April in Russia: Russian woman made of salt shakes up Eurovision5 min read
“Not only is Manizha not Russian, but she’s not even a person, she’s… salt!” declared the professor, as he revealed the result of an experiment conducted on the pop star’s skeleton. The research was ordered following widespread public discussion about who exactly Russia was sending to this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Rotterdam.
After all, how could a Tajik-born LGBT+ activist, women’s rights campaigner, and now UN Goodwill Ambassador, possibly have beaten last year’s finalists ‘Little Big’ to the Russian nomination? When the shock decision was announced on March 8, some social media commentators claimed that the selection process, shrouded in mystery, must have been rigged. But the result stood. Manizha was going to Rotterdam.
If Eurovision gave points for trolling, there’s no doubt Manizha Sangin would be going home with the top prize. The ‘research’ proving her bones are made of salt, is of course fake. It was dreamed up by the singer herself for a Youtube video poking fun at the furious reactions to her victory in the Russian national final, which ensures she’ll be the one representing Moscow’s interests next month.
‘Russian Woman’, the song she’s due to perform, deals with domestic abuse, body shaming and the pressure to conform to outdated stereotypes. Her willingness to dish out some uncomfortable home truths, coupled with the English language refrain of ‘Every Russian Woman needs to know’ has won her plenty of new admirers in Western Europe. However, back home, Manizha’s confrontational lyrics and the fact that she’s not ethnically Russian, have made her the enemy of so-called ‘traditionalists’ twice over.
She’s faced a barrage of online hate and has even been investigated by a Moscow court after a nationalist veteran’s organisation complained that her song actually ‘insults Russian women’. That’s quite a lot to deal with considering the only judges most Eurovision contestants have to worry about are the viewers at home, whose votes can make all the difference when it comes to determining this year’s champion. But after much soul-searching, Manizha is determined that not even the fiercest of ‘haters’ can stop her from giving her all in Rotterdam.
She certainly isn’t the first Russian Eurovision contestant showcasing Russia’s ethnic diversity. In 2012, a cheerful group of grandmothers from the Udmurt Republic called the ‘Buranovskiye Babushki’ were sent to the finals in Baku. Their song ‘Party for Everybody’ was sung, not in Russian, but in a combination of their native Udmurt and English. However, the extent of the ‘Buranovo Grannies’ political ambition was to raise money for the local church, not to “declare war” against oppressive societal norms. But, when it comes to Manizha’s combative stance on societal inequality, not quite every Russian woman wants to know what she has to say.
One of her most vocal critics is Yelena Drapeko, an MP from the ‘A Just Russia’ Party and First Deputy Chair of Culture in the State Duma. Drapeko, who knows a thing or two about show business, having appeared in over forty films between 1972 and 2014, said Manizha’s selection for Eurovision made her feel “sorry for the Russian flag”. She argued that surely the ‘nonsense’ Manizha sings about is unsuitable to represent Russia on such a prestigious stage as Eurovision. “The guys from ‘Little Big’ were much better candidates,” Drapeko told news site Sobesednik, referring to last year’s Russian entry, and perhaps she has a point. Their catchy hit ‘Uno’, including the lyrics, ‘Don’t be a dummy, dummy, I got that yummy, yummy. Can we be chummy, chummy right after midnight?’ is surely more in keeping with the great power image Russia is intent on projecting of itself to the wider world.
Drapeko went on to suggest that instead of representing Russia in Rotterdam, maybe Manizha could perform under a neutral flag, “like our athletes will do at the Olympics”. It could be pointed out that the reason the Russia’s Olympians are competing as ‘Team Neutral’ in Tokyo this summer is because the country is officially banned for state-sponsored doping. However, what seems more pertinent to ask, is why any politician worth their salt would feel the need to get involved in this debate at all.
Well, as it turns out, there’s much more being performed on the Eurovision stage than just kitsch disco tunes. Whether it’s Ukraine’s Ruslana, backed up by dancers from the Carpathian Mountains wearing warrior costumes aiming to “stop people from talking about Chernobyl,” or Estonia using the contest as part of its concerted nation-branding effort to emphasise distinctness from Russia, Eurovision’s global audience and penchant for ‘playful’ forms of patriotism, provides the perfect platform or countries to express their national identity. So, when someone like Manizha comes along, with a vision of Russianness that differs from the exclusively Orthodox Christian version championed by the ruling regime, it’s easy to see the potential for conflict.
It remains to be seen whether Manizha can actually win Eurovision. The contest’s open-ballot voting system and tradition of bloc-voting means her success or failure on the night depends as much on political allegiances as on the quality of her performance. But if she does manage to secure first place, the custom of victorious countries becoming hosts the following year sets up the tantalising prospect of 2022’s competition heading to Moscow. Considering that Russian political and spiritual leaders saw Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst’s 2014 victory as confirmation of their fears that closer European integration meant a future filled with ‘bearded girls’, surely a woman made of salt is nothing to worry about.