RUSSIA – On International Women’s Day (March 8), singer Manizha won the Russian ticket to the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest. She’s now set to perform her song “Russian Woman” in Rotterdam in May. While many celebrated the selection, Manizha becoming Russia’s pick led to a torrent of hateful comments online over her Tajik roots and outspoken support for LGBTQ+ people. Here’s what you need to know about Manizha, her music, and the backlash she has faced.
Russian-Tajik singer Manizha Sangin (known simply as Manizha) is set to represent Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest, which will take place in Rotterdam from May 18–22. She secured the Russian ticket to the contest after winning an audience vote with the song “Russian Woman” (“Russkaya Zhenschina”) on Monday, March 8. Other groups in the running were the duet #2Mashi and the indie-pop band Therr Maitz. During the show, broadcast on Perviy Kanal, Manizha swept up 39.7 percent of the vote, followed by #2Mashi with 35.7 percent, and Therr Maitz with 24.6 percent.
The band Little Big, Russia’s pick for the 2020 Eurovision competition, which was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, declined to participate in this year’s selection process.
The song “Russian Woman” recounts the “transformation of women’s self-awareness over the past few centuries in Russia,” Manizha explained. She also said that the song was written on March 8, 2020, but she performed it for the first time only a year later. The song’s lyrics are inspired by a modern feminist agenda; for example, there are satirical lines like “You’re already over 30, hello, where are your kids? / You’re beautiful on the whole, but you could lose weight.”
Manizha said that she wants to demonstrate Russia’s generosity and openness at Eurovision: “For me, participating in Eurovision is a great opportunity to talk to the world about what really matters to me. I’m Tajik, but Russia accepted and raised me. I would like the world to see our country as I know it: generous, open, bright, and unlike anything else.”
Manizha is originally from Tajikistan but has spent nearly her entire life in Russia. She was born in Dushanbe on July 8, 1991 — her family moved to Russia when she was two and half years old due to the civil war in Tajikistan. In Moscow, she studied at a music school, played the piano, sang in a choir, and participated in music competitions. At the age of 16 she began writing her own songs and performing under the stage name Ru.Kola. She released her debut album in 2008, followed by a video for the title track “Neglect” (“Prenebregayu”) in 2009.
The singer is also involved in a variety of charitable initiatives: she’s an ambassador for the Podari Zhizn Foundation, and in December 2020, she became Russia’s first goodwill ambassador to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
Manizha has spoken out against domestic violence and has expressed support for LGBTQ+ people. “It’s important for me to help girls and women not to be afraid to be themselves. I get a lot of personal messages on Instagram from Tajik, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz girls. They write about male violence and their despair […] I redirect them to different foundations,” Manizha told Kommersant in an interview last year.
In 2019, the singer launched an app for victims of domestic violence (it later came under criticism for alleged plagiarism) and released a video for her song “Mama” that features a young girl trying to save her mother using superpowers. Manizha also spoke out in defence of the Khachaturyan sisters, who stand accused of killing their father after suffering years of domestic abuse. “I couldn’t believe that they want to put them in jail for so long, and no one thinks about the fact that their lives are already broken,” she told Hello! magazine.
In the same interview, Manizha said that “half of Tajikistan” thinks she’s a lesbian. “They think that if you support the LGBT community it means that you’re definitely gay. But this isn’t true. I just love people and I adore the LGBT community, and I think it’s cool to support them,” the singer said. In July 2020, Manizha published an Instagram post supporting LGBTQ+ people, which resulted in her losing several thousand followers.
The results of Russia’s Eurovision selection provoked a torrent of xenophobic comments online. At the same time, many people came out in defence of Manizha. On social networks, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta writes, users asked if “they couldn’t find any Russians,” complained that the “vote was rigged,” and “disliked” videos featuring Manizha’s song. Others called for replacing the performer “before it’s too late” and opposed someone from Tajikistan representing Russia at Eurovision, reported 360 TV. Pro-Kremlin journalist Yuri Kotenok described Manizha as a “migrant who has made her career on the LGBT agenda.”
Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky also criticized the singer. In particular, he took issue with two of the lines from her song “Russian Woman” — “A son without a father, daughter without a father / But a broken family won’t break me” and the aforementioned lyric “You’re already over 30, hello, where are your kids? / You’re beautiful on the whole, but you could lose weight.” “I’m not sure if this is good for raising the image of Russian women and Russia in general,” Zhirinovsky said.
At the same time, hundreds of posts in support of Manizha appeared on social media. “How cool: Anya Rivina on the cover of TIME, me and Femdacha in the Washington Post, and Manizha is going to Eurovision with a song about empowerment!” feminist activist and artist Daria Serenko wrote on Twitter. “This doesn’t change all the shit that happens to all of us, but it’s so cool to feel that you are seen and supported, and not just in the Russian Federation.”
Music producer Iosif Prigozhin said that he “didn’t understand” the song “Russian Woman.” In his opinion, Manizha has a “very low” chance of winning the Eurovision Song Competition. At the same time, he called her “a girl born in Tajikistan, [who] sings Russian folk so cool.” Poet Karen Kavaleryan, who has written songs for Eurovision for Russian singer Dima Bilan, Ukrainian singer Ani Lorak, and Belarusian singer Dmitry Koldun, said the fact that Manizha is entering the competition with a song in Russian and not in English is a “strategic mistake.”