In 2014, Austrian performer Conchita Wurst’s homosexuality was more remarked upon than his singing, and he acknowledged in his acceptance speech that his Eurovision Song Contest victory was due in part to an alarming rescission of LGBT rights that was largely led by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.
An online Russian petition denounced the bearded drag queen’s win and referred to Eurovision as “a hotbed of sodomy” created “at initiation of European liberals.” Allowances made for hotbeds of sodomy, it was rather difficult not to discern in this triumph European liberals’ angry sally against cultural reaction and institutionalized bigotry.
This past Saturday, Eurovision was hosted in Stockholm, home to a certain prize for literature that for the last several decades has been awarded almost exclusively on non-literary grounds. Not to take away from the pipes or poise of the winner, but there was clearly a bit of geopolitical subtext to the triumph of Jamala, a Crimean Tatar jazz singer, who, in arguable contravention of contest rules on avoiding overtly “political” subject matter, won over a mixed jury-and-TV-watcher voting pool with a poignant rendering of “1944.” This is a song explicitly about Stalin’s forced deportation of Crimean Tatars that same year. What the Soviet Union did to was tantamount to genocide; nearly half the Tatar deportees—230,000—died in cattle cars on their way to remote settlements in Central Asia or from starvation or disease once they arrived. (Even still, many then went on to fight the Nazis as conscripts of the Red Army.)
The opening stave of Jamala’s entry is a not-too-subtle reminder of this historical injustice, which the 27-year-old’s great-grandmother, a survivor of the deportations, recounted to her when she was a little girl:
When strangers are coming
They come to your house
They kill you all
We’re not guilty
Crimea, as you may have noticed, is once again under Russian occupation, and its long-suffering Tatars are once again being exiled or persecuted by Moscow, albeit with scant coverage in the Western press. Tatar media outlets have been shuttered or raided by the Federal Security Service, or FSB. High-ranking officials from their mejlis, or regional assembly, have been arrested or barred from entering the peninsula, including the leader of the whole community, Mustafa Dzhemilev, another survivor of the deportations and a legendary Soviet dissident. Dzhemilev was in Stockholm on state business and to cheer on his compatriot.
So Jamala did us all the service of not treating us like morons by pretending that her song choice was all about the distant past. “Of course [the song is] about 2014 as well,” she told the Guardian last Friday. “These two years have added so much sadness to my life. Imagine—you’re a creative person, a singer, but you can’t go home for two years. You see your grandfather on Skype, who is 90 years old and ill, but you can’t visit him. What am I supposed to do: just sing nice songs and forget about it? Of course I can’t do that.”
Nevertheless, this surprise victory has gone down very poorly in Russia, which was expecting the odds-on Eurovision favorite, native son Sergei Lazarev, to take the whole shebang. The Russian pop star, who came in third place, certainly had more name recognition going into the competition. He’s been famous since 2000, when he joined a two-person boy band modeled on Wham! and imaginatively called Smash!! (yes, two exclamation points). Lazarev's decidedly apolitical Eurovision entry, “You Are the Only One,” was released in March as a digital download, complete with a music video that had the tatted-up club anthemist occasionally shirtless or trying escape what looks like Tron as reimagined by Georgia O’Keeffe.
Well, the consequent controversy can have been written in crayon. Russia’s political establishment, its state media, and tenderheaded fellow travelers of Putin are livid at what they clearly see as Eurovision’s hotbed of Tatar solidarity and European liberals’ attempt to rob them of a bauble. TV channel Russia-1 did its level best at damage control. “1944,” we were told, wasn’t an anguished threnody about a violent 20th-century population transfer at all; rather, it was “another prayer for people who either voluntarily or involuntarily leave their home in search of a better life.” (Emphasis added.)
Some Putinists have predictably threatened to boycott Eurovision 2017, which, as per contest rules, is to be hosted in the home country of the previous year’s winner—i.e., Ukraine. Others have thundered that Lazarev’s loss is a Cold War provocation, just the first installment of what I’m sincerely hoping some analyst has the stones to call the “weaponization of chart-toppers.” Here, for instance, is Duma MP Yelena Drapeko: “This is partly a consequence of the propaganda war of information that is being waged against Russia. There is a general demonization of Russia—that we are all evil, that our athletes are doping, that our planes violate airspace.”
If info war is only the partial explanation, one wonders what other dark forces snagged defeat from the jaws of victory. And does Drapeko think her government has not allowed its athletes to dope or its long-range bombers to violate European airspace (or, for that matter, European land space)?
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova took, diplomatically, to Facebook to say (in Russian) that “a song about Assad should be sung at the next competition.” She then slipped into what she thinks is English by offering up a prospective chorus: “Assad bloody, Assad worst. / Give me prize, that we can host.” These lyrics are almost, but not quite, as good as those of Irish sitcom Father Ted’s Eurovision entry, “My Lovely Horse.”
British journalist Neil Clark, who has managed to contribute to both the communist Morning Star and the right-wing isolationist American Conservative, sees Russia’s loss of Eurovision in world-historical terms. May 14, 2016, he writes, is now “the day the music died.” Clark drove his Lada to the levy but the levy was dry: “What we saw last night, as some on Twitter have commented, was a replay of the 2000 US Presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, when Gore got the most votes, but the neocon-backed Bush made it to the White House.” Some on Twitter comment about a lot of things, but I’m not sure it does Lazarev any retroactive crowd-pleasing good to be compared to Al Gore.
For better or worse, song contests have become UN Security Council resolutions mixed with national valentines, particularly at times of national crisis. Iraq’s civil war in 2007 was somewhat contained by Shada Hassoun’s major victory in Star Academy, the Beirut-based pan-Arab answer to American Idol. She belted out a tear-jerking rendition of the classic ballad “Baghdad” at just the right time for Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds to come together in common cause against al Qaeda and declare Hassoun (who was actually Iraqi-Moroccan) as one of their own. More recently, Bill Murray took a bullet on film just outside Kabul to help a young Pashtun girl sing Cat Stevens in post-Taliban Afghanistan—an extremely loose adaptation of a true story.
Still, there are at least two ironies to the Jamala hoopla. The first is that Russia illegally seized Crimea as its own, and so shouldn’t the brighter bulbs at RT and Sputnik be spinning Jamala’s success as yet another glorious victory for the Motherland rather than denigrating her as a plaything of the neocons? The second is well caught by Ukrainian journalist Vitaliy Portnikov, who noted that commemorating the Tatar deportation is, or was, the standard practice of the current Russian government. Putin himself signed a presidential decree enshrining the rights of minority nations that were terrorized or exiled during the Soviet era, much as he acknowledged, in 2010, that the Katyn massacre of Polish soldiers was carried out by the same “totalitarian regime,” making him the first Russian leader not to falsely assign blame for that crime to the Nazis.
Reckoning with Stalinism, however fitfully or imperfectly, preceded the vogue for rehabilitation and revisionism of it, which now runs through the marrow of the Putin’s worsening authoritarianism. There are now “two ‘Russias,’” as Portnikov puts it, nicely separating the trolls and ghouls of state messaging from citizens who might actually be gratified to see historical trauma—driven by an ideology that once victimized their own relatives, too—transformed into art. “There is Russia that needs to adapt to follow the international rules and the universal human values—and there is Russia which doesn’t care,” he writes. “This is [the] Russia of chauvinists and Stalin’s supporters, which doesn’t want to apologise for anything nor remember its own crimes. And there is more and more of this second Russia—especially after the annexation of the Crimea, the war in Donbas in Eastern Ukraine, and the horror in Syria. This is exactly the Russia which came against Jamala.”