criticized the two-year prison sentence handed down last summer to two members of the Pussy Riot feminist performance art collective as "too severe."
The Pussy Riot women were arrested after performing a blasphemous anti-Putin "punk prayer" in a mostly-empty church about a year ago. Russian society split sharply over the authorities' subsequent decision to charge the women with a hate crime, which entails serious jail time, rather than a more mundane case of disturbing the peace.
Russian liberals, and much of the world, saw the sentence handed down to Pussy Riot as a stark warning to all Kremlin opponents that "ideological crimes" may once again be subject to harsh punishment in Russia. The Orthodox Church and many nationalists applauded the verdict as a sign that the Kremlin is prepared to use police power to defend the feelings of Russia's conservative majority against what are regarded as insults by "aggressive minorities."
Into this controversy Ms. Abdrazakova stepped gently, but firmly, over the weekend.
"I finished Sunday school and for me, a church is sacred. And to do something like [the Pussy Riot performance] is unacceptable," she said in an interview with the independent Russian News Service. "But the punishment was still too severe. Perhaps they should have just worked with them to change their view of the world."
That remark brought a tough reaction, not only from the conservative precincts of the blogosphere, but from some leaders of the Russian beauty and fashion industry as well.
"I'm really surprised to hear political declaration from these girls. They shouldn't do that," says Irina Berzhnaya, president of Star Lab production agency in Moscow, which specializes in preparing women for beauty pageants.
"I don't think it's a good idea for women who hope to make a career in show business to talk about politics; this will not be good for them. Maybe they're a bit unsure of themselves, and want to get attention," she says.
Abdrazakova, who is of half-Tatar and half-Russian ethnicity, had already inadvertently stirred controversy because of her exotic looks, which some nationalist bloggers insisted were "non-Russian."
The online ethnic slurs against her became so serious after Abdrazakova won the "Miss Russia" crown last week that she had to close down her official page on the popular VKontakte social media site.
"Russian society is becoming intensely politicized, and these girls are getting dragged into it," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "They get asked questions, and they answer them as best they can. A few years ago, no one would have thought of posing questions like this to them, but now anything goes."
Just last November another Russian beauty queen, Natalia Pereverzeva, created a storm of outrage by posting an essay in which she described Russia as a sinking ship, torn apart by the greed and corruption of its ruling elites.
"My Russia – it is a great artery, from which the 'chosen' few people are draining away its wealth," Ms. Pereverzeva wrote. "My Russia is a beggar. My Russia cannot help her elderly and orphans. From it, like from a sinking ship, engineers, doctors, teachers are fleeing, because they have nothing to live on."
Tatiana Andreyeva, organizer of the Krasa Rossii beauty pageants, which sends Russian contestants to the annual Miss Earth contest, says it's perfectly reasonable for a woman to be both beautiful and opinionated, and people should get used to it.
"I know both of those women. Natasha Pereverzeva is a post-graduate student, for heaven's sake, why wouldn't she have views of her own? And Elmira Abdrazakova is a good, strong person who believes in being an active citizen. It's not right to put them in the public spotlight, and then act as though they have no right to speak for themselves.... Maybe this is not typical for beauty queens in most of the world but, then, Russia's not a very typical place," she says.