A War of Songs

The Man

Former Staff
Jul 2011
IN FEBRUARY 2019, tensions between Russia and Ukraine hit the headlines once more. This time the subject was Ukraine’s decision to withdraw from the Eurovision Song Contest amid controversy that arose during their process of choosing a national entry for the television competition. During a live transmission on UA:pBC (Ukrainian Public Broadcaster), guised as preparation for press conferences, Ukrainian artists were asked a series of questions, including whether Crimea was a part of Russia or of Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, they all replied that it was the latter.

The winning artist, Maruv, was then asked to sign a participation agreement with a number of clauses, including a ban on her performing in Russia, which the Ukrainian government considers to be an aggressor state. Maruv refused to sign the agreement, which she considered to be tantamount to censorship, and chose to withdraw from the competition. UA:pBC then approached the artists who came in second and third, but both declined the opportunity to perform, in solidarity with Maruv. With time running out ahead of the Eurovision deadline, Ukraine was forced to withdraw.

This debacle makes the important new study A War of Songs: Popular Music and Recent Russia-Ukraine Relations very timely indeed. The volume uses the political protests that began in Kyiv in 2013, and became known internationally as Euromaidan, as its point of departure. Usefully, it offers a general history of these initial protests, interspersed with analyses of both the music that accompanied them and interviews with people on the ground. The opening sections also contextualize both Euromaidan and the music associated with it with reference to the so-called Orange Revolution of 2004–2005 and earlier protests against the then-president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma.

Euromaidan initially started in response to President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an association agreement with the EU, and eventually led to a revolution that saw the overthrow of the Ukrainian government. It also saw the annexation of Crimea by the Russian government, and a full-scale war in the east of Ukraine. The authors chart this trajectory by dividing Euromaidan into different phases, which are mirrored, in their view, by the musicality emanating from the sites of protest.

The Russian section of the book deals with a number of complex issues, including the Kremlin’s restorative geopolitics under Putin. The early parts deal with the topic of the Russian national anthem, the final version of which was ratified in 2000. One of the great pleasures of the book lies in the authors’ masterful use of anecdotal details, which include the fact that Russian diva Alla Pugacheva, who began her career in 1965 and remains enormously popular, submitted lyrics to a national competition for a freshly written anthem. Her version was not chosen.

In telling the tale of the search for a new national anthem, the authors also touch on other nation-building programs undertaken by the Kremlin in order to engender feelings of belonging among a disenchanted population. The Putin regime’s tools of choice were national symbolism and cultural history — and they still are, though the repertoire of symbols has grown and shifted. The book highlights the problematic nature of this enterprise, particularly in a country like Russia, which has struggled to reconcile its Soviet past with its present.

But for this critic, the most interesting chapter is the one dedicated to an analysis of Russia-Ukraine tensions through the Eurovision Song Contest. The analysis of the winning act from Ukraine in 2004, Ruslana, as well as the Ukrainian entry following the Orange Revolution, GreenJolly, may not tell us anything new musically, but it places the performances in clear political context. Similarly, the analysis of the performance of drag queen Verka Serduchka is an important inclusion, since it highlights the link between parody and protest in the recent conflicts — a link particularly salient in light of the recent election of TV comedian Volodymyr Zelensky to the presidency of Ukraine. The intonation in Serduchka’s song, “Dancing Lasha Tumbai,” was largely received by audiences as “Russia Goodbye,” and therefore seen as a snub to the other nation. While in Ukraine, the character of Verka was seen as parodying Ukrainian women and was therefore deemed not only subversive for its queer undertones, but also downright offensive.

As the analysis here makes clear, the Eurovision Song Contest, which the organizers always strive to present as apolitical, has tended to highlight the various political tensions on the continent. In 2009, for instance, the contest was hosted in Moscow, and the contemporary conflict between Georgia and Russia spilled out onto the stage. Ukraine’s victory in the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest, with a song performed in English and Crimean Tatar, is richly explored in these pages. The juxtaposition between this song, largely seen as a not-so-veiled reference to historical events (it was titled “1944”) and the current annexation of Crimea, and Russia’s flashy dance number performed by superstar Sergey Lazarev, is both original and entertaining, and sets the scene nicely for the discussion of the 2017 contest, which was held in Kyiv.

The 2017 contest was one of the more controversial competitions of recent times, thanks to the decision to ban Russian artist Yulia Samoylova from entering Ukraine after it emerged that she had performed in Crimea after the annexation (illegally, according to Ukrainian law). As someone who worked as a communications manager on the 2017 contest, I can say that the authors’ treatment of the situation is accurate and balanced. It encapsulates some of the complexities that the events threw up, particularly in light of the theme for that year, “Celebrate Diversity.”

Where I believe the Eurovision analysis does fall short is in its scanty commentary on the 2014 competition, which took place just months after Crimea was annexed. Russia’s entry that year, performed by the identical twins the Tolmachevy Sisters, was titled “Shine.” The lyrics of the song are as follows:

Living on the edge, closer to the crime
Cross the line, a step at a time
Now maybe there’s a place
Maybe there’s a time
Maybe there’s a day you’ll be mine.
Given that the twins were child stars in Russia, having won the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in 2006, and performed at Russian military parades, the song emerges not just as a vague reference to the annexation, but as a blatant flaunting of it on the world stage.

In a game for media attention between Russia and Ukraine, it was Ukraine that came out on top in the PR game though. The Tolmachevy Sisters refused to give interviews at Eurovision that year, perhaps due to poor English language proficiency, while the Ukrainian act Mariya Yaremchuk was only too happy to talk about the annexation to the world’s assembled press. Interestingly, her entry, “Tick Tock,” can essentially be seen as a metaphor for the internal troubles in Ukraine.

