How a European song contest offers a glimpse of the Russian psyche

Eurovision 2017 has become yet another stage for the tensions between Russia and Ukraine. But Russia's abstention from this year's edition actually highlights how much the competition – and engagement with Western culture – matters to the Russian public.

Alexander Polegenko/AP
Russian singer Julia Samoilova, who was chosen to represent Russia in the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest, performs while sitting in a wheelchair during a concert in Sevastopol, Crimea, Tuesday.

For most Americans, Eurovision is not of much interest. And that's if they even know what it is.

But in Europe, the televised song contest, in which competitors representing their nations sing to win the continent-wide viewing audience's votes, is must-see TV. The 61-year-old song competition, a forebear of shows like American Idol, was originally started to underline a common sense of cultural identity among Europeans. Today, it is one of the most popular TV events on the continent, with the contest finals airing Saturday night.

In recent years, it has also become mired in the political squabbles of Ukraine and Russia – one of the few ways it might have crept into the consciousness of the American news reader. Most recently Ukraine, the 2017 host, announced it would arrest Russia's contestant if she tried to enter the country – a move prompting Russia to withdraw from this year's contest entirely and Russia's state-run Channel One to cancel plans to broadcast the contest at all.

The Russian public is firmly behind the government's decision to withdraw from the contest.

But the decision to not show the contest at all? Not so popular.

Despite the current tensions between Russia and the West, Russians are one of Eurovision's most enthusiastic audiences. A mid-April poll by the independent Levada Center found that, even despite the likelihood that the Russian contestant would not be allowed to participate in Eurovision, more opposed the official decision not to televise the contest than supported it, 41 percent to 40 percent.

And in fact, while the Russian public has endured quite a lot of enforced – and heavily politicized – separation from cultural and sports events as of late, it remains reliably in love with those events. And it suggests that once the geopolitical storms of the past few years die down, Russia will probably get on with integrating itself with the wider world, rather than trying to go its own way, as the USSR once did.

"The overwhelming majority of Russians expect our country to be a player in big world events, be it Eurovision or the Olympics, and find it an abnormal situation when we are not," says Vladimir Pozner, a leading Russian TV commentator. "In Soviet times the authorities would set up our own alternative events, but today people will not accept substitutes."

'No substitutes'

The Eurovision spat between Ukraine and Russia started last year, when Jamala, the Ukrainian entry and a Crimean Tatar, won with a song about the Stalin-era expulsion of her people, which Russia denounced as blatantly political.

The victory made Ukraine the host for this year's competition – and set Kiev on a collision course with the Kremlin over Russia's 2017 contestant, Julia Samoilova, a wheelchair-bound singer who had earlier performed in Crimea after its 2014 annexation by Russia. Ukrainian authorities view that as a crime, and promised to arrest Ms. Samoilova if she entered Ukrainian-controlled territory, effectively barring her from the competition.

Such exclusions, whether de facto or literal, have become more common as Russia has butted heads with the West. Last year much of the Russian Olympic team was blocked from taking part in the Rio Summer Games amid a doping scandal, its Paralympic team was banned altogether, and there are persistent rumors that the 2018 FIFA World Cup, to be hosted by Russia, might face a boycott by Western countries.

Polls suggest that Russian majorities tend to politically support their government's position in each case. For example, about 60 percent of Russians support Samoilova as their national contestant, despite being declared persona non grata in Ukraine. (She has already been announced as next year's Russian entry into the contest.) Yet there is no sign that Russians are turning against the belief that their country should be a full participant in such international events.

Indeed, while Russia and its Soviet forebear have in the past run their own competitions as at least temporary stand-ins for international competitions, they have not generated as much interest.

Before it joined the Olympic movement in 1952, the USSR sponsored a separate world athletic championship, known as the Spartakiad, which it billed as a full-scale alternative to the bourgeoisie-run Olympiad. But it was abandoned as an international competition in 1936, before being revived as a domestic Soviet contest that ran from 1956 to 1991.

Last summer, the Kremlin hastily organized special track-and-field events for its banned Olympic athletes in a Moscow stadium. But they attracted little notice, even in the Russian media, and there was no grand talk of "alternatives."

"Yes, we had our own competitions last summer, and it was fine," says Andrei Rodionenko, senior trainer for the Russian gymnast team. "But we have always supported, and will support, the Olympic movement. There is no substitute for that."

Mr. Pozner says the message to Russian authorities is clear: fix the doping problem and bring Russia back into the Olympics.

"Our exclusion last year was a big loss of face, a blow to Russian prestige. And Russian leaders have since made it very obvious they will do whatever is necessary to satisfactorily resolve the issue, so that Russia becomes a full participant in the Games again," he says.

Russians' preference

As for Eurovision, the number of Russians who show an interest in the annual contest has lately been on the rise, with 63 percent showing an interest in the event this year, against 55 percent in 2012, says Mikhail Mamonov, a spokesperson for the state-funded VTsIOM public opinion agency. About 20 percent, mainly young and middle-aged Russians, said they intend to watch it, even though it will be accessible only via the internet this year.

"People here might not like Western politics, but they still prefer Western cinema and music. It's only a tiny minority who reject all things Western," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. He says Russians are much more sophisticated than they used to be, and no longer view the West as a single entity but rather as a menu from which they take things they like, reject what they don't.

"In culture, the general trend is definitely pro-Western," he says.

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