Russia Declares War on Eurovision
On Saturday, three people died and thirty were injured during a gun battle over control of a cemetery in Moscow. Just a few hours later, the Russian pop star Sergey Lazarev failed to win the Eurovision Song Contest, in Stockholm, losing to a Ukrainian. This was the story of the day, and it has left Russians beside themselves over what they are calling a great Eurovision vote fix.
The Eurovision Song Contest, the Continent’s pop-music Olympics, happens only once a year, while mass violence in Russia is a more frequent occurrence. During Eurovision, three dozen winners of national contests compete for victory, and for the right to host the next contest in their own country—while the entire Continent watches on television. As Anthony Lane has written, “Think of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, add a blast of dry ice, and you get the idea.”
After the conclusion of the competition, Lazarev, speaking on Russian state-channel news, complained that the jury “intentionally lowers the score.” A correspondent whom Russia had sent to cover the contest asked whether the event had been a musical competition or a political one. Filipp Kirkorov, who is probably Russia’s biggest male pop star, was also backstage in Stockholm, and added, “Who knows who worked the jury over. . . . We must investigate.” To this Russian lesbian watching the newscast, all three—Lazarev, Kirkorov, and the state-television correspondent—presented themselves in a manner that matched the aesthetic of Eurovision, which was the gayest, most over-the-top show on television before there were gay, over-the-top shows on television. Back home, Russia has turned homophobia into official policy, and the European media had worried about what might happen if Lazarev won, meaning that next year’s competition would take place in an anti-gay country.
Oddly, Jamala, the wildly popular Ukrainian singer whose victory so upset Moscow, comes from a different aesthetic. Unlike pretty much all Eurovision songs from the past quarter century, Jamala’s entry was not slightly outdated, canned Euro-English pop. It included notes of traditional Crimean music and entire stanzas sung in Crimean, the language of the Crimean Tatars. Jamala is a Crimean Tatar, and she sang about her people.
The Crimean Tatars have been among the most persecuted of the many persecuted ethnic groups in Russia. As indigenous residents of Crimea, they suffered repeated indignities and violence under the tsars, and in 1944 were deported from Crimea entirely, ostensibly for having aided the Nazis during the German occupation. A number of other ethnic groups suffered the same fate that year, but the Crimean Tatars were the only ones who were not allowed to go home after the Stalinist terror ended. A large number finally returned, in 1989, as the U.S.S.R. teetered on the brink of collapse. They established cultural autonomy in Crimea, with elected self-rule. This democratic system was dismantled when Russia annexed Crimea two years ago, and the persecution returned.
On Sunday morning, after the competition, the Russian state-TV news report cut to footage of a tiny old man entering the Eurovision venue in Stockholm. “Here is Mustafa Dzhemilev, leader of the Mejlis”–the Crimean Tatar parliament—“which is recognized by no one,” the correspondent explained. “A search warrant is out for him in Russia.” Some of this is a little bit true. The seventy-two-year-old Dzhemilev is living in exile because, two years ago, when he was returning home to Crimea after a trip abroad, he was turned back by Russian border guards and informed that he was persona non grata in his own land. A few months later, a court in Russian-occupied Crimea issued a warrant for his arrest; Crimea’s chief prosecutor claimed that Dzhemilev faced charges under three articles of the Russian penal code, but did not say which ones. Back in Soviet times, Dzhemilev spent fifteen years in prison and internal exile for advocating the return of Tatars to Crimea. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he led the Mejlis and was elected to the Ukrainian parliament five times. He has been a political leader for all times and a dissident for all despots.
The Russian television report implied that he also must have been the person who “worked over” the jury to hand the victory to Jamala. But even if old dissidents were in the business of trying to fix song contests, that’s not how Eurovision voting works. The system is convoluted, and had been recast slightly for this year’s competition. TV audiences and professional juries from every participating country selected the winners by vote, with countries forbidden to vote for their own singers. Lazarev came out on top in the popular vote, while the professional juries placed the contestant from Australia (a minor European nation, for the purposes of this contest) in first. Once both the juries’ and the audiences’ scores were tallied, though, Jamala turned out to be the winner.
Russian politicians, from Cabinet members to the spokeswoman for the foreign ministry, expressed dismay. Maria Zakharova, the foreign-ministry representative, tweeted, “I think at the next contest it would be a good idea to sing about Assad,” and added a proposed refrain in English: “Assad bloody, Assad worst, Give me prize, that we can host.” Lazarev’s third-place song included the lines “We will never let our loving go come undone” and “Thinking of making a showdown when love is found,” so the language of Zakharova’s proposed entry was pitched about right.
Eurovision ostensibly bans political content. But Jamala’s song—which included the lines “They come to your house / They kill you all”—was allowed because it referred to events that occurred seventy-two years ago, apparently making it historical rather than political. But, of course, Eurovision has always been political. When Europe was divided, it had two song contests: Eurovision in the West and Intervision in the East. In a (sort of) united Europe, audience voting patterns have closely tracked with new lines of division and hatred. The real news this year was that, if one looked at TV audiences alone, one would see that Ukraine put Russia first and Russia voted for Ukraine, putting it second only to Armenia. The propaganda machine might be broken.
Redoubling its efforts on the spot, Russian state television produced twenty stories over the course of twenty-four hours, including one that claimed that the Crimean Tatars were furious at having their tragedy cheapened by a pop song. Another was called “Money Talks: Eurovision Is Not Interested in the Viewers’ Opinions.” “And the inevitable questions arise,” a correspondent said, closing out a special report on Eurovision. “How will it be possible to hold Eurovision in a country that has a hole in its budget, a war in the east, and regular disturbances in its capital?” Russia, presumably, would have faced no such questions, despite its own tanking economy, wars in its south and to its west, and a gun battle among several hundred men happening in broad daylight on the same day as the Eurovision contest. Russian television knows no irony and recognizes no contradictions, which makes it a bit like Eurovision.