From Russia with Love

I’ve seen a whole host of outrage on my newsfeed this weekend about Russia’s placing in the Eurovision Song Contest from friends in the UK and Western Europe. When it looked like they might win, there was a stream of updates about homophobic Russia and how terrible it would be for them to take the trophy, all willing Sweden on to pip them at the post. Yet in 2014, Sweden’s winner Måns Zelmerlöw said on national television that it wasn’t natural for a man to sleep with another man. In fact, he called homosexuality ‘avvikelse’ – which is a deviation, or an abnormality. You can watch it here if you understand Swedish. Call me esoteric, but it’s almost like its been set up for me to write a rambling blog post about nationalism, queerness and popular music. Given Zelmerlöw’s frankly bizarre personal politics making not much of a dent in a public outraged by Soviet victory on the day of Ireland’s historic marriage vote, lets ask, “Why specifically Russia?” Is it because of high levels of public knowledge around their anti-queer laws, or is it something a bit more complicated or maybe even more sinister than that?

Obviously, I think it’s something more complicated than that, or I wouldn’t write a blog about it. I don’t think that, from the viewing public at least, attitudes towards Russia are based on conscious discrimination or anything much beyond what seems like genuine solidarity with the queer community. But we have to be critical and self reflective when we’re being political, and when it comes to Russia – well, we’re not. Oh, for a world where because people were homophobic we shunned them. I might not have to listen to that sub-rate mock Swedish country song for the next 6 months in gay bars. We don’t though, and we don’t even apply this narrative equally so much so that we criticise the 2nd placed Putin-critical Russian entrant for the actions of her country whilst waving on through the knuckle dragging 1970s retro show of Sweden’s winner, not so much as holding him personally responsible for his own actions. What we actually live in is a world where gays boycott Latvian vodka because of Russian laws – you know, Latvia. That country that has been at odds with the Kremlin for two decades. What we actually live in is a Western Europe with an ignorance and a racism problem, and a British Isles struggling with an islander mentality and a current love affair with nationalism – and one of those flashpoints where this is highlighted most pointedly is our attitude towards Eastern Europe.

In 2003, the woefully abysmal nil points UK entry Jemini accused Lena Katina, ginger queen of my heart and one half of Russian entry t.A.T.u. (oh come on, you were all waiting for it), of stalking her in the Eurovision village and sending her unwanted love letters. Not only did her queerness mean she couldn’t control her loins, but that added savagery of being a simple Russian peasant meant she just couldn’t help herself. This narrative dogged the entirety of t.A.T.u.’s career, with them characterised in turn as abused, manipulated, manipulative and fake. Meanwhile a slew of movies were released portraying Eastern European women as fragile, broken and hypersexed, with mysterious Russian gangmasters their captors. That the UK had been involved in extensive military intervention across the Balkans was no coincidence, because as well we all know, where UN Peacekeepers go, so does the forced sex trade and human trafficking. Eastern Europe was marked as ‘other’ – savage, regressive, unintelligent – across the media, popular culture and in the British cultural psyche, with Russians – as a long standing impact of communism and the Cold War – constructed as their evil overlords. Meanwhile. increased immigration from Poland and from Baltic states to the UK was welcomed by a new wave of nationalists who could wave their little England flags loud and proud thanking their lucky stars that they could claim not to be racist because these people are white.

But what does this have to do with Eurovision? Well it is reflected in the very simple but dangerous logical step we take when we go Russia = Putin = Anti-gay laws = the Russian people. When we other a people, it makes it very easy to imagine them as a conglomerate mass. To reject anything created culturally by artists who may well be at odds with their state, not as we suggest because we don’t approve of their state, but in reality because we map their government on to them, and hold them personally responsible for their actions. If you’re down with that UK people, you’re going to have to be the personal embodiment of David Cameron, so have a proper think about it.

