Pop stars are no strangers to bad behavior. Smashed guitars, ruined hotel rooms, heads bitten off bats -- such misdeeds are chuckled over later, written up in the tabloids, perhaps listed on invoices for damage. Not so in Russia, where the public expects its performers to remember that they walk in Tchaikovsky's footsteps.
Thus when pop rock superstar Philip Kirkorov outrageously insulted a reporter from a small regional newspaper at a news conference -- calling her an unprintable name, mocking her southern accent, telling her that he was "tired of you, irritated by your pink blouse, your [breasts] and your microphone" -- much of the nation rose to her defense.
Television and radio stations announced that they would no longer play Kirkorov's music. Homemakers started a petition campaign to have him barred from Rostov-on-Don, the idyllic southern town where 34-year-old Irina Aroyan writes for the local weekly. Hundreds of letters and phone calls of support flooded in to her desk, most of them wondering how a Russian man worth his vodka could sully the honor of a woman, defenseless save for her pen.
"The eternal Russia, the Russia of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, is alive and well," Russian Information Agency political analyst Dmitri Kosyrev wrote this week after a poll showed that the popularity of Kirkorov, often known as "the King of Russian Pop," had plunged by 37 percentage points since the May 20 news conference.
On Wednesday, a district court judge found Kirkorov, 37, guilty of public insult, which is a criminal offense, and fined him $2,000. Aroyan said it was a victory for the entire Russian justice system. "Russia is actually becoming a civilized country after all," she said after Judge Irina Vladimirova found that the artist "deliberately insulted her, using foul language."
"It was extremely important to see the Russian court system say no to money and power," Aroyan added.
Kirkorov's lawyer, Alexander Korobchansky, said the musician would appeal. "No one in the Russian Federation sued a famous soccer player when he used the same foul language in front of TV cameras," he said. "Philip Kirkorov behaved indecently. No one is arguing with that. But he should be held civilly liable, not guilty of a criminal offense."
Kirkorov, known for his sequined outfits, laser-light concerts and schmaltzy love songs, may well be Russia's most popular male pop star.
The trouble started when Aroyan, a relatively inexperienced reporter who does not regularly cover the entertainment industry, asked Kirkorov why he seemed to do so many remakes of previously recorded material. Was there a lack of good new composers?
Kirkorov demanded to know which remakes she was talking about, then ordered her to leave when, flustered, she couldn't remember any. "One should come to a pop star's press conference prepared," he said. "Yesterday you were somewhere in the street, and today you are here in the second row."
As Aroyan gathered her things and said "goodbye," he taunted her in what many described as a mockery of a southern Russian accent. Then he uttered a word for female genitalia.
Outside, Kirkorov's bodyguards grabbed the petite, dark-haired woman, held her wrists behind her back, covered her mouth with their hands and seized the flash card from her camera.
Since then, the case of the reporter and the pop star has been regular fare in the tabloids, and on talk TV. Letters have come in from Russians living as far away as Australia and Canada. "So many people, poor people, ordinary people, called our newspaper and gave their support," Aroyan said in an interview.
Kirkorov's managers have accused Aroyan of trying to provoke a scene to further her career. The artist regarded the reporter as unprepared and unprofessional, said his spokesman, Nikolai Stepanov.
"When a person just flings these accusations into his face, accusing him of having stolen these songs ... that doesn't work," Stepanov said. "Remakes are such a customary thing in the music world.... But in Russia, this is for some reason considered savage and uncivilized, when you give a second life to a great song."
In a confrontation on a television talk show, the pop star and the journalist met by satellite linkup. Aroyan cried; Kirkorov was defensive. "The only thing that I reproach myself for is the fact that I lost control," he said.
Kirkorov issued a public apology to his fans -- but not to Aroyan. This point has seemed to play on the public's unease with the post-Soviet nouveau riche -- many complain that public civility largely disappeared with communism.
"The scandal is like a hot iron in the open wound of Russians who blame free-market reforms and other events that have taken place in the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union ... for moral decadence," Kosyrev wrote.
Talking quietly at a sidewalk cafe one evening this week, Aroyan was repeatedly interrupted by well-wishers. "With all our hearts and all our souls, we stand up for you," one young man said from the next table.
"You see, I'm just a journalist from Rostov-on-Don.... We have the psychology of small fries, who shouldn't be fighting against the strong ones of this world," Aroyan said. "But I hate being insulted, and it doesn't matter whether it was a janitor or a president."
Kirkorov, for his part, has renamed his current tour "King of the Remakes" and has come out with a new CD single with remixes of the crucial news conference sound bites put to music and spun by famous DJs. A bonus track features the full video version.
Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.