2007: Ukraine starts beef with Russia at Eurovision

Verka Serduchka used the Eurovision stage to shine a light on geopolitical tensions

UKRAINE - FEB 22, 2020: Verka Serduchka (Andriy Danylko) during ukrainian selection final of the Eurovision 2020 Song Contest.

2007 in Helsinki, Finland. A Ukrainian drag queen dressed as a disco ball bedazzles the audience by singing in four different languages, slapping the bums of performers in proximity, and seemingly yelling “Russia Goodbye!” to a television audience of approximately 90 million. The performer in question is the iconic Verka Serduchka, and this is the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC).

The staging is a maximalist feast of shiny silver that almost hurts to look at. Verka is accompanied by a disco ball-inspired ensemble featuring a star-topped headpiece reminiscent of a Christmas tree – not to mention the number 69 splayed across her back like an American footballer. The backup singers are dressed in glittery gold, with sparkling attendant hats and an oversized accordion, and her backup dancers are highly effeminate, mullet-wearing, gigolos.

If the visuals were not extreme enough, the actual song (‘Dancing Lasha Tumbai‘) is an Eastern-European warlike earworm with three key changes, a classic staple of Eurovision cheese. Verka sings in four established languages: English, German, Ukrainian and Russian, with sprinkles of Mongolian slang (apparently alluding to ‘milkshakes’). 

Verka Serduchka’s performance was an irreverent and queer celebration of ‘subversive camp’, but the performance in the Grand Final cemented it as, what fans would confirm, arguably the most iconic Eurovision performance of all time. Verka changed the lyrics from “lasha tumbai” to essentially what sounded like “Russia goodbye”, though the intention of this remains highly contested. “I think it was deliberate, because it came at a time shortly after the Orange Revolution” says Dr. Paul Jordan.

Dr. Paul Jordan is a Eurovision expert who worked for Eurovision as a communications manager from 2015-2018. In 2011 he completed a PhD titled ‘The Eurovision Song Contest: Nation Building and Nation Branding in Estonia and Ukraine’ – earning himself the affectionate title of ‘Dr. Eurovision’. He is a staunch advocate for the analysis of the ESC as a serious and important event, one that can be used to understand how countries relate to each other.

Prior to the 2007 contest, tensions had arisen between Russia and Ukraine due to an energy crisis, and earlier in November of 2004, a series of civilian protests erupted after the Ukrainian presidential election was believed to be rigged. This became known as the Orange Revolution, and it aggravated Russian officials who were worried about the destabilisation of society. But why was Russia so worried about Ukraine?

Protesters march in Ukraine as part of the Orange Revolution

The Ukrainian public took to the streets to protest the results of the 2004 General Election. [Shutterstock: Alexandr Zadiraka]

Ukraine became an independent country in 1991, separating from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Soon after, Russia joined Eurovision in 1994 with Ukraine following suit in 2003. Initially, the countries politely voted for each other with Ukraine winning in 2004 thanks to 12 points from Russia. Ruslana’s Wild Dances was a strong victory for Ukraine and musically marked a shift in Ukrainian pop to a more westernised sound. All the while, Russia had failed to secure a win yet, arguably due to political differences in relation to other countries.

“There is this image of big bad Russia… with almost pantomime-like booing from the crowd” says Dr. Paul Jordan. But with slick and powerful performances, clean-cut stars, and an insatiable hunger to win, Russia would go on to establish itself as a fierce and powerful contender on the Eurovision stage. Even the 2020 Netflix movie (Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga) initially presents a fictional Russian super-tsar as the main ‘villain’.

Mixing Eurovision with Russia – a country known for its anti-homosexual attitudes and legislation – would seem to be a recipe for disaster (as recently as 2013, Russia passed a law on homosexual propaganda that was very similar to Section 28 in the UK in the 90’s.) But Dr. Paul Jordan insists that “it’s not as simple as that…” Other countries that pass homophobic legislation, such as Turkey, Hungary, and Belarus tend to avoid a lot of criticism: “To place an act on a world stage is to open yourself up to scrutiny, it’s unavoidable… but I think the parallels are sometimes unfair… gay rights are used as a stick to beat [Russia] with” but other countries “perhaps need to look closer to home”.

Initially, Verka Serduchka’s drag may seem like the perfect Ukrainian foil to Russia’s anti-homosexual stance, but interestingly the character was not controversial because it was a man dressed as a woman. Instead, what made Verka controversial was “the fact that it was taking the piss out of Ukrainian women on the world stage”. Andriy Danylko created the character as a glittery caricature of a ‘specific type of working-class Ukrainian woman’ – a train attendant to be exact: “he got it spot on though” says Dr. Paul Jordan.

