Monday, 9 May 2016

Ukraine's unabashedly anti-Russian Eurovision song

As tensions between Russia and the West continue, Ukraine fields an entry about the Soviet Union's horrific mass deportations in Crimea. How did it get past the censors?

In 2009, as the war between Georgia and Russia raged on, Georgian public broadcaster GPB tried to pull a fast one on the Eurovision censors.

They fielded a song called "We Don't Wanna Put In", a disco anthem ostensibly about not wanting to stop dancing. The Eurovision organisers weren't having it. Songs with political themes are not allowed in the contest.

The title of the song, and it's main chorus, did not grammatically make sense in English. Though this could be said about a lot of Eurovision entries, this one was clearly meant to be "We don't want a Putin". 

Russian troops were still occupying Georgian territory at the time, and to make things even more sensitive, Russia was hosting the contest in Moscow that year. It was all too much, and the Eurovision organisers disqualified it for being political after Russia raised an objection. Georgia was not allowed to take part in Eurovision that year.

This year, as the war between Ukraine and Russia rages on, Ukraine has found a different way to cloak criticism of Moscow - history. This year's entry by Jamala - a Crimean Tatar - is called 1944. It is, by her own admission, about Stalin's forced deportation of about 240,000 Tatars (a Turkic people who were part of the Mongol Empire's ruling class) from Crimea to Siberia in 1944. Between 20% and 50% did not survive the journey.

The song comes following Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, something that Crimean Tatars, a small number of whom returned after the break-up of the Soviet Union, vehemently oppose. 

"Crimean Tatars once again live in an occupied territory, which is not easy for them," she told Ukrainian broadcaster NTU after she won the national final. Her parents are stuck in Crimea and she has not been able to see them since the occupation.

The song could really be seen to refer to all the forced populations transfers perpetrated by the Soviet Union in the 1940s (with American and British approval). It is a subject that still remains taboo in the West, since the Western powers were complicit in the forced expulsions that took place in Eastern and Central Europe after World War II.

But unlike with the Georgian song in 2009, the Eurovision censors allowed this in. Neither the title nor the lyrics are political, they found.

The song tells the story of Jamala's great-grandmother, one of the expellees. But it never explicitly mentions Russia, Crimea, or any of the specific events.Two things appear to have influenced the decision to allow the song - the vague lyrics and the fact that it is based on a historical event.

This has precedent. Last year Armenia fielded an entry called "Face the Shadow" which was very clearly about the genocide of Armenians by Turks during the First World War. However its lyrics were also vague. One could argue that they were less vague than Georgia's 2009 entry, which was ostensibly just a disco song about dancing. But Georgia's song was seen to be referencing a current event, while Armenia's and Ukraine's were seen to be referencing a historical event (albeit it with current implications).

It also helped that Turkey is no longer in the contest. President Erdogan spurned the contest in 2013, pulling out permanently and setting up his own rival contest called Turkvision, which only features songs in Turkic languages. Jamala's song could actually qualify for that contest, since it is partly in the Crimean Tatar language.

So last year Eurovision was in no mood to tip-toe around Turkish sensitivities, since they're not even in the contest anymore. But in the past the contest organisers have taken Russian sensitivities very seriously. 

In 2007 there was serious talk about disqualifying the Ukrainian entry "Dancing Lasha Tumbai" after some in Russia raised objections. They thought the drag queen singing 'lasha tumbai', which means nothing in any language, was meant to sound like 'Russia goodbye'. In the end the song was allowed.

So are the Eurovision censors becoming more lax about allowing in songs with political messages? It appears this may be the case. Or at the very least, they seem to be less concerned about offending problematic countries that are in increasing conflict with the West, like Russia and Turkey.

But this is likely to further encourage both of these countries to push forward with their own rival song contests. Russia is also planning an alternative Eurovision. They are planning to revive the Intervision Song Contest, the old Cold War rival to Eurovision. Plans to do this accelerated after the bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst won Eurovision in 2014. This outraged many Russian commentators and lawmakers.

Ankara and Moscow will be able to more easily control the messaging in their own song contests, and keep it as a "family-friendly" show free of any content that is deemed to be too non-conforming.

But for the moment Russia still remains an important player in Eurovision. They take it very seriously, and they play to win. This year's Russian entry, "You Are The Only One" sung by Sergey Lazarev, is the favourite to win.

So, we may be looking at another Eurovision in Moscow next year. With the censors being more relaxed lately, this would certainly tempt a number of Eastern European and Caucasian states to field some songs that will be awkward for the Eurovision organisers.


Daniel said...

Don't forget the flag policy - the EBU has got itself into hot water this year by releasing a strict flag policy banning the waving of any flags from "disputed territories", the main reason for which seemed to be not wanting to upset Russia (trying to prevent Crimean flags being shown or rainbow flags being waved "politically" during the Russian entry.) The policy was then "revised" and made more lenient when it was pointed out that even the Welsh and Scottish flags were on the list, and one of the UK's participants is from Wales.

Charles said...

One could argue that the song alludes to the Soviet Union, which no longer exists, and not about Russia.

Of course, the parallels are obvious, but the fact that the lyrics are about a historical event and not about current affairs are probably enough to get it past the censors.

After all, Abba sang 'Waterloo' without it being seen as a dig at the French

Daniel said...

You say that, but Abba did come in for criticism in the Swedish news media at the time, with one reporter asking them to justify how they could make light entertainment out of a battle at which so many people died. Only in 1970s Sweden.