Stranger in Moscow

by William Lee Adams

Julia Samoylova, Russia’s contestant for the Eurovision Song Contest. 2017. Courtesy Russian TV Channel 1.

The Eurovision Song Contest — that hyperbolic festival of pop music and soft nationalism watched by 200 million viewers each year — first took place in 1956, one of many postwar efforts to encourage solidarity across the continent. Lately, one country has been disrupting the party. I was in the glitter-slicked crowd in Copenhagen in 2014, where fans went wild for the bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst — but openly booed Russia’s Tolmachevy Sisters, a pair of adorable identical twins with matching blonde ponytails. They cried in response. The following year, in Vienna, the audience jeered again when the hosts turned to Russia during the voting segment, forcing Conchita to admonish the crowd on air.

Russia’s passage of draconian anti-LGBT legislation in 2013, followed by the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, have perfumed Eurovision lately — and spilled all over last year’s contest in Stockholm, whose winning song was a soulful breakbeat ballad about... the forced deportation of Crimean Tatars under Stalin. Jamala, the mononymic Ukrainian singer behind “1944,” explained that the song was personal rather than political, as it discussed her great-grandmother, who made the long journey and lost a child. But the nihilistic lyrics, sung in both English and Crimean, seemed to hint at newer skirmishes on the eastern front: “When strangers are coming, they come to your house / They kill you all and say, ‘We’re not guilty, not guilty.’”

Jamala’s victory meant that Kiev will host the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest this month, and fans had initially braced for Russia to withdraw — out of safety concerns, sour grapes, or both. But Russia RSVPed anyway. Julia Samoylova, this year’s Russian entry, is a 28-year-old singer from Ukhta who hit it big on Faktor A, the Russian version of The X-Factor. She also happens to live with spinal muscular atrophy, and was to sing “Flame Is Burning,” a sickly sweet, Soviet-sounding ballad, from a wheelchair. (“After the night there’s a light,” go the lyrics. “And in the darkest time a flame is burning, it shines so bright.”) Cynics rolled their eyes; Russia, the theory went, had chosen a sympathetic character to mitigate anti-Russian sentiment and potential booing. And there was another matter: Julia had performed in Crimea in 2015, without Ukrainian documentation.

Julia Samoylova performs “I Will Always Love You” on the Russian talent show Faktor A. 2013.

What came next reads like an Eastern European telenovela — albeit one whose script has been written by TV bureaucrats with a flair for nation branding. Within days of Russia’s selection, and as Julia sought medical treatment in Finland, Ukraine’s security services issued the singer with a three-year entry ban. Ukraine’s vice prime minister got involved, and argued that blocking Julia’s entry was necessary in order to “adhere to the norms of international law.” The head of Ukraine’s security services said his investigations revealed that Julia “left comments on social networks, where she spoke about Ukraine, its authorities, and its course for Euro-Atlantic integration.” Russian state TV subsequently condemned “Ukraine’s attempt to politicize the contest, whose goal throughout its 62-year history has been to unite people.”

Through it all, Julia has been channeling Miss Congeniality. “It is very funny to look at all this, because I do not understand what they saw in me — such a small girl,” she told Russian state media. “They saw some kind of threat. I am not actually upset. I continue to practice. I think somehow that everything is going to change.” (Julia has also been nothing but kind about Jamala’s anti-Stalin ballad: “I really liked the way she sang it, her voice and her presentation,” Julia says, seemingly putting art above geopolitical conflict. “It gave me goosebumps.”)

No Eurovision contestant has ever been banned from performing before, and the European Broadcasting Union, the body that oversees the competition, had to think creatively: partly to uphold its raison d’être, but also to save face. After condemning Ukraine’s decision as “unacceptable,” it proposed that Julia perform via satellite, just as Amy Winehouse had at the 2008 Grammys. (The US had rejected Winehouse’s visa that year; she’d recently been questioned over a video showing her smoking crack cocaine.) Russia quickly refused this “strange offer,” and Ukraine followed suit, saying a performance via satellite would still violate the law. It seemed Ukraine and Russia had finally found common ground, albeit by rejecting a peace settlement. Russia finally withdrew on April 13; Julia is staying at home, though the Russian broadcaster has already offered her the gig for Eurovision 2018.

In Russia, where Eurovision remains a prestige event, acts are closely vetted. Authorities surely knew that Julia had broken Ukrainian law. The Kremlin has said that virtually all of the country’s top stars have performed in Crimea. Yet even if Julia’s selection was a calculated decision to make Ukraine look bad on the international stage, the host country might have fallen into a trap all the same. Ukraine’s decision to uphold its laws is understandable, especially at a time of conflict. But the greater show of strength may have been knowing when to make an exception, especially when political sympathies already lie with your country.

Admittedly I’m biased. Until I went to university, I was a principal caregiver for my own disabled brother, who is mentally handicapped and confined to a wheelchair. In my mind — and in the minds of many living with disabilities — Julia’s participation had an importance that went beyond the likely motives of Russia’s decision. (That goes double in the former Soviet Union, where disabled performers lack visibility.) I won’t be able to sing along with her in Kiev, but count me among the new fans of the only person to emerge from the Eurovision kerfuffle unscathed. “It’s upsetting because it’s my dream, but I believe in hope,” Julia told Russian TV after her ban. The interview featured her and her boyfriend, who caresses her and pushes her wheelchair through Red Square. “Eight years ago we met on the internet,” she says, smiling. “He always told me, ‘You’re so beautiful. I want to read you poetry under the moon.’”