Russian President Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg in September | Dmitri Lovetsky/AFP via Getty ImagesFor now, it’s unclear if this is just a brief reprieve for musicians who refuse to toe the Kremlin’s line, or an end to the clampdown.What’s most likely is that the confused messages signal disagreements between the presidential administration and security services on how best to deal with Russian musicians who are pushing the limits, said Alexander Verkhovsky, the head of the human rights group Sova, which monitors the misuse of anti-extremist laws in Russia.But the issue, he insists, has wider implications for freedom of speech, already severely curtailed since Putin came to power almost 19 years ago: “The result of this dispute is important,” he says. “And not only for rappers.”Marc Bennetts is a Moscow-based journalist and author of “I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives: Inside Putin’s War on Russia’s Opposition” (Oneworld, 2016). Also On POLITICO ‘Putin is in control’ By Matthew Karnitschnig Opinion Why Putin isn’t sweating the midterms By Dmitri Trenin Husky, whose real name is Dmitry Kuznetsov, appeared in court the next day on charges of disorderly conduct and was sentenced to 12 days behind bars. Video footage of his arrest and court appearance went viral.The rapper isn’t the only one to have fallen foul of Russian authorities. For months, police officers have been breaking up dozens of concerts, often violently, from Siberia to western Russia.Raids have involved officers from the FSB security service, the successor to the KGB, as well as the interior ministry’s anti-extremism unit, commonly known as Centre E. The day before Husky’s arrest in Krasnodar, Centre E officers allegedly forced club owners in Rostov-on-Don, near Russia’s border with Ukraine, to pull the plug on his performance by threatening to plant drugs on the premises.These incidents may not be the most shocking example of injustice in Russia in recent years, but Moscow’s crackdown on music — mainly, but not exclusively rap — is the newest front in the ongoing war waged by authorities against young people opposed to the Kremlin’s attempts to impose its ultra-conservative ideology on all aspects of their lives, from art to sex.Last week, Vitaly Khelnitsky, a senior police official, told a parliamentary roundtable discussion there should be lengthy bans for musicians whose music promotes “violence, sex and the use of narcotics.” Cancelling concerts and blocking offending music videos online was a means to ensure “the preservation in our country of the moral and spiritual conditions for the education of young people,” he claimed. “A new generation of musicians and artists who speak freely about various topics has appeared, and it seems that some people don’t like this because they view it as a threat,” Anastasia Kreslina, the vocalist of the band Ic3peak, said. “It seems they are afraid of some kind of cultural revolution.”* * *When rap first made its way onto Russian airwaves in the 1990s, authorities considered it an exotic, largely innocuous musical genre more concerned with partying than politics. Until recently, some rappers were even happy to be seen supporting Putin. In 2015, Timati, one of Russian hip-hop’s biggest stars, released a track called “My Best Friend is President Putin.”Yet as Putin’s popularity has slumped along with the country’s economy, Russia rappers — who enjoy online audiences of millions — have turned their attention to thornier issues: poverty, drug use, and the often grim realities of provincial Russian life.In February, 21-year-old rapper Face released an obscenity-filled music video parodying what he called Russia’s “blind” patriotism. This fall, he put out what is perhaps Russian rap’s most explicitly political album yet, “Ways Are Unfathomable,” in which he describes Russia as “one big prison camp.” Other lyrics take potshots at the Russian Orthodox Church, a key Kremlin ally.Husky has also been sharply critical of Putin’s long rule, despite expressing support for Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine — a political stance that is not unusual in Russia. MOSCOW — When 25-year-old rapper Husky found out in late November that Russian officials had cancelled his gig in the southern town of Krasnodar, he clambered onto the top of a vehicle in a nearby car park and launched into an impromptu performance.“I will sing my music, the most honest music,” he belted out to wild applause.Those were the only lines he delivered before police hauled him down and arrested him. Scores of people lined the road and mockingly sang the Russian national anthem, with its references to “our free Fatherland,” as the police car drove away. But if that was the plan, the Kremlin appears to have changed its mind in recent days.Amid growing condemnation of the crackdown on artists — including from opposition politicians such as Alexei Navalny, and the bands themselves, whose audiences are just as devoted to them — state media and some officials made a dramatic U-turn.For now, it’s unclear if this is just a brief reprieve for musicians who refuse to toe the Kremlin’s line, or an end to the clampdown.First, Dmitry Kiselyov, the head of Russia’s main state-run news agency, appeared on a prime time current affairs show to champion rappers, describing them as “cats who go their own way.” He even rapped lines from a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky, the 19th century poet, to prove that rap has deep cultural roots.Government officials followed suit. Kremlin adviser and former culture minister Mikhail Shvydkoi said rap was an art form that “should not be ignored,” while Sergei Naryshkin, the head of the SVR foreign military intelligence service, pitched in with a suggestion that rappers and other musicians should receive government grants. And then, just last week, Putin’s domestic policy chief, Sergei Kirienko, claimed it was “stupid” to cancel concerts.The government’s apparent change of tack has had patchy effects. Just hours after Kirienko’s statement, Ic3peak went ahead with a performance in Krasnodar, the city where Husky was arrested in November. “It looks like the cops didn’t make it,” Kreslina, the group’s vocalist, told the crowd. But Friendzone, the teen pop band, were not so lucky: Their concert in Nizhny Novgorod, in central Russia, was called off. “For well-known reasons,” the group said. Back then, he added, “Police disrupted only unofficial, underground shows.” Today, the reasons are more “far-fetched,” he said, “and no one wants to admit ideological censorship, because it is banned by the Constitution.”