RUSSIA – Singer Manizha (Manizha Sangin) performs at Crocus City Hall, a concert hall in Krasnogorsk, Moscow RegionManizha will represent Russia at the 2021 Eurovision song contest with the song Russian Woman in Rotterdam
Nearly a decade after President Vladimir Putin embarked on a crusade to bolster conservative values, Russia has banked on an unlikely candidate to lead them into the Eurovision song contest: a Tajik refugee on a mission to smash female stereotypes.
Manizha, a domestic abuse activist born in a peasant hut, has upset the establishment and delighted the country’s increasingly progressive youth as she rapped her way to victory with a song that lampooned traditional attitudes to women.
Watching Eurovision may be treated as a guilty pleasure in many parts of Europe but the kitschy song competition enjoys a cult status in Russia were getting the right artist and the right song for it is considered a matter of national pride as important as the performance of the national football squad in the World Cup.
In recent years, Russia has chosen the safe option of typically vacuous bubblegum pop boy bands carrying simple love ballads without a political or social message.
But Manizha, a sassy and candid 29-year-old, who grew up in Moscow after fleeing a civil war in her native Tajikistan in the early 1990s, says that her mission at Eurovision would be to present Russia as a “big, multicultural and strong country that gave me shelter.”
In her Eurovision entry titled “Russian Woman” Manizha appears on stage wearing a traditional Russian sheepskin coat and a headscarf, singing wistfully about waiting for a distant male figure only to kick off the coat a moment later to appear in scarlet overalls, rapping in English: “Every Russian woman needs to know: You’re strong enough to bounce against the wall.”
The idea behind the song, according to Manizha, was to show “what a stunning journey the Russian woman has made from a peasant’s hunt to having the right to vote and run for office, from the factory floor to space travel.”
In a country where discrimination against Central Asian migrant workers is common, Manizha has been open about grappling with her own dual identity, singing in one of her songs about being “not quite a Slav, not quite a Tajik” and making fun of both the stereotypical Tajik and Russian woman.
She has also lent her voice to activists fighting domestic violence and has been involved in local charities, helping refugees and migrants in the Russian capital where Tajiks are often considered one of the biggest but also one of the most marginalised minorities.
The daughter of secular parents from predominantly Muslim Tajikistan, Manizha openly supports LGBT rights, which is largely a taboo subject on state-owned television.
Her win in the national competition for Eurovision has delighted music critics and liberal intelligentsia but it also shed light on the ugliest forms of xenophobia and racism in Russia’s conservative circles.
“The song’s lyrics is classic Russophobic abomination which is insulting for Russian women,” Yegor Kholmogorov, a well-known right-wing publicist, wrote earlier this week. “For the first time in a very long time, millions of people in Russia will consciously wish for Russia to lose.”
Manizha has been open about grappling with her own dual identity Credit: TASS /Valery Sharifulin
Russia’s best-selling tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda went as far as to run a piece by one of its columnists, known for uncomfortably close links to right-wing extremists, who suggested that Manizha has no right to represent Russia simply because she was born in Tajikistan.
In the whirlwind of comment, the same newspaper on Wednesday ran a reconciliatory piece headlined: “Is Manizha going to destroy Russia? Or have we all gone crazy?”
Oksana Pushkina, the sole lawmaker in the Russian parliament consistently pushing for women’s rights, earlier this week condemned several other lawmakers for dismissing Manizha’s song as distorting the image of the Russian woman.
“My esteemed colleagues keep forgetting about the real and not imaginary problems: The law on preventing domestic violence still hasn’t been adopted, shelters for victims are few and the NGOs that are working on this problem are blacklisted by the government as foreign agents.”
Younger Russians would probably have no recollections that two decades earlier their country was represented at Eurovision by faux lesbian duo t.A.T.u, and the Russian public did not even blink.
But Vladimir Putin upon his return to the presidency in 2012 after a stint as a prime minister heralded a new era of conservatism, promoting what he called traditional Russian values and attacking the LGBT community.
The turn towards social conservatism, originally aimed at consolidating his support base, may have worked on older generations but Manizha’s win in a popular vote on state television came on the heels of recent sociological research pointing to a growing chasm between older Russians and the post-Soviet generation.
Opinion polls show that Russians under 30 are more likely to support gender equality and be tolerant or supportive of the LGBT community. In politics, a similar divide is seen in terms of endorsement of President Putin as only half as many younger Russians are willing to vote for the incumbent president compared to people over 30.
While older generations appear to be firm in their conservative views, younger Russians have become visibly more tolerant in recent years, especially on social media platforms, according to popular feminist blogger Zalina Marshenkulova.
“The online landscape has changed dramatically: the feminist agenda has definitely won on Twitter. These days, you wouldn’t find a tweet with homophobic or misogynist views that would get 1,000 likes,” she told the Telegraph.
The Kremlin’s propaganda of conservative values is not really working on a younger generation whose values are increasingly shaped by the internet, Ms Marshenkulova added.
“There is nothing they can do with my generation of 30-year-olds in terms of getting us to believe in those rotten and outdated values, and they totally can’t convince 20-year-olds who grew up on the Internet, speak English and have a good idea what’s happening in the world,” she said.
Russian society is evolving faster than the conservative politicians would notice Credit: Valery Sharifulin /TASS
In another sign of changing times, Russians’ perceptions of International Women’s Day have been changing radically in recent years.
The holiday is known in Russia as March 8 morphed by the final decades of the Soviet Union into a day-off when male citizens give flowers and chocolate to women and sing praise to their beauty and femininity.
Russia, however, recently saw a noticeable pushback against the old notion of the holiday as women and men alike are trying to re-invent it as an occasion to talk about misogyny, equal rights and female empowerment.
On Monday, many Russians including prominent opposition politicians, both male and female, took it to social media to write about gender equality under the hashtag translated as “March 8th is not about flowers.”
Ms Marshenkulova, too, points to fewer misogynist ads and more conscious holiday messages on March 8 as a hint to a change in public mood but she believes that it mostly affects the educated classes and not larger swathes of society.
Manizha’s win may not necessarily mean that Russia has defeated centuries of ingrained stereotypes about gender, family and sexuality but the fact that a singer like her has gained a platform on state TV shows that Russian society is evolving faster than the conservative politicians would notice.
“These days, our country is being shaped by people like her – a woman born in Central Asian who grew up in Moscow and who is fighting for her own rights as well as the rights of her friends in the LGBT community and women who face domestic violence,” Renat Davletgildeyev, a Russian journalist, wrote earlier this week in a column responding to xenophobic vitriol from the nationalist circles.
“This is the future of Russia, dear racists. There’s nothing awful about it. You just have to accept it.”