The analysis of popular music allows the reader to tap into much deeper issues. One of the important points made in A War of Songsis that, despite political tensions, Russians and Ukrainians continue to listen to each other’s music and, indeed, vote for each other in the Eurovision Song Contest. You cannot identify people with the actions of their governments. As a British citizen, this is something I feel very acutely in 2019.

For those who are knowledgeable about the recent histories of Russia and Ukraine, the narrative surrounding the political climate in both countries in this volume will not present much that is new. However, the musical analysis that accompanies this history is both original and timely. For readers who know next to nothing about these countries and their respective histories, this volume will be a revelation. It represents a unique contribution to the fields of pop culture criticism and political science — and it does so in an era when entertainment and politics are intertwined as never before.
Number One with a Bullet: On “A War of Songs: Popular Music and Recent Russia-Ukraine Relations” - Los Angeles Review of Books!

Very interesting book, it is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/War-Songs-Russia-Ukraine-Relations-Post-Soviet/dp/3838211731

You know, I have long said that this Western outlook on the situation there, all about borders and national sovereignty and all that, is a very simplistic view of an outsider who is unfamiliar with that whole region.

You cannot treat Russia & Ukraine that way. They are not simply two separate countries. They are two countries where you have many families, literally, half in one country and other half in the other! This is especially true for Eastern Ukraine. So, when the Maidan, mainly fuelled by Western Ukrainians and their political ideology, who are much LESS inter-related with Russia and Russians, and MORE hostile to them, went down, in early 2014, I, honestly, understand why Russia reacted, certainly with Crimea (though going further and instigating the whole mess in Donbass was reckless stupidity at best, and evil spitefulness at worst...). It's like, if someone grabbed your brother or sister and started dragging them away from you, by force, what do you do???

The picture with music and arts is always very complex there. There are deep relations and interdependence there too.

Even as Ukrainian nationalists demanded since 2014 that their artists shun Russia; majority refused.

Just couple days ago, for instance, "Three Accords", a very popular music contest show on Russia 1, the biggest Kremlin TV channel; you have Taisya Povaliy, legendary Ukrainian pop star, famous in both countries and all over ex-USSR, performing with the host Maksim Averin in the beginning
and later sitting on the jury too. Povaliy spends lots of time in Moscow and Russia in general.

So does Ani Lorak
Lorak has become probably the most famous Ukrainian singer EVER, period, she's like their Beyonce or Rihanna or Shakira or whoever else you want to compare to.

But, since 2014, she had spent way more time in Moscow also than in Kiev; she'd joined the jury on the Russian version of "The Voice", also on Russia 1

and last year, finally, plenty of Ukrainians were devastated to first hear about her apparently purchasing a penthouse apartment there

and later, in September, at start of school year, pics also emerged of her dropping off her daughter for her first day of Grade 1, at a Russian school, in Russia, that is

So... Yeah, seems like she is staying over there for good... lol (May have also been prompted by the fact that she'd dumped her Turkish-Ukrainian husband, finally, and started dating some Russian rap mogul haha)

I seen comments online, Ukrainians are more pissed at the Russians over this than about Crimea :D Can't blame em, again, imagine if another country somehow poached, I don't know, Jennifer Lopez or Taylor Swift off of America ;)

Russians, of course, are happily gloating at the Ukros about it, among other things, Lorak was this year voted by as one of RUSSIA'S sexiest woman by readers of Russian version of Maxim magazine lmao

Maruv, mentioned in the article, also performs in Russia plenty, including just in January

Svetlana Loboda, another Ukrainian pop princess, also pretty much lives in Russia now and mostly performs there, including at the Kremlin's own concert hall, among other places

And it's not a one way street either. There are also Russian artists who have moved to Ukraine, because they disagree with Putin, on Crimea and Donbass, etc (though, to be honest, I must say, in all objectivity and with total respect, they are not many, and mainly not exactly huge names, with not really much of a market and fan-base to lose back home from this move of theirs...)

It's actually quite fascinating, to observe show biz over there, from the outside now...

The Man

Former Staff
Jul 2011
KIEV — Ukraine plans to launch a worldwide Russian-language TV channel, as part of an effort to win the hearts and minds of people living in the eastern Donbass region and Russia, a senior presidential official was quoted as saying on Monday.

Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy won a landslide election victory this year promising to end the Donbass conflict between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatist forces that has killed 13,000 people in the past five years.

Relations between Kiev and Moscow plummeted after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014 and role in the Donbass conflict.

“It must be admitted that Ukraine practically lost the information war for the minds of people in the occupied territories of Donbass and in occupied Crimea,” Kyrylo Tymoshenko, Zelenskiy’s deputy chief of staff, told Interfax Ukraine news agency in an interview.

“But there is still a chance to turn the situation around.”

“We have developed the option to launch a Ukrainian Russian-language channel, with which we will be able to cover the Russian-speaking population throughout the world,” he said.

The channel should be state-run but source some content from private Ukrainian television channels, he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has thrown down an early challenge to Zelenskiy by speeding up procedures for Donbass residents to obtain Russian passports. Zelenskiy retaliated with his own measures but also extended an offer to meet Putin face to face in the Belarus capital Minsk. (Reporting by Matthias Williams; Editing by Alison Williams)
Ukraine to launch Russian-language TV channel in battle for hearts and minds

Funally, Kiev manages to come up with a decent idea...

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