The party continues

Observations on Estrada

With a reputation for partying almost as much as for politics, Boris Yeltsin would have rejoiced at New Russian determination to enjoy a good time at any cost. But would he have approved of the oligarch who just paid Jennifer Lopez over £1m to perform at his wife's birthday party?

Andrei Melnichenko, 34, a friend of the billionaire owner of Chelsea FC Roman Abramovich, ranks at 258 in the Forbes rich list with an estimated fortune of $2.7bn: he made his money in metals, electrics, banking and fertilisers. He hired Lopez to sing for 40 minutes - £600,000 for the set, £400,000 for her entourage - at a lavish party in the Berkshire countryside last week to celebrate the 30th birthday of his wife, Aleksandra, a Serbian former model (with a passing resemblance to La Lopez). Lopez and co were put up in a London hotel.

Hiring international pop stars for top dollar has become something of a trend in Russia's smartest set. For his wedding in 2005, Melnichenko secured Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera and, perhaps less groovily, Julio and Enrique Iglesias. Not to be outdone, in March last year the oligarch playboy Suleiman Kerimov - number 72 on the Forbes rich list and dubbed "Russia's richest civil servant" - paid a reported £580,000 each to Christina Aguilera and Shakira to sing at his 40th birthday party in Moscow.

Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that, last New Year's Eve, a group of 150 New Russians paid €700,000 a ticket to engage Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Justin Timberlake to entertain them on a flight en route to a Lord of the Rings theme party in Iceland. Mariah Carey, it is reported, has been repeatedly courted by an unnamed oligarch, who keeps sending her £5,000 fur coats (which are rejected as she is an animal rights supporter).

The oligarchs' choice of entertainers - divas, in the main, with big voices and even bigger hair - is not surprising. Super-cool New Russians may not like to be reminded, but their tastes have their origins in "estrada", a Soviet musical tradition that had its heyday in the 1980s.

Estrada divas are Soviet Shakiras: larger than life, in sequins and feathers, with a huge vocal range and the capacity to reduce a red-blooded Russian man to tears.

The queen of the genre, Alla Pugacheva, dubbed Russia's Liza Minnelli, is still going strong after 30 years in the business and has her own shoe and perfume lines. She is so popular that when Russia entered the Eurovision Song Contest in 1997, most people assumed that by choosing her it was a done deal. There was national outrage when she came 15th.

Estrada means "as performed on stage" and refers to the sort of ballads usually classed as musical theatre. Typical themes include falling autumn leaves, snow-bound farewells and, an Alla Pugacheva favourite, a romantic homage to Superman ("I will teach you Russian and you can teach me English. Say after me: balalaika.") Estrada may be old-fashioned, but Putin has often said he is a fan and it still occupies a Saturday night slot on state television.

Which is perhaps why US divas like J-Lo have crowded out home-grown stars at all the oligarchs' parties. Why pay for something you can get for free on prime-time TV? A socialist and a pragmatist, Yeltsin would, one suspects, have rather watched his Russian favourites for nothing.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover