‘Putin’s Russia is the Antithesis of EurovisionLet’s Keep it Off the Stage’
In the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and brutal suppression of its culture, Matt Smith says Eurovision can provide another story of international solidarity and appreciation
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This week, Europe’s annual festival of mischief, madness, and the occasional bit of music gets underway in Liverpool. It’ll be the first time the UK has hosted the contest since Birmingham in 1998, though only to stand in for Ukraine thanks to Sam Ryder’s respectable second-place finish at last year’s contest.
Eurovision isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The music can be trashy and uninspired, a fact beautifully lampooned by Måns Zalmerlöw and Petra Mede in their Stockholm ’16 interval act. The whole affair exudes kitsch; burning pianos, dodgy costumes, and epic sax guys abound.
Even the very principles supposedly at the heart of Eurovision – love, peace, and unity across borders – are expressed with a cringe-inducing earnestness which jars with the participation of autocracies like Azerbaijan and Serbia. Truly a marvel of absurdism. But regardless of its divisiveness, when Eurovision gets it right, it gets it right.
Though it initially rejected a Russian ban from Eurovision, within 48 hours of Russia unleashing its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the EBU – Eurovision’s governing body – had barred Russia from the contest. The ban remains in place for this year’s edition. This enduring firm line should be lauded, especially as other competitions begin to readmit Russians.
While Russian singers will be shown the cold shoulder in Liverpool, Russia athletes can expect the red carpet treatment in Wimbledon in July. The reversal of Wimbledon’s earlier ban comes while Russia still rules over the ruins of the seaside city that Liverpool will seek to emulate next month.
In the wake of Ukraine’s landslide Eurovision victory, President Zelenskyy expressed his wish for the 2023 edition to be held in Mariupol. But it wasn’t to be. What was once a vibrant and thriving metropolis was reduced to rubble over three months of Russian siege and relentless bombardment, the desolation that remains now a backdrop for Russian Instagrammers to pose for photos which leverage the inhuman destruction wrought in their name for internet clout.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin-installed proxies now in charge of the city have wasted no time sweeping Russia’s atrocities under the carpet – levelling the regional drama theatre which served as a shelter for hundreds of civilians and target practice for Russia’s armed forces. And Mariupol is by no means unique.
Genocide and Cultural War
Almost a fifth of Ukraine is today under Russian occupation. In these territories Russia has sought to erase Ukrainian and other indigenous languages from public life. Even playing a Ukrainian song can land you in hot water. The airwaves and educational system are tightly controlled, with schools transformed into vehicles for indoctrinating local children into the Kremlin’s militaristic and ethnonationalist worldview.
Political activists and journalists opposing the occupation have been forced to flee or have otherwise faced state-sanctioned intimidation, criminal prosecution, and worse. Two political prisoners, Kostiantyn Shyrinh and Dzhemil Hafarov, recently died in custody on account of Russian prison authorities refusing them medical care, while a third, Iryna Danylovych, is currently on a dry hunger strike in protest of similar treatment. Today, this is the reality of life across much of south-eastern Ukraine.
Since independence, the histories of Ukraine and Eurovision have been deeply intertwined. The country’s first brush with Eurovision glory came in 2007 when Verka Serduchka finished a close second with a song long claimed to have been a coded ‘up yours’ to Russia, in reference to Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution – an allegation the performer still denies.
Similarly, both of Ukraine’s eventual wins – in 2016 and 2022 – were overshadowed by accusations that the waves of public support that propelled it to victory were little more than pan-European middle fingers to Russia, first following Vladimir Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea and, later, in response to his full-scale assault on the Ukrainian mainland.
The claims do a disservice to winners Jamala and Kalush, whose musical talents speak for themselves. Indeed, it’s a common charge levelled at Eurovision that it is plagued by political voting, with results decided more by neighbourly ties and geopolitical beefs than artistic merit. But international expressions of solidarity are nothing to be ashamed of – Europe should wear them with pride. They’re the strongest evidence we have that there is substance to Eurovision’s core tenets.
Born in the wake of the Second World War, Eurovision was founded on the noble idea that, through the unifying power of music, key changes and camp could replace bombs and bullets as Europe’s weapons of choice.
While Russia’s troops butcher Ukrainians with the latter, the EBU is quite right to bar its cultural ambassadors from Europe’s biggest stage. The Lawn Tennis Association and others would do well to follow Eurovision’s example.
Matt Smith is an Eastern Europe and South Caucasus Officer at International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR).