Jamala, Eurovision, and Human Rights

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Greta Uehling]

Many Savage Minds readers will be aware of the victory of Jamala at the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest. As part of my current project, I have been following the work of this Crimean Tatar singer, composer, and actor closely, and was among those who greeted her at the Kyiv airport when she returned with her trophy.

The most striking aspect of Jamala’s triumph is not that a singer from a relatively small indigenous group rose to the top. After all, Jamala is a gifted artist whose vocal range spans eight octaves and multiple genres. What is most striking is the sharp contrast between the euphoria that sprang up with her victory in Stockholm, and the terror weighing down on her people in the Russian-occupied territory of Crimea. The joy and the pain are dizzyingly, even masochistically close. 

Jamala’s song, “1944,” is about the deportation of the Crimea Tatars according to an order by Josef Stalin. Inspired by stories she heard from her grandmother, Jamala blends the melody a well-known Crimean Tatar song with elements of the European pop style to produce powerful and evocative song.

My Crimean Tatars colleagues tell me the song captures the emotional valences of their parents’ and grandparents’ narratives perfectly. What’s more, Jamala has taken the cultural memory of her people and successfully communicated it in a way that not only helps knit Ukrainians together, but also ties them culturally to Europe.

While the song is hauntingly beautiful, it represents something of a double bind. Jamala and her team have created a performance that is strikingly beautiful to garner attention, but this very beauty may distract us from the horror of their plight.

Jamala’s song is not only about 1944: Crimean Tatars in the occupied territory are living the lyrics of the song today. Since the Russian Federation occupied the territory of Crimea in 2014, there have been at least 22 forced disappearances. The occupational authorities deny responsibility and have yet to launch a robust investigation of any of the cases, even when traffic police have been captured on camera carrying out the work, or the victims have been found with signs of torture inscribed on their bodies. So the lyrics “They come to your house, they kill you all and say: ‘We’re not guilty … not guilty’” describe the approach of the Russian-backed authorities right now.

The latest disappearance is Ervin Ibraimov, a 31-year old man whose car was found with the keys still in the ignition. This was a disappearance that, like the all the others, was stunning for all those who knew him. One minute he was driving his car home to his family, and the next minute he was nowhere to be found. Choppy black and white video captured with a cell phone camera from across the street show his attempt to run from his assailants before being captured and stuffed into an unmarked minivan

If the symbolism in Jamala’s Eurovision choreography is a bird emerging from its cage followed by a phoenix rising free from red flames and ashes, this footage is the opposite: it reminds me of a bird hitting a window pane and dying from impact with a gritty sky scrapper that should not have been there to begin with.

In addition to disappearances, there are searches, detentions, beatings, and surveillance. The scale of these practices has yet to be recognized. Searches in which one is commanded to lay face down while masked men with machine guns ransack one’s home are considered routine. In the city of Bakchesarai, the Federal Security Service waited outside the main mosque with empty busses. They loaded up every single man emerging from Friday prayers (roughly 100) and drove them away to an unspecified location.  If genocide is “the more or less coordinated attempt to destroy a dehumanized and excluded group of people because of who they are”1 it appears to be continuing today.

I write this as a way of prompting us to think about the violence that well-meaning platitudes about the importance remembering, the importance of songs like this one, ironically elide. I am not complaining that the song “1944” resonated so widely. It was a brilliant victory against the odds and this is a good thing. My concern has rather to do with the way the song is being universalized: it has been said to communicate the experience of oppressed peoples everywhere. With this kind of universalization, violence and genocide will become tropes that are repeated without the ugly reality being witnessed, addressed or even understood.

Human rights defenders in Kyiv that I spoke with shrugged at the news of more disappearances when I tried to call their attention to recent events. What has been created there is a hygienic frame of abstract sympathy. One size fits all.

There is an often-repeated saying in this part of the world that to remember is to prevent. If only it were that simple. In this case, it is Crimean Tatar children that have perceived the situation accurately. The Kyiv-based ATR television channel ran a program in which children in national dress face the camera and speak their minds. As one child put it, “The whole world is watching. With one eye, they cry, with the other, they laugh.” Knowing is not nearly enough. We need memory and a policy response; artistic expression and political will.

I place the rise of Jamala against the backdrop of a declining human rights situation in Crimea because the contrast dramatizes just how lacking, and just how urgently, more robust human rights enforcement mechanisms are needed.

  1. Alexander Laban Hinton, “Critical Genocide Studies,” Genocide Studies and Prevention 7, 1 (April 2012): 4–15. 
Greta Uehling

Greta Uehling is Fulbright scholar currently based in Ukraine. She teaches in the Program on International and Comparative Studies and is an associate faculty member with the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.