In The Spotlight

Many people would like to draw back the curtain on the mysterious goings-on at the Kremlin. But who would expect to find a group of Australian Abba impersonators? That was the bizarre setup reported in The Moscow Times and other newspapers last week, after the manager of the band Björn Again gave interviews about a secret gig for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Valdai.

It's quite rare for a top Russian politician to write a letter to The Times of London, although wouldn't it be nice if they joined in the heated discussions on the first cuckoo of spring, why Harry isn't a proper name and the collective noun for a group of gnu. But it was only on this occasion of national importance that Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov made an exception, writing a surprisingly snappy letter to The Times denying that the prime minister ever tapped a toe to Björn Again — with or without arm movements — and explaining that he is, in fact, "more of a Beatles fan."

There was certainly room for a case of mistaken identity, since all the reports said that the band performed behind a gauze curtain, which allowed the audience to see them with the stage lights up, but made it hard to see the other way. It's an intriguing detail, suggesting that whoever did pay for the concert was pretty sure that a group of Australian Abba imitators would know his face. But who knows, perhaps he just wasn't ready for the full glare of their outfits in "Mamma Mia."

It was fun while it lasted, and The Sun even wrote an opinion piece drawing conclusions on Putin's sexual preferences based on his musical tastes. The headline was "Sing If You're Vlad To Be Gay." The article also drew on other vital evidence, such as Putin wearing fingerless leather gloves. To be fair, The Sun changes its tune almost as often as Björn Again and previously ran features on Putin's choice of nubile "ru-Belles" as Duma deputies and the prospect of his tying the knot with "flexible" ex-gymnast Alina Kabayeva.

Peskov's letter encouraged Times readers to turn to the web site of the Russian government and read about Putin's meeting with composer Andrew Lloyd Webber to get a sense of his real musical taste. Some might see that as an even more dubious admission than a liking for reheated Abba, but Lloyd Webber did indeed get an audience with his nibs in November, and the photos on the web site show the two hobnobbing in uncomfortable chairs.

Putin talks of his "special feeling" for the Beatles and also shows himself to be frighteningly well-briefed by saying Britain won the Eurovision Song Contest five times. I liked his dry response to a jokey comment by Lloyd Webber that many British entries to the contest have "occupied a niche in history, but not the kind of niche we had hoped for." Putin parried, "You said it, not me."

As Eurovision looms ever closer, this week also saw the return of last year's winner, Dima Bilan, to the front page headlines. He told Komsomolskaya Pravda that he is finally going to make good on his promise last year to marry his girlfriend Lena Kuletskaya if he won the contest.

I've always had a certain skepticism about this relationship, which seems to get wheeled out only at convenient opportunities. I'm not saying that Bilan wears fingerless gloves, but most people don't base their marital decisions on a Europewide televised vote. If you read the Komsomolskaya Pravda report, however, Bilan has bought the ring and will make the announcement on St. Valentine's Day. Let's hope she doesn't read KP, then.