Did Russian President Vladimir Putin really phone pop star Elton John?

Share story

LONDON — It was a story that seemed almost too good to be true. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, celebrated for his macho bravura, and pop star Elton John, known for his elaborate costumes, ballads and gay activism, coming together in a phone conversation that the singer said had been initiated by the Kremlin.

“Thank-you to President Vladimir Putin for reaching out and speaking via telephone with me today,” John wrote in an Instagram post on Monday afternoon that went largely unnoticed for a day. “I look to forward to meeting with you face-to-face to discuss LGBT equality in Russia.”

Once discovered, the Instagram post went viral. Many news organizations, including The New York Times, reported John’s account. The only problem is that, according to the Kremlin, the phone call never happened.

Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, said late Tuesday that Putin had never spoken to John.

“This does not correspond to reality. There was no conversation,” Peskov told journalists.

He also said his office could not be sure the Instagram post was actually Elton John’s. But, he said Putin was open to discussion about everything and that he did not doubt the president would be willing to speak with the singer.

There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy in the accounts, though some have speculated John was the victim of a prank call. John was not available for comment.

The putative conversation, which was confirmed Tuesday by a spokesman for John, evidently stemmed from a BBC interview over the weekend in which the singer spoke about music’s power to encourage tolerance. John was in Ukraine recently and met its president, Petro Poroshenko, to discuss gay rights.

In the interview, John said of Putin, “I’d love to sit down with him and talk to him.” He added, “The world faces much bigger problems than gay people.”

After the interview was published, Peskov said there was no meeting planned.

“Taking into account that there are many insinuations of late, we regard such information with extreme caution,” he said.

But days later, the Instagram post about the reported phone call proved irresistible.

In recent years, Russia has drawn criticism from human-rights groups for enacting legislation against “gay propaganda” and restricting the activities of gay-rights organizations. Putin himself, while distancing himself from any blatantly anti-gay activities, has promoted an agenda of traditional values and religion, while criticizing Western “decadence.”