Photo credit: AP
One of the most surprising—and exciting—entries in this year’s Eurovision came from Russia, a country that is often a dominating force in the contest, both musically and politically. But the conversation around Russia’s entry this year wasn’t about how much money was going into the staging, their bloc-voting advantage, or Russian aggression towards the West. Instead, all eyes (and ears) were on Manizha, a fiercely feminist, pro-LGBTQ+, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador who herself is a refugee from Tajikistan. She and her song “Russian Woman” defied all expectations of a typical Russian Eurovision entry, featuring a multi-layered critique of sexism in Russian society and a call to power for all Russian women to find their inner strength. It resonated with enough voters to win Russia’s hastily-assembled national final (on International Women’s Day, no less) and brought “Russian Woman” to the stage in Rotterdam, where it ended up in 9th place in the Grand Final.
Entire theses could be written on the feminist aspect of “Russian Woman,” both in the song itself and in Manizha’s performance, which has already been the subject of extensive twitter threads and articles. But beneath the many layers of feminism in “Russian Woman” are also statements on identity, discrimination, and traditional notions of what it means to be Russian, all born out of the xenophobia Manizha has faced throughout her life and which was on full display after her selection as Russia’s Eurovision representative. And it was Manizha’s take on these issues, as well as her vision of an ethnically-, sexually-, and gender-diverse Russia—the real Russia—that the world saw on the stage in Rotterdam.
The questions of “What is Russia?” and “Who is Russian?” have been debated for decades, if not centuries, inside and outside of the country. Fascinatingly, “Russian Woman” has an answer to those questions for both domestic and international audiences.
The typical picture of Russia in the Western imagination is, at best, incomplete, and at worst, damaging. There’s the Russia of the political sphere: the age-old adversary, an authoritarian regime under the thumb of Vladimir Putin where corruption runs rampant and political adversaries are assassinated in broad daylight. There’s also the Russia of memes: a grotesque parody of a country full of burly men in fur caps riding bears and chugging vodka, Adidas track suits, Slav squats, crazy dash cam footage, foul-mouthed gamers, and internet trolls, all cloaked in a strange veneer of cold war aesthetics (last year’s Russian Eurovision act, Little Big, often satirizes this image, though whether the meme lords are in on the joke is up for debate). Finally, there’s the Russia of Hollywood: either nauseatingly opulent or completely destitute, a country run by mobsters that is perpetually grey and snowy, where the men are all greasy and violent, and the women are either supermodels, sex workers, or babushki.
While elements of all of these pictures certainly exist within today’s Russia, they are just parts of a much more complex and diverse reality.
Most importantly, though, all of these images of Russia are very white. The people featured in the movies and the memes are almost exclusively ethnically Russian (or meant to represent ethnic Russians). And in the popular imagination, very little of that Russia exists outside of the metropoles of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. If it does, it’s considered “Siberia”: little more than a sad, poor, and frozen wasteland.
The reality, however, is that the Russian Federation is the largest country in the world by area (almost twice as big as the US and China combined), spanning two continents. It’s a multinational state with almost 200 distinct ethnic groups within its borders, many of whom live in (nominally) semi-autonomous republics. There are 35 languages that are officially recognized by the State, and around 100 that are spoken within the country. Ethnic Russians make up around 80% of the country’s 146 million people, meaning there are about 35 million non-ethnic Russians in the country, including migrants and refugees (like Manizha herself) from parts of the former Soviet Union and elsewhere (here’s a great video about Russia’s diversity and how it came to be so big).
The giant dress Manizha is wearing at the beginning of her Eurovision performance is meant to represent this diversity, featuring textiles and patterns from dozens of Russia’s different ethnic groups (yes, it also represents the constraints of traditions on women. Remember, this performance is layered).
