My goodness. That is a sentence I never thought I’d write. But this year, Russia should win Eurovision.
Look, I know we all have our reasons of being dubious of Russia.
From a contest perspective, Russia is THIRSTY. Every since they shoved an Olympic gold medalist onto the Eurovision stage next to my Sweet Baby Dima Bilan, (Bilan’s superior entry pictured here) it’s been apparent that they’ve been desperate to win the competition. They’ve tried everything from cute grannies to Junior Eurovision winners to spectacle-heavy Sergey Lazarev songs to ‘heartfelt’ pleas for peace.
And part of why this thirstiness isn’t working is that it’s seen as a blatant propaganda tool for the Putin government. Instead of using Eurovision as a tool of soft power (or “smart power,” as Hillary Clinton dubbed it) to demonstrate the best of Russian culture, it’s been weaponized as a tool to prove Russian supremacy over the culture of the West.
Putin’s influence in the contest is best exemplified in the way he turned the Russian entry into a tool of public opinion following Russia’s invasion into Ukraine’s Crimean territory. By choosing a disabled artist who had performed in the disputed territory to perform at the 2017 contest, Russia was blatantly trying to engineer a narrative where Ukraine would look as bad as possible for abiding by its laws.
(Note: There’s another article to be written by someone much smarter than me about the balance of co-option and co-operation represented by Julia Samoylova’s entry. She’s an adult. She performed by choice in Crimea. And yet she was undoubtedly exploited by Russia.)
For Putin, success in the contest is, like the country’s hosting of the Olympics, international validation of Russia on the world stage – and the reason so many fans have openly disdained Russian artists at the competition. Whether it is his intention or not, Putin has made support for a Russian artist synonymous with support of his regime – a regime that actively supports war, tortures and kills dissidents, denies the rights of LGBT+ communities. Putin’s despotic, anti-democratic Russia is the antithesis of what the contest should stand for.
So why am I so hyped about Manizha this year?
Because Manizha is very much the antithesis of everything hated about Putin’s Russia.
While the hastiness of the Russian NF this year raised a lot of questions about what was happening behind the scenes, the desperation to have an act – any act – is probably what led us to have one of the most dynamic Russian acts to come out of the country in years.
First of all, let’s go through Manizha’s history:
- She’s a refugee (and a goodwill ambassador for UNHCR!)
- She hails from Tajikistan (and thus is a minority in Russia) and features Russian-speaking minorities as prominent members of her backup group
- She is an outspoken feminist – not only in her song, but in her work as an activist on gender-based violence issues
- She supports LGBT+ rights, performing at Prides and Queerfests
Basically, Manizha is a bunch of things that fly in the face of the perfect Russian Nationalism projected by Putin.
And it didn’t take long for her to get pushback. Manizha was denounced in Russia’s Parliament by Putin ally Valentina Matviyenko. The Russian Union of Orthodox Women published an open letter calling for her entry to be withdrawn, as its lyrics promoted hatred of men. Groups wrote to Russia’s Investigative Bureau – its equivalent of the FBI – asking them to investigate the vote at the show – because, in their view, the only way Manizha would have been selected was due to voting irregularities.
When Putin’s office was asked about it, their response was delicious, with his spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissing the contest as a frivolous event with chickens and bearded ladies. This marks a real change from 2017, when Peskov claimed that blocking the Russian entry threatened to diminish the prestige of the contest. I wonder what’s changed in the past four years?
Imagine how amazing it would be if Manizha brought Eurovision home to Russia – the outspoken Tajik refugee succeeding where Putin supporters and cronies had failed. Imagine a Eurovision where Russia’s LGBT+ community would be celebrated. Imagine a Eurovision centred around a woman who is the antithesis of Putin. (I know, I know – as soon as she won a santized version of the whole thing would come in to present the ideal Putin wants, but OH THE SWEET SWEET JOY of having Manizha be the person who delivers the victory.)
Of course, all the political analysis ignores one thing – Manizha deserves to win because she’s an amazing talent. Look at this video of her performance from the Spanish Pre-Party. Not only is the staging and arrangement incredibly well-considered, her charisma absolutely oozes off the screen.
Putin doesn’t know what a treasure he has here. And Russia would be a wholly worthy winner of Eurovision 2021.