The hidden threats in Russia’s Eurovision song
The politics of the Eurovision Song Contest are, as a rule, reassuringly simple: countries with shared cultures, languages or borders, or a combination thereof, can generally be relied on to support each other. So the Greeks vote for Cyprus and the Cypriots vote for Greece; all the Scandinavians vote for each other, as do the Balts, as do Austria and Germany… and Russia and Ukraine.
It is a pattern that seems to transcend historical differences including war, genocide and economic catastrophe. For instance, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina have been reliable co-supporters for years; in 2009 Greece came a creditable seventh despite being widely blamed across the continent as the feckless idlers responsible for the eurozone’s woes; and in 2011, just as the Germans were being vilified for their insistence on hairshirt austerity – with frequent references to the Nazis – they managed a reasonable tenth. At Eurovision, it appears, ancient grudges that have started fights in bierkellers and tavernas from Hamburg to Trieste are generally submerged in a welter of kitsch and predictably awful key changes. When in 2009 Georgia, still smarting from its defeat at Russian hands in South Ossetia, tried to enter a song entitled “We’re Not Gonna Put In” (geddit?), the Eurovision organisers rejected it as too political.
On Saturday, however, Russia and Ukraine will face off in the Eurovision final and the whiff of politics will be hard to avoid. For one thing, Russia’s progress from this week’s semi-final was greeted with loud boos from the audience, which was remarkable given how relentlessly upbeat the Eurovision crowd usually is. For another, the Russian song is laced with sinister undertones. “Shine”, performed by the Tolmachevy sisters, is an apparently innocent piece of europop; in fact, it contains numerous coded threats of drastic action.
First, the singers themselves. The Tolmachevy twins – Anastasia and Maria – are already Eurovision winners, triumphing in the junior competition (yes, there is a junior Eurovision contest) in 2006 at the tender age of nine. With “Shine”, they present themselves as a wholesome duo belting out a message of love (in English, mind you, the language of the decadent west).
Yet spool back to May 9 2007 – exactly seven years ago today – and one finds them in very different circumstances. Still only 10 but with the panache of seasoned pros, the Tolmachevy girls – in Soviet Army uniforms, complete with caps and boots – performed a famous wartime song called “Katyusha” in the middle of Red Square as part of the country’s Victory Day celebrations.
The symbolism of “Katyusha” – a song so patriotic, it even gave its name to amultiple rocket launcher – is hard to overstate. One of the biggest hits of the Great Patriotic War, it tells the tale of a young girl singing a song as she goes out for a walk along the river bank, dreaming of her sweetheart at the front:
Let him remember an ordinary girl,And hear how she singsLet him preserve the MotherlandAs Katyusha preserves their love
The interim government in Kiev, being well versed in this sort of semiology, will have seen beyond the Tolmachevy twins’ outer innocence and identified the military message immediately. (The girls are even from Kursk, location of the most famous tank battle in history.) And in case it needed hammering home, the lyrics of “Shine” contain these chilling sentiments:
Living on the edge, closer to the crimeCross the line a step at a timeMaybe there’s a place, maybe there’s a timeMaybe there’s a day you’ll be mine
I know who’ll they will be voting for in Slavyansk.