Many of these ethnic groups, however, face serious discrimination in Russia. Decades of Russification has caused many of their languages to go almost or entirely extinct and threatened the survival of their cultures. Government centralization has robbed many of the previously autonomous republics of their power over local and cultural affairs. Ethnic minorities, particularly non-European minorities, face employment discrimination and negative stereotypes in addition to just general xenophobia, which is on the rise. Religious discrimination, particularly against Muslims and other non-Christian groups, is also apparent, while some ethnic groups, such as Crimean Tatars, are even actively targeted by the state.
As previously mentioned, Manizha’s selection as the Russian representative at Eurovision brought on an onslaught of xenophobic comments from her fellow countrymen, with high-profile politicians and YouTube commenters alike questioning why Russia wasn’t being represented by a “real” Russian. Of course, they happened to ignore the fact that Manizha has spent most of her life in Russia, was educated there, speaks Russian as her first language, and considers herself Russian.
This is partly because national identity and culture in Russia is very closely tied to ethnicity. In Soviet times, all citizens had to put an ethnicity on their official documents that was determined by parentage above anything else, with the adjective Russkie (русские) referring specifically to ethnic Russians (it is also the word used for the language and traditional Russian culture). When the Soviet Union collapsed, instead of Russkie becoming a catch-all for those who lived in what would become the Russian Federation, a different word, Rossiyane (россияне) came into common usage to describe all citizens of Russia (the adjective form would be Rossiyskiy, or российский).
This distinction, however, doesn’t exist in English. We use the term “Russian” to describe anything to do with the country and its people, and it’s this linguistic quirk that Manizha brilliantly takes advantage of in the lyrics of “Russian Woman.” The title of the song is never translated into Russian in the lyrics and remains sung in English. Manizha’s red jumpsuit even has “Рашн Wуман,” the phonetic spelling of the English words in cyrllic, emblazoned on the back (the “W” is latin because the “w” sound doesn’t occur naturally in Russian and the closest-looking letter, “Ш” makes a “sh” sound).
By refusing to translate the term “Russian” into Russian, Manizha avoids having to pick between defining the titular “woman” in ethnic terms as Russkaya or Rossiyskaya. Manizha is Russian. The women she’s speaking to are Russian. Period.
There’s another moment in the staging of the performance that alludes to Russia’s unique history, and the unique nature of its multinationality. As Manizha sings the lines “Борются, борются / Все по кругу борются, да не молятся” (“Fighting, fighting / everyone around is fighting but not praying”), images of warriors on horseback running toward each other appear on the screen behind her while a woman looks sorrowfully over them from above. If you look closely, the warriors coming from the right side seem to be Mongols while those from the left look like medieval Russian knights (or “boyars”).
The struggle in the 13th and 14th centuries between the Rus’ (as slavic Russians were then known) and the Mongols of the Golden Horde (or Tatars, as they came to be called) shaped the history and culture of Russia today. Many of the country’s ethnic minorities are descended from the Mongol and Turkic peoples that conquered and settled in the region in the middle ages, and insecurity about their borders in the face of the Mongol threat is what led the Rus’ to expand eastward all the way to the Pacific Ocean, incorporating hundreds of ethnic groups into the Russian Empire through both diplomacy and violence. Yet, the way Manizha sees it, the fighting hasn’t stopped. Instead, it manifests itself through the xenophobia, mistrust, and discrimination faced by millions of non-ethnic Russians every day.
The performance ends with Manizha singing to a wall of Russian women. Notably, the women in the screen are clearly a diverse bunch, coming in all shapes, colors, sizes, ages, professions, sexualities, and gender identities. These aren’t just the white, sexy Russian supermodels and bumbling babushki we see in Western media. These aren’t just the white, straight, behaved women that traditional Russian society deems acceptable. The real Russia isn’t just what we see in movies and it isn’t just what an increasingly nationalist and traditionalist government wants it to be. The real Russia is complicated, multifaceted, and diverse. These diverse Russian women are ready to break free from the constraints of both traditional gender roles and xenophobia, and they are ready for change. These Russian women, as Manizha proclaims triumphantly, are the change.