Springtime in Russia: Eurovision, hockey championships, and the world's most beautiful woman

The country is feeling unusually cheerful as it claims top spots in beauty, talent, and sports competitions.

Denis Sinyakov/ Reuters
Svetlana Loboda of Ukraine performs during the second part of semi-final rehearsals for the Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow Thursday.
Denis Sinyakov/ Reuters
Sakis Rouvas of Greece performs during the second part of semi-final rehearsals for the Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow Thursday.

From being home to the world's best hockey team and most beautiful woman to hosting the Eurovision song contest, Russia has been on a roll lately, culturally speaking.

A spate of little triumphs in the worlds of sports, music, and glamour may seem like no big deal to less troubled nations, but for Russians they appear to matter a lot.

"For Russians, these victories serve as important indicators that things are going well," says Denis Volkov, an expert with the independent Levada Center, a Moscow-based polling agency. "People think: 'At last, Russia is taking the place it deserves.' "

Sunk in their third crushing economic crisis in two decades, and still uncertain of a post-Soviet identity, tens of thousands of Russians poured into the streets of major cities Sunday after their national hockey team defeated Canada to hold on to the world hockey championship. Many danced in the streets all night.

The victorious hockey team received a phone call of congratulations from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. On Tuesday, they were greeted in the Kremlin by President Dmitry Medvedev, who reportedly told them that the passion produced by the win was just what Russia needs right now.

Former president and now prime minister Vladimir Putin pulled out all the stops to win the 2014 Olympic games for the Russian city of Sochi, even making his first-and-only speech in English to win over the International Olympic Committee in 2007.

Last year, when Russia's hitherto underdog soccer team won a string of unexpected victories, the country went wild with enthusiasm, and political leaders jumped in to bask in the limelight.

Eurovision finals in Moscow Saturday

Russian authorities, who have invested a reported $42 million into staging the Eurovision contest in Moscow, say it's money well spent.

"When there is a festive feeling, people look more optimistically upon life," says Grigory Ivliyev, chair of the State Duma's committee on culture. "There are national symbols and national colors everywhere; the whole atmosphere is different."

Some critics say such blatant politicization of cultural successes bodes ill for Russian society.

"I'm happy for our team, but in a civilized country, a hockey victory shouldn't be treated like a national holiday," says Viktor Shenderovich, a leading satirist and liberal political commentator. "It's just a bit much to see a hockey team being received with full fanfare in the Kremlin."

But plenty of ordinary Russians agree with polls that show the national mood soaring when compatriots make good on just about any global stage.

"These events make me feel really glad," says Natalya Knorre, a Moscow social worker. "Sometimes, things like this make a big difference when it comes to maintaining your spirits."

Supermodels, Eurovision, and Georgia

It doesn't hurt, either, that the reigning Miss World, Kseniya Sukhinova, is a Russian. Her blonde-coiffed and blue-eyed visage smiles gloriously down this week from scores of billboards around Moscow – all part of the Russian capital's lavish welcome for entrants in the iconic Eurovision song contest, which will climax Saturday in finals held at the downtown, 80,000-seat Olympisky stadium.

Eurovision, seen by some as the height of kitsch, but hotly contested among 42 countries from the Atlantic to the Caspian Sea, was won last year by Russian pop star Dima Bilan, earning Russia the right to host this year's event.

And Moscow is treating the occasion as if it were a summit meeting of world leaders. The city's main streets are draped in Russian tricolor flags and huge banners welcoming participants. Thousands of extra police have been called up to lock down central Moscow for the main event Saturday.

According to a survey by the Levada Center, more than a third of Russians plan to watch the Eurovision final on TV, and among the 18- to 24-year-old demographic, the number is a whopping 62 percent.

Previous winners of the 54-year-old Eurovision contest include the Swedish group ABBA, which won in 1974 singing "Waterloo," and Domenico Modugno, whose 1958 entry "Volare" is the only foreign-language song ever to win a Grammy.

But the long-awaited Eurovision finale has been dogged by controversy. The former Soviet republic of Georgia, which fought a war with Russia last summer, withdrew angrily from the contest after its entry was banned for allegedly containing hidden political references. The song, which contained the line "We don't wanna put in...," was judged by contest organizers to be a veiled swipe at Mr. Putin.

Russian nationalists, as well as some Ukrainians, are upset because Russia's official entry is Anastasia Prikhodko, a Ukrainian singer who had previously been disqualified from the Ukrainian national selection process. She will be singing her hit song "Mamo," with lyrics in both Ukrainian and Russian.

A clash over gay pride?

However, the big day might be seriously marred by a group that feels itself to have been left behind in Russia's ostentatious embrace of global competition. A coalition of gay-rights groups announced last week that it will stage a gay-pride rally in central Moscow just hours before the Eurovision extravaganza is set to begin.

In a press conference last week, leaders of the Moscow Gay Pride movement said they will ask Eurovision participants to speak up for gay rights in Russia. Though homosexuality was decriminalized following the collapse of the USSR, gay people continue to experience a wide range of discrimination in daily life.

"There will never be a better time to raise the question in this country," one of the leaders, Nikolai Alekseyev, told journalists.

Previous attempts by Russian gay rights activists to hold public meetings have been attacked by right-wing extremists and denounced as "satanic" by Moscow's powerful mayor, Yuri Luzhkov.

"Unfortunately, gay society is trying to use Eurovision for their own purposes," says Alexander Belov, chairman of the ultranationalist Movement Against Illegal Immigration, which says it will counter-demonstrate this Saturday.

Mr. Belov, along with other right-wing figures, have received a good deal of coverage in the Russian media this week by suggesting that the planned gay rights march is not merely objectionable on traditional moral grounds, but it also may be "unpatriotic" because it detracts from the healthy pro-Russian feelings generated by the Eurovision event.

"They are trying to undermine the whole idea of a musical holiday with their aggressive propaganda. This parade is an insult to our culture," Belov says.

More circus than bread?

According to a recent survey by the state-run VTsIOM polling agency, public pessimism over the economic crisis peaked in March with 82 percent of Russians expressing worry over problems like unemployment and inflation.

So, it's hardly surprising to see the Kremlin embracing victorious sports teams and endorsing music events, experts say.

"This sort of thing certainly boosts public optimism, but the effect is short-lived," says Mr. Volkov. "Either you have to keep repeating the victories, or they should happen against a backdrop of prosperity and social well-being. But it's hard to feel optimistic for long on an empty stomach," he says.

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