The reality is that music has always been a radical and subversive force in Russia, and music is one of the most powerful mediums of subversion. Not only because it appeals to young people but also because its nuance and complexity means that you can interweave all manner of meaning and codes that are understood by some people and read as a call to arms whilst simultaneously flying over the heads of the people you don’t want to arouse the suspicion of. This is why homophobic guys in the 1980s were screaming out the chorus of A Little Respect by Erasure in bad sexist clubs while queers were using it as an anthem of empowerment. In actuality, Russia’s continued role in Eurovision is very heavily frowned upon by the right wing law makers in the country, and for this very reason. Vitaly Milonov, the architect of Russia’s anti-queer laws, has repeatedly lobbied for them to withdraw entirely from the competition because it exposes Russian youth to all that queer filth and depravity from Europe. It represents a frontier to a different politics for many Russian youth and since they entered the competition in 1994, lots of the Russian political left have used it as a vehicle to bring about a very different message for Russia’s future than the government would like to see. That is seen and heard by its young people, and it is a vehicle for change.

The producers of the 2009 show in Moscow put on a show mixing their Soviet history with their modern culture and community (watch it, it’s pretty queer), which led to the reintroduction of an internal selection process by the state, but still Milonov and his bigots can’t stem that their artists and cultural producers load their messages and songs with deeper levels of meaning that speak to their youth. The problem on the left is we’re only really interested in subversive vehicles for change if they align neatly with what we like to believe radicalism is, so yes to women screaming punk songs in balaclavas in a Catholic church, but less so Russian synthpop with coded messages about the million voices of Russia that are “different but the same” united in love as the world is listening. It’s almost like its trying to say something.

OK, so you might say that you don’t care about the attitudes of the people living in a state in a song contest won by a popular vote. Each to their own, but, you’re interested purely and solely in the attitudes and legislation of the state. OK then. That’s why you’re outraged at Australia turning away boats of dying immigrants, Lithuania where queers are also beaten by their state and banned from holding Pride marches, Slovenia where changes to grant queers more family rights were rejected by popular referendum. I could go on, you get my point.  Let’s look at our EU as a whole, where the largest EU wise survey of LGBT rights of recent years showed that 25% of queers had suffered physical violence of threats. Let’s look back at our liberal bastion of Sweden, where they entered a noted homophobe. It all pretty silent to me.



  1. Agree – it’s a reductive double standard when, as you say, the dynamic of representing nations and Europe as paradises of diversity when their states continue to be implicated in discrimination and harm affecting the most marginalised trans, bi and gay/lesbian people is present in all *sorts* of ways in Eurovision, not just restricted to Russia. (With Zelmerlow himself, it’s not clear to me as a non-Swedish speaker exactly how he expressed his point, but even if as some have suggested he didn’t mean to express a moral judgement, a) it shows Sweden is a society where those ideas are widespread enough that someone can reproduce them without meaning to, b) there are still wider questions about racism, Islamophobia, state transphobia and treatment of sex workers, over and above what Zelmerlow might have said…) There’s scope for more critical reflection on that in general, which isn’t going to happen if everything gets boiled down to ‘Russia = bad, everywhere else but especially the north and west = perfect’.

    And it’s really important that you note, too, that the Russian right which has set the state’s current homophobic/biphobic/transphobic agenda itself wants Russia out of Eurovision – there are layers of internal politics around Eurovision within Russia (again, as in other places in different ways) which are part of understanding what it means there and might actually suggest that excluding Russia from Eurovision (which I saw some calls for yesterday) would actually play into that agenda rather than undermining it…

  2. […] reasons, I initially rooted firmly against the Russians to win. However, a friend posted this article, which points out the double standards we hold non-Western countries to, when we have plenty of […]

  3. This American has been following Eurovision for three years now, and would love nothing more than to be able to get rid of all the political baggage and just watch it for what it is – an international “Battle of the Bands” – and enjoy seeing good songs by fine singers performing their hearts out.

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