Can the Eurovision Song Contest change Russia's views on migrants from Central Asia?

Screenshot for Manizha's song “Russian Woman” on Eurovision Song Contest YouTube channel.

Russia has nominated Manizha, a female singer of Tajik origin, as its representative for the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest. The major cultural event that has gathered dozens of millions of viewers across Europe every year since 1956, was postponed last year by the pandemic, and in Russia, it has sparked an early debate since not all Russians have welcomed a singer from Central Asia, where most migrant workers in Russia come from, as the chosen face of their country at such a high-profile event

A singer not afraid to speak her mind 

Manizha is a 30 year-old singer who was born in Central Asia’s Tajikistan but had to flee the country with her family as a result of the devastating civil war that brought chaos to the country from 1992 to 1997. Growing up in Russia, she embarked on a career in pop music and hip-hop, singing in English, Russian, and Tajik, often mixing all three languages with street slang. 

What sets Manizha apart from other pop artists in Russia is that she openly tackles issues that remain taboo for mainstream Tajik or Russian society: the rejection of the patriarchy, the appropriation of ethnic and national identities, the acceptance of LGBTQI+ persons, and the recognition of the key role played by millions of Central Asian migrants who remain largely invisible in Russia. 

For a popular 2019 song, watched by over one millions viewers on YouTube, she invented a word “Недославянка” that can be translated as “[she is] not-quite-Slavic”. The music video mixes visuals from Russia, her native Tajikistan, as well as references to Bollywood and Ninja movies, and features strong female characters. 

The lyrics portray her views on identity. In the beginning she says:  “Я недославянка, я недотаджичка /  Живу по Корану в стенах церкви”, which means: “I am not Slavic enough, not Tajik enough / I live by the laws of the Quran within the walls of a church.” Later in the song, she adds:  “На земле родной /  Я уже чужой / А на земле чужой /  Ещё не родной,” which translates as: “In my native land / I am already an alien / And in this alien land / Not quite a native yet.” She ends the song with lyrics in English: “ I've been made by mama Russia and my Tajik papa / Listen, listen, you Россия [Russia] , Miss Manizha is mestizo [mestizo refers in English to persons of mixed-race origins]. 

A song that ignited the Russian-language blogosphere

But the song that propelled Manizha to the top of the music charts with over six million views on YouTube alone, is “Russian Woman”, that came out in 2021. The song has an English title, but the Russian original includes a subtle nuance that gets lost in translation.

In Russian, the term “Russian” when referring to people can take two forms: “российский” (pronounced rassiyski) and “русский” (pronounced russki). The first emphasizes being a citizen of the Russian Federation, while the second is an ethnic marker (as the Russian Federation is home to over a hundred different ethnic groups). In the Russian version of her song, Manizha uses the ethnic version, thus implying that she is also embodying ethnic Russian women, in sharp contrast to the stereotype of blue-eyed, blond women that Russia likes to portray as the “typical Russian woman.” Indeed, at the beginning of the music video, Manizha wears traditional Russian shawls, very much associated with rural ethnic Russian dress code: 

Mid-song, she switches from Russian to English, singing: “Every Russian woman needs to know / You're strong enough to bounce against the wall.”

The song launched a heated debate on March 8, which marks International Women’s Day, when Russian officials announced that following a popular vote of nearly 40 percent of the public, “Russian Woman” had been officially chosen to represent Russia in the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest. 

Given that the last Eurovision contest gathered 182 million viewers in 2019, and is seen as a symbol of a country’s international cultural profile, the reactions to Manizha’s selection were immediate–and quite polarized. Internet users have been discussing everything from Russia’s representation in the West, racial and ethnic diversity in Russia, to traditional roles of women in Russian society. As Polina Panzina, one netizen who left a comment under the official video for the song on March 28, says:

Россия буквально разделилась на два лагеря по признаку принятия этой песни?

Russia has literally divided into two camps as to the acceptance of this song.

A large segment of the Russian blogosphere has reacted with abuse and hate speech aimed at the singer, such as this Twitter user:

Manizha is going to Eurovision. Her song is causing general outrage. On all TV channels, they tell us: she is a good, talented girl! Perhaps. But why take part in the competition with this piece of sh*t? To say: “Hello, Europe, I am from Russia! We are just as f*cked up as you!” ??

The barrage of hate speech has even led to an official investigation. On March 18, Russia’s Investigative Committee announced it would investigate the lyrics of the song, following a complaint by conservative civic activist groups claiming that the words in Manizha's song represent “an insult to the honor of Russian women.” At the time of publishing, no official conclusion had been reached, but on Wednesday March 31, the Chairwoman of the Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko, made a public statement describing the song as “какой-то бред” (“some sort of nonsense”) and calling for an inquiry into the voting process that allowed Manizha's song to be selected. 

At the same time, progressive voices have expressed their support, indicating it is time mainstream Russian society revisited its views on identity, patriarchy, feminism and embraced the fact that Russia is a multicultural nation. In this article published in the Russian-language intellectual magazine Nozh, Russian sociologist Daniil Zhayvoronok explains:

В России о проблемах, связанных с расизмом и национализмом, из популярных исполнителей открыто говорит только Манижа. И после того, как она победила в национальном отборе на Евровидение с номером «Русская женщина», в российском онлайн-пространстве появилось множество хейтерских комментариев о певице… Эти комментарии наверняка писали те же самые люди, которые утверждают, что в России нет дискриминации по признакам расы, нации и этноса…Рассказывая историю русской женщины, певица не просто делает видимыми не русских женщин, она делает видимой саму их исключенность и невидимость, а также и гибридность.

Manizha is the only pop artist who speaks openly about racism and nationalism in Russia. After she won the national competition for Eurovision with her song “Russian Woman,” the Russian online sphere filled with hateful comments about her… Those comments were probably written by the same people who claim that in Russia, there is no discrimination based on race or ethnicity… By telling the story of an [ethnically] Russian woman, the singer is not only making women who are not [ethnically] Russian visible, she is making visible their exclusion and invisibility, as well as their hybridity.

Debates are still ongoing on Facebook, Vkontakte, Twitter and Club House, and will likely heat up again on May 18 as the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest start before the winner will be announced on May 22.

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