Manizha Sangin’s nomination for the Eurovision Song Contest 2021 sparked the greatest public debate about how Russia should be represented at this event in the entire history of Russia’s participation in it. The fact that the majority of the Channel One viewers voted for a song about a Russian woman performed by an independent female artist with a migration background took many people by surprise. The very next day social networks were flooded with xenophobic comments suggesting that a native of Tajikistan should not represent Russia. Conservative and nationalist-minded politicians of all stripes tried to ride the rising wave of hate speech against Manizha.
Within a month of the nomination, the performance of ‘Russian Woman’ was heavily criticised by Valentina Matvienko, chair of the upper house of the Russian parliament, and even by representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church. The apotheosis of the campaign against sending Manizha to Eurovision was the appeal by one community organisation to the Russian Investigative Committee to check her performance for ‘violating the dignity of Russian women'. At the same time, many artists, musicians, social activists, and ordinary Internet users came out in support of Manizha. In defiance of the hateful comments, thousands of solidarity posts were published on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. There were also several commentators who emphasised that while they do not share Manizha’s aesthetics, they are outraged by the attacks on her. Given this enormous public attention, ‘Russian Woman’ became the most watched video on the Eurovision YouTube channel in 2021. How can one explain the vicious reaction of pro-government and conservative social forces in Russia to Manizha’s performance? Why did ‘Russian Woman’ provoke such a polarisation of opinions on the question of whether an artist of Tajik origin has the right to represent Russia?
‘Friendship of Peoples’ legacy
The discourse on Russia’s ‘unique path’ touches, among other things, on the issue of accommodating cultural diversity. Russian president Vladimir Putin has repeatedly stressed that Western countries cannot cope with the integration of migrants, while the Russian situation is completely different. He believes that due to Russia’s historical evolution as a multinational state, stable forms of peaceful coexistence of multiple ‘peoples’ and ‘ethnicities’ have become established. For Putin, migrants from the post-Soviet republics belong to a common civilisational space, ‘the bonding fabric of which is the Russian people, Russian culture.' In his famous interview with the Financial Times, the Russian president hinted that the problems of Western migration policy lie in the primacy of individual rights, while in Russia the emphasis is on traditional values, with the result that people of different ethnicities get along well with each other.
Such rhetoric on the ‘national question’ substantially reproduces the ideological pattern of the ‘Friendship of Peoples’ (Druzhba narodov) that replaced proletarian internationalism in the mid-1930s. As historian Terry Martin puts it, ‘Druzhba narodov’ supported ‘the rehabilitation of traditional Russian culture’, which began to be thought of as the main unifying element of all ‘fraternal’ peoples. It also legitimised the idea of Soviet ‘national’ communities as homogeneous entities. Contemporary Russian ‘national policy’ is largely based on the premise that ‘peoples’ interact with each other as such entities under the patronage of an ‘elder Russian brother’. At the level of cultural representation, this means that those who belong to ‘fraternal peoples’ are allowed to publicly represent ‘their’ culture in folklorised forms, for example by wearing ethnic costumes at city festivals, but not the ‘great Russian culture’.
Manizha’s performance challenged this kind of representation in the way it attempted to reflect upon individual rather than collective identity, while referring to Russian folk music. What’s more, she mixes those references with other musical and visual codes, thereby lending cosmopolitan features to the image of a Russian woman. In her performance, Manizha constructs ‘Russian woman’ as an inclusive category that unites listeners on the basis of a common social experience, rather than ethnic origins.
The call for empowerment and responses to it
As an independent artist within the Russian pop-music industry, Manizha addresses the most acute social issues in her artistic and public statements. She regularly raises the issue of domestic violence, openly supports the LGBTQ communities, and became the first Russian Goodwill Ambassador of the UN Refugee Agency in December 2020. In her music video ‘Nedoslavianka’ (Underslav), she tells the story of overcoming an ‘ethnic inferiority’ complex and presents herself as an ally of those with identity troubles. Yet despite Manizha’s own experience of forced migration to Russia, due to the civil war in Tajikistan, her message is not always embraced by migrant communities. Newcomers from Central Asia generally avoid publicity and are reluctant to demand recognition because of their vulnerable legal position in Russia. And most leaders of public organisations of Central Asian peoples in Russia are members of the Soviet generation. Manizha’s cosmopolitan aesthetics and her emancipatory message are completely alien to them.
To date, Manizha’s empowering message has resonated the most with young artists, bloggers, and activists from among the so-called peoples of Russia. The most interesting example of this is Agasshin, a beauty-zine on Instagram dedicated to the experiences of those who are often perceived as ‘ethnic minorities’ in Russia. Its creator, cultural researcher and make-up artist Sophia Jung Shin An, a Korean Jew, has herself faced xenophobia and racism. The zine’s team sees its task as providing a platform for people of different origins so that they can tell their stories and thereby change the norms of popular culture. During the scandal surrounding Manizha’s nomination, the Agasshin editors expressed their support for her and her intersectional approach.
The precedent of Manizha’s ‘Russian Woman’ gives fresh impetus to the debate on representing diversity in Russia. It has highlighted new ways of responding to the problem of xenophobia. New networks of solidarity between people who are perceived as ethnic others, regardless of whether they were born in or outside of Russia, are now taking shape. It is also telling that Manizha translates ‘Russian’ in the song title as ‘russkaia’ rather than ‘rossiiskaia’. In English, the distinction is lost, but particularly in today’s usage, the term russkii/russkaia refers primarily to Russian ethnicity, while rossiiskii/rossiiskaia supposedly denotes a broader civic identity. With her song, Manizha therefore took a major step towards freeing the former term from its exclusive ethnic connotations.
Mark Simon is an assistant professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (MSSES).