Screenshot taken of Manizha from the Eurovision Song Contest IGTV (Instagram TV) video on the Eurovision Song Contest Instagram account.
In my last article about Eurovision (Eurovision: the glue that may just hold Europe together?) I discussed the importance of the contest in bringing Europe together after having had a difficult time collectively trying to deal with the pandemic. In this article, I want to discuss why one of the artists in the contest this year, Manizha, who is representing Russia, had caused a bit of a stir in Russia when she won the hastily announced national final on March 8th. This was because the representatives Little Big (who were set to represent Russia in 2020) decided not to participate again and represent Russia at Eurovision 2021. But why did Manizha winning cause such a stir? (at least based on the comments made by some Russian politicians and news reporters). Well, in order to understand this, we have to look at the song, who Manizha is and the political climate in Russia at the moment.
Who is Manizha?
Manizha Sangin (known by her stage name Manizha) is a Tajik-born pop star who moved to Moscow with her family in 1994 due to the Tajikistan Civil War. This is one of the criticisms that Manizha has had to face, especially now, having been selected to represent Russia at Eurovision despite having lived in Russia for most of her life so far (she spent three years in Tajikistan as she was born in 1991). Along with having to face criticism about being born in Tajikistan, she has also faced criticisms because she is an outspoken supporter of the LGBTQ+ community, gender equality/women’s rights and the rights of migrants. Russia’s record, especially for LGBTQ+ rights, is not a particularly positive one because although homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993 and declassified as a mental illness in 1999, LGBTQ+ people still face discrimination in Russia as there is no law against discriminating against them.
The song is called ‘Russian Women’ or to give it its Russian title ‘Русская женщина’ (Russkaya zhenshchina). Manizha has explained the meaning of the song to Eurovision.tv as she says:
“This is a song about the transformation of a woman’s self-awareness over the past few centuries in Russia. A Russian woman has gone an amazing way from a peasant hut to the right to elect and be elected (one of the first in the world), from factory workshops to space flights. She has never been afraid to resist stereotypes and take responsibilities. This is the source of inspiration for the song. By coincidence, I wrote it on March 8th, 2020, while on tour, but for the first time, I performed it a year later.”
It is essential to point out that March 8th (which is also the day the national final was held) is International Women’s Day, so it was quite fitting that a woman won the national final on International Women’s Day with a song about Russian women. The song is mainly in Russian with some English lyrics – this is the first time Russia has sent a song mainly in Russian since 2011. In the lyrics, you can understand how this song relates to the message Manizha is trying to convey, with some of my favourite lyrics being:
“Are you waiting for your prince? Hey, beauty, You’re thirty, hello, where are your kids? You are cute overall, but should lose some weight. Wear something longer, wear something shorter”.
There are also the lines in English which are “Every Russian woman needs to know you’re strong enough to bounce against the wall”. You can understand why this ‘annoyed’ some people in Russia, especially politicians and news reporters. Yelena Drapeko, First Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Culture, suggested “banning Manizha from performing in Eurovision under the Russian flag, also commenting that Eurovision offered no cultural value and was too politicized and pro-LGBTQ+”. Also, in a short BBC interview with Manizha, there were news reports played both from the Russian parliament where someone says, “What kind of a song is that?” and a news reporter for Tsargrad TV saying, “I can’t bring myself to call this singer, Manizha, a Russian woman”.
Perhaps Russia is trying to build an image of not being too conservative, or maybe Russia is just not as conservative as we think. Still, people voting for Manizha to win the national final with a progressive song is undoubtedly one way to go about it. Despite the criticism, it seems that the majority of people either are happy about her selection or just don’t care. After all, the national final had 100% public voting, and people could only vote once, with Manizha winning 39.7% of the vote (compared to 35.7% for second who are 2mashi, a duo who are also women). It is also slightly confusing as to why some politicians and news reporters are so against this song. It could benefit Russia by building a more favourable impression of the country abroad and distracting from the complicated political situation in the country as Putin’s leading critic, Alexei Navalny, is currently in prison hospital due to being on hunger strike.
It is clear though that Manizha is determined to perform in Rotterdam because she said in the BBC interview that “now I have a lot of support, I can see it, not only from media and media people, from people who think the same like me and this thing are supporting me, this thing makes me stronger, and I’m like ‘I’ll go on stage, wherever it is, I’ll go on and say it, and I’m going to do my job.’”