Both loved and mocked for its cheesiness and camp performances, the Eurovision Song Contest is one of the world's biggest musical events. Beyond sniggers and sighs at crazy costume changes and bloc voting, Eurovision is a powerful platform for image-building and identity politics. The fact that a diplomatic row has seen Russia withdraw from this year's contest serves as a reminder that this idea rings particularly true when speaking about the post-Soviet space.
The theme of this year's contest, currently taking place in Kiev, is “Celebrate Diversity”. “The notion of celebrating diversity is at the heart of Eurovision values: it is all-inclusive and all about [...] joining together to celebrate both our common ground and our unique differences,” says Eurovision exec Jon Ola Sand. Smiling hosts and bright lights aside, as participation has expanded to reflect the changing map of Europe — although participation is not actually determined by geographic inclusion within the continent — the long-standing theme of European solidarity has become obscured. Rather than a celebration of diversity within a united continent, the Eurovision Song Contest provides an arena in which relationships between nations — not least those of the former USSR — as well as attitudes within these nations towards the concept of Europe offered by the contest, may be cast.
As well as being one of the largest global TV spectacles, Eurovision is near unique in terms of its structure. The feature of audience voting sets the contest apart from other international competitions such as the Olympics; in no other contest do nations, represented by a musical or sporting ambassador, perform for each other, or, represented by the voting public, judge each other. And this establishes voting as a kind of interaction between nations, one through which kinship or tension might be expressed.
Recognised by Eurovision fans and sceptics alike, the phenomenon of “loyal voting” — a phrase most commonly uttered with regard to eastern Europe — does nothing to bolster a sense of European togetherness. UK viewers may look back fondly on the Eurovision commentaries of late broadcaster Sir Terry Wogan, whose witty remarks placed Russian power over its neighbours at the centre of eastern European voting patterns. “Ukraine want to be absolutely sure that the electricity and the oil flows through” said Wogan as Ukraine handed Russia 12 points in the 2008 contest, along with “You see Latvia, Estonia, they know where their bread is buttered.” Such comments echo the sentiment of many western European families sitting watching the show, convinced that some kind of Eastern Bloc conspiracy is obstructing their country's path to victory. But is it really so surprising or offensive that a kind of affinity might continue between countries or regions with longstanding (if now unofficial) political, cultural or linguistic ties?
We may have missed the significance of Eurovision as a stage to publicly cast and recast, or at the very least echo, each nation’s place within the context of an expanding and allegedly united “Europe”
This is not to say that Eurovision offers an unadulterated expression of enduring kinship between former members of the USSR. The popularity of the 2009 winner, Minsk-born Norwegian singer Alexander Rybak, among the public of former Soviet nations suggested a sense of shared post-Soviet culture, something Eurovision academics Karen Fricker and Milija Gluhović call a desire to create a “new post-Soviet space that is pan-Slavic”. But particularly in the performances themselves, we witness a more turbulent working out of identity. The Eurovision stage is set for entrants to “perform their nation” to viewers — how should the relatively young, independent nations of the former Soviet Union, whose culture was long subsumed under a broader label, construct a national image and cast their relationship with their former compatriots?
The answer seems to be either to look inwards, presenting an essentialised version of national heritage that is easily recognised and remembered (think Ruslana's 2004 performance, or who could forget the catchily-titled 2011 Belarusian anthem, I Love Belarus); or to look outwards and define oneself against or in response to the shared heritage mentioned above. We need only look to last year to find an example: the eventual winner of the 2016 contest, Ukrainian representative Jamala's song 1944 overtly engages with Soviet history, referring to the forced deportation of Tatars from Crimea in that year by Joseph Stalin (Jamala is herself of Crimean Tatar descent). The lyrics of 1944 do not touch on current tensions surrounding Crimea, but the song sparked accusations of political subtext.
When we consider this example together with the banned 2009 Georgian entry We Don’t Wanna Put In — a thinly veiled swipe at Russian President Vladimir Putin — and Ukraine's 2007 song Dancing Lasha Tumbai, which sparked controversy due to its striking phonetic resemblance to the words “Russia goodbye”, it would appear that Russia bears the brunt of any song-based aggression.
But how has Russia sought to form its own image, and navigate its own position with regard to the former USSR on the Eurovision stage? The gathering of diverse cultural elements under the banner of Russia has been a key theme. 2012 representatives Buranovskiye Babushki offered the strong combination of a seemingly authentic image and a disco-style song, Party for Everybody. Although they wore traditional Udmurt costume, sang an introduction in traditional Udmurt style, and with much of the song in the Udmurt language, viewers abroad probably considered these elements as typically Russian; the Buranovskiye Babushki conformed to the visual stereotype of proto-Russian babushki. In a similar vein, Russia's 2009 entry Mamo, performed by Ukrainian citizen Anastasia Prikhodko, drew upon the theme of a pan-Slavic identity. By its use of Ukrainian lyrics within the largely Russian-language song, it appropriated and assimilated Ukrainian into what would be understood as Russian culture by a Eurovision audience unattuned to the linguistic differences.
In the wake of Russia's boycott of this year's contest, after its entrant Yulia Samoylova was barred from Ukraine for three years over an allegedly illegal visit to the annexed Crimean peninsula in 2015, we are coming to understand the extent to which politics can and will play out in Eurovision. We should have seen this coming: for all the times we laughed at the inevitable exchanges of “douze points”, we may have missed something more serious: the critical self-awareness behind the Eurovision Song Contest's use as national branding and political comment, whereby contestants are not artists but competing symbols of national identity. We may have missed the significance of Eurovision as a stage to publicly cast and recast, or at the very least echo, each nation's place within the context of an expanding and allegedly united “Europe”.