It’s almost Eurovision Song Contest time again! Ok, this might not leave you feeling too excited, but in Russia it’s big news. Seen largely as a kitsch night out in the West, the competition is taken at face value in Moscow, where it is considered a genuine chance for European nations to send their top pop musicians out to do battle with one another.
After mullet-headed Dima Bilan’s syrupy English language “Believe” won the event for Russia in 2007, Russian officials competed with each other to heap praise on the singer.
“This is not only your personal success, but also a victory for the whole of Russia,” Vladimir Putin told Bilan. President Dmitry Medvedev – a well-known Deep Purple fan - also called the singer to congratulate him, saying it was “cool that Eurovision was now coming to Russia.”
And indeed, thanks to Bilan’s victory, multitudes of euro-pop fans descended upon Moscow in 2009. Russia’s hosting of the event was heralded by the state-run Channel One TV station as a sign that the country was “Finally making a return to Europe and reclaiming its superpower status in politics and culture, including popular music.”
But the Moscow Eurovision Song Contest looked set to be marred, for the Russians at least, by the Georgian entry. Entitled “We Don’t Wanna a Put In,” the 70s style disco melody was a none too subtle reference to Vladimir Putin, whose “negative mood, is killing the groove.”
The song was eventually barred on the grounds that it violated Eurovision’s strict “no politics” rules and Russia breathed again…
Curious, I finagled myself a press ticket to the Eurovision final. Although I’m not adverse to a bit of tacky pop now and then, I was unfortunately unable to bear more than three songs, and left after France’s Patricia Kaas had wheezed her way through the tune that would eventually take eighth place.
Wandering back to the subway, past camp Muscovites seeking spare tickets to the Europap extravaganza, I decided to stop and have a talk with two bored looking OMON officers.
It was the OMON, Russia’s answer to the U.S.’s SWAT team, that had broken up an attempted Gay Pride parade earlier in the day and I asked them what they thought about the festival of tackiness taking place on their beat.
“It’s great, it’s very prestigious for Russia,” began Sergei, after having weighed up both me and my request for an interview for a moment or two.
Did he mean that, I wondered, or was just parroting the official line?
“Of course, it’s a lot of hassle as well. What with the Gay Parade and all. A lot of extra work.”
“Yeah,” his colleague, Andrei said. “That Gay Parade. I’m against that.”
But, I posed the question, hadn’t the Russian authorities realized that most Eurovision performers and fans were singing from the same song sheet as, say, Rudolf Nureyev and Pyotr Tchaikovsky?
“I don’t care what they do there,” Andrei said, gesturing at the Olympisky Arena, the venue for the event. “But as for gays marching on the streets, children could be watching. That’s not the kind of thing you want kids to see.”
Dropping the subject, I returned to my original question. Where was the prestige in Eurovision? Did they really consider a Europop gathering to be something that would improve Russia’s position in the world, an event that would make people look up to the country as a “cultural superpower”?
“It doesn’t really matter what the event is, it’s more the world attention, you know,” Sergei responded. “People come to Russia, realize it’s not all vodka and snow.”
Andrei though, was breaking ranks.
“This Eurovision, it’s beneficial for someone…someone high up.”
“It’s like McDonalds,” he continued, earning an odd glance from his brother-in-arms. “That stuff is just rubbish from the West, from the home of Bush and Condoleezza Rice. They want to dump all this crap on us, to make us just like them, to subvert Russian culture.”
“I only eat home cooking,” he told me.
We had, I sensed, gone off the point somewhat.
“Anyway,” Sergei said, as I took my leave of them. “Sporting events are a lot simpler. Like the Champions League final between Chelsea and Manchester United. That was a lot less complicated than all this Eurovision stuff.”
“More sport,” echoed Andrei. “That’s what we need.”
Some Norwegian won the Moscow contest and the next year Eurovision was held in Oslo. Russia’s fascination with the event was just as strong though, and when a little Russian girl took third place in Junior Eurovision it was big news. Our Russian colleagues here at RIA Novosti even ran the story as a breaking news flash.
Glory to Russian pop!
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.