The conflict between Ukraine and Russia found yet another battleground: the annual musical competition known as the Eurovision Song Contest.
Typically, Eurovision is a continent-wide celebration of feel-good, sometimes frothy compositions, sung by performers in over-the-top costumes that would make Madonna blush.
Kiev’s entry, which won on Saturday night, breaks sharply with this tradition, to put it lightly. It’s a dark song called “1944,” by a Ukrainian singer of Crimean Tatar descent, Jamala. And the song's victory in the competition in Stockholm, Sweden, sparked an angry response from Russian social media.
“1944” focuses on the Soviet Union’s deportation of the Crimean Tatar population from Crimea to Central Asia, amid accusations of collaboration with Nazi Germany during World War II. Some experts believe tens of thousands died either during the deportation or as a result directly afterward.
Jamala’s song has raised objections from Russian officials, who claim it’s a thinly veiled attack on the Kremlin.
What’s important is not the events seven decades ago, but more recent happenings: In March 2014, Russia sent soldiers in unmarked uniforms to forcefully annex Crimea, which up until then had been a part of Ukraine.
Since then, human rights groups say the situation has deteriorated drastically. And among those who have suffered the most? The Crimean Tatars.
They started to return to Crimea during the last days of the Soviet Union and after its breakup. For the most part, their community was opposed to the Russian takeover of Crimea in 2014.
And now, they’re paying the price for this loyalty to Ukraine, observers say. Russian officials have arbitrarily searched, detained and jailed hundreds of them. Some people have disappeared.
Last month, a Russian court outlawed the largest Crimean Tatar representative body, the Mejlis, calling it an “extremist organization.” Its approximately 2,500 members are now under threat of arrest.
Jamala says her song has nothing to do with recent developments in Crimea. She maintains it’s just a song about her family — albeit a very painful one — who were swept up in the deportations. Among those who died was her great-grandmother’s infant daughter.
“There’s nothing in it that could insult any individual, or country,” says Jamala, who was born in Kyrgyzstan. “Nothing is directed against anyone. Sure, there’s a date — but this is a date that’s important to my family.”
The Eurovision Song Contest organizers agreed with her: They ignored Russian objections, determining that the title and the lyrics do not contain political speech, and OKd it for the competition semifinals on May 10 and its second semifinals May 12.
Still, with lyrics like, “They kill you all and say/‘We’re not guilty, not guilty,’” and “You think you are gods/But everyone dies,” her song will contrast sharply with the other Eurovision entries — just remember Abba was a past winner.
And even if Jamala says the song isn’t a musical jab at Russia, many of her Ukrainian fans, enraged at Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the Kremlin’s support of anti-Kiev insurgents in eastern Ukraine, are hoping she’ll win for precisely this reason.
For Crimean Tatars, the song has become even more: a rallying cry.
“I was just in Crimea. People have it on their ringtones. It’s a way to protest what is going on,” says Emine Ziyatdinova, a Crimean Tatar journalist and multimedia artist. “When I heard this song, I cried."