* * *This modern-day campaign against Russian artists may have its roots in two recent violent incidents involving teenagers.In October, 19-year-old student Vladislav Roslyakov ran amok with a powerful hunting rifle at a technical college in Kerch, a city in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula seized by Russia in 2014. Roslyakov, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the word “Nenavist” (hatred, in Russian) killed 19 people before turning his weapon on himself. He left no suicide note, and experts struggled to explain the shooting spree, the deadliest act of non-terrorist violence in modern Russian history.Two weeks after the Kerch attack, Mikhail Zhlobitsky, a 17-year-old anarchist, died when a bomb he was carrying exploded as he entered the FSB headquarters in Arkhangelsk, a city in northern Russia. Three FSB employees were wounded in the blast. Alexander Bortnikov, the FSB chief, later warned that young people were being drawn into radical far-left and far-right movements by “extremist” online material.The funeral ceremony in the Russian-annexed Crimea city of Kerch in October | Andrey Petrenko/AFP via Getty ImagesAlthough there was no evidence to suggest that either attack was inspired by music, “extremist” or otherwise, the FSB responded by drawing up a blacklist of musicians, said Pavel Chikov, the head of the human rights group Agora. “Most likely, someone high-up decided after the attacks in Archangelsk and Kerch that music and the internet were to blame,” said Dmitry Dzhulai, a former police officer who worked at Center E, the interior ministry’s anti-extremism department, from 2014 through 2016.“There are plenty of people in power who have the Soviet mindset of bans, censorship, expert commissions to evaluate art, and so on.”Even before the current crackdown, Centre E’s officers had been busy trying to expose “extremism” in music, Dzhulai said.“We had an employee who used to listen to music at work all day while he was typing up documents. He explained to me that he wasn’t just listening, but scrutinizing the lyrics for extremism so that he could have them recognized as extremist by a court. I think there are such enterprising employees in every Centre E department.”* * *The Kremlin’s campaign against rappers and other performers was supposed to send a message that “political protest” would not be tolerated, said Sergei Markov, a political analyst who previously advised the Kremlin on youth issues. Friendzone, a band that performs catchy teenage-orientated pop, also appears to have spooked the authorities, which called off gigs in five Russian cities. Officials didn’t specify what had caused offense, but it’s likely to have been a music video that shows two teenage girls kissing and the lyrics “Love doesn’t depend on gender.” Under Russia’s controversial “anti-gay propaganda” law, approved by Putin in 2013, it is illegal to promote “non-traditional sexual relations” to minors.Russia hasn’t experienced a generational and cultural clash of this scope since the late 1980s, when the KGB set its sights on the Soviet Union’s underground rock scene.With no hope of being allowed to release music legally, groups such as Akvarium, from St Petersburg, or Grazhdanskaya Oborona, from Omsk, in Siberia, circulated their albums as illicit cassette recordings, and played occasional secret gigs in basements or apartments.Amid growing condemnation of the crackdown on artists, state media and some officials made a dramatic U-turnWestern pop and rock groups were also banned for ideological impurity, as the Kremlin attempted to muffle the subversive music coming from the other side of the Iron Curtain. One helpful Soviet-era document from 1985 lists the grounds for outlawing several Western artists: Tina Turner was prohibited for “sex,” ACDC and Julio Iglesias for “neofascism,” while others such as the Sex Pistols were guilty of the all-encompassing crime of “punk.”“In the Soviet Union, artists had to get lyrics approved by censors before they could perform them on stage, and all shows had to be approved by officials,” said Vladimir Kozlov, an author and director of the documentary film about the Soviet punk scene “Traces in the Snow.” Authorities have not clarified exactly what they deem to be “extremist” about his music, apart from, bizarrely, allegations of “promoting cannibalism.” (One of his songs, “Poem about My Motherland,” includes the line: “Remember when you died/and we ate your flesh/that smelled like a mummy/forgotten in a mausoleum.” The lyrics were widely believed to refer to the collapse of the Soviet Union.)Rappers aren’t the only ones being targeted in the new crackdown. Ic3peak, which performs a distinct form of dark electronica, has been repeatedly harassed by Russian authorities and even detained on their ongoing Russia tour. The trouble started after it released a video to a macabre track called “There Is No More Death.” It begins with the group’s vocalist, Kreslina, pouring kerosene over herself on the steps of the government seat in Moscow, as she sings: “Let everything burn/The whole of Russia is watching me/Let everything burn.” The song also contains references to being detained at opposition rallies.