On the evening of 14 May 2016, an audience of 204 million people from across the world tuned in to watch the Eurovision Song Contest final, broadcast live from the Globe Arena in Stockholm, Sweden.
Since its first broadcast in Lugano, Switzerland in 1956, the contest had served as the cultural wing of the postwar ambition to bring European nations together in peace, harmony, sequins, overblown ballads and fabulous hair.
But on that night in 2016, something changed. Ukraine’s entry was a song entitled “1944” sung by Jamala (Susana Jamaladinova), a 32-year-old singer of Armenian and Crimean Tatar descent.
The song, part delivered in the Tatar language, told the story of her great-grandmother’s enforced resettlement under Stalin in the dying days of the Second World War, and the loss of her baby during the deportation.
Two years earlier, in 2014, the Russians had annexed Crimea and the song was as clear a political statement as it was possible to smuggle past the judges. As such, it aroused considerable and predictable anger in the Kremlin. Russian state media complained that the contest was not meant to be political, and even Jamala admitted that the song was.
“Of course, it’s about 2014 as well,” she told the Guardian a few days before the final. “These two years have added so much sadness to my life. Imagine… you can’t go home… you [can] see your grandfather on Skype, who is 90 years old and ill, but you can’t visit him. What am I supposed to do: just sing nice songs and forget about it?”
On the night, with considerable help from voters in Finland, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic – she won. Russia came third and Duma MPs immediately called for a boycott of the 2017 contest in Kyiv, with one, Elena Drapeko, claiming the result was “a consequence of the propaganda war of information that is being waged against Russia. There is a general demonisation of Russia – that we are all evil, that our athletes are doping, that our planes violate airspace.”
Six years later, “demonised” Russia has invaded Ukraine, with helicopters buzzing cities and tanks advancing on the capital, crushing elderly men in cars as they go. The contest has become very political once more, with calls for Russia to be booted out of the Eurovision Song Contest altogether.
In recent days Jamala herself has taken to Instagram asking the world to “please support Ukraine” and “#stoprussionaggression [sic]”. Eurovision organisers have, meanwhile, insisted that Russia can still participate in the “non-political cultural event”. Which – if there were laughs to be had in this crisis – is laughable.
Putin’s violent actions have consequences for all Russians. Therefore, until he withdraws his troops from Ukraine, Russians ought to be excluded from everything: international business, sport, travel and, yes, even song contests.
The idea that a rogue power, engaged in the invasion and conquest of its sovereign neighbour, should be allowed to compete in a contest dedicated to peace, harmony and transcontinental love is utterly farcical. No contest or event, in these early months of 2022, can be deemed apolitical anymore, and the Eurovision Song Contest should be no exception. To allow Russian participation would send the message that despite everything, the country and its people were still part of the club; that despite its president’s deliberate attempt to overturn Ukraine’s democratic right to exist, it can still pop on its sequinned costumes, grab a glass of Buck’s Fizz and join the party.
No. Russia’s politicians, pop stars and people need to get the message. Just as South Africa was hit by boycotts in the final years of apartheid, so too today Europe has a clear responsibility to oppose the violent actions of the Russian state.
Russia is now a pariah state and, who knows, cutting off its supply of Europop might just hit parts that other sanctions do not reach.
[See also: Ukraine’s 2022 Eurovision song – explained]