Verka Serduchka performs on stage

‘What made Verka special was everything else.’ [Shutterstock: Dmytro Larin]

Despite some Ukrainian resistance, Verka was an instant Eurovision hit, charting in many major countries and only placing second to a deeply emotive sapphic ballad from first-time competitors Serbia. To this day, Verka continues to inspire Eurovision fans globally, with Radio 1 DJ and Eurovision commentator Scott Mills telling Artefact: “I had the pleasure of spending a day in a hotel room in Kyiv with Verka and her mother filming a piece for the BBC Eurovision coverage, an iconic Eurovision character and a day I’ll never forget. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much.”

Eurovision is the world’s most watched live music event, with 183 million viewers tuning in for the 2021 edition of the contest. Nevertheless, in its 60+ year history, officials from the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) have largely insisted, somewhat naively, that the ESC is apolitical. Dr. Paul Jordan asserts that in recent years the EBU has become ‘more pragmatic’ about the inevitability of politics creeping in:If you’re hosting an event and it shines a spotlight on your country – it’s going to shine a spotlight on all things.”

The immense popularity of Verka on the Eurovision stage had little to do with her being a drag queen; Eurovision has always been a trailblazer in regards to LGBTQ+ rights. What made Verka special was everything else.

Not only did the performance excel Dr. Paul Jordan in what refers to as “the three S’s of Eurovision: The song, the staging, and the singer”, but the misheard lyrics “Russia Goodbye” succeeded in winding Russia up whilst managing to stay deliciously absurd. As the YouTube comments accurately state: “Other countries send singers, but Ukraine sends legends.” 

Ultimately, Verka Serduchka placed 2nd in 2007 and became a Eurovision icon for many years to follow. This was followed by Russia winning the competition in 2008, so both sides were appeased for the time being.

In the years to come, Russia would go on to receive a somewhat negative reception from the fans as European politics became far more progressive and Eurovision expanded to wider audiences year by year. But few acts have received a harsher audience reception than the Tolmachevy Sisters, who performed for Russia in 2014 following the annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea just two months prior.

The Tolmachevy Sisters at the Eurovision 2014 Meet & Greet Event making a heart with their hands

The Tolmachevy Sisters previously competed for Russia at the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in 2006. [Creative Commons: Albin Olsson]

At first glance, one might see two unlucky women being heckled for representing their country in a musical contest whilst something out of their control happens. That is, until you take a closer look at the lyrics.

“Living on the edge/ Closer to the crime/ Cross the line a step at a time
Now maybe there’s a place/ Maybe there’s a time/ Maybe there’s a day you’ll be mine
Now something’s got to give…”

With their long blonde hair and beautiful-yet-robotic identical appearances, the Tolmachevy Sisters become the new face of a dark and invasive Russia. Dana Getz from Bustle writes that “Seeing twins in horror movies is like going into the basement or investigating a suspicious noise: it’s one of those universal rules that almost always signals something sinister.” 

In March of 2014, Russian militants advanced on a southeastern area of Ukraine known as Crimea. The annexation of the territory, in conjunction with various uprisings in the Donbas region of Ukraine, marked the start of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Crimea formed the key battling ground for most of the political controversies leading up to the present; what we saw in 2014 was the beginning of a ‘propaganda war’.

We must remember what Eurovision means to these countries on a political level; many countries see Eurovision as a ‘cultural victory’, in the same way that the UK would see a World Cup or Olympic victory as a massive honour. The winners also host next year’s ceremony, allowing countries (such as Azerbaijan following their 2011 win) to reinvigorate their country’s entire image. In short, the reception of a Eurovision act can be used as a measurement of that country’s political standing, and Russia were losing.

In the same year, the Ukrainian entry Mariya Yaremchuk performed ‘Tick Tock’ in a human sized hamster wheel – now a visually iconic stereotype of Eurovision’s absurdity and ostentatiousness. While it may be a reach, Dr. Paul Jordan implies that even the name ‘Tick Tock’ might suggest counting down to an explosion of sorts.

Neither Russia or Ukraine came close to winning that year, instead it was dominated by Sweden and the bearded drag queen from Austria: Conchita Wurst. Therein lies the beauty of Eurovision; it is totally unpredictable. Dr. Paul Jordan states that “whether you’re from Malta or Georgia, you have the same treatment and time across all the platforms as say Russia or Sweden, the bigger countries… people talk about Eurovision being rigged, but the public vote is extremely safe.”

Sergey Lazarev attends a red carpet event.

Sergey Lazarev competed for Russia in 2015, and was the clear favourite to win the competition. [Shutterstock: TeleProstir Studio]

Eurovision officials largely trusted the public to keep Eurovision apolitical, that is, until 2016. The Ukrainian entry was ‘1944’, a gut-wrenching ballad sung by Jamala that detailed the genocide of Crimean Tatars at the hands of the Soviet Union. It had stiff competition in the form of Sergey Lazarev, the favourite to win and Russia’s golden boy, who performed a sleek and infectious electro-pop number in front of a hugely expensive LED screen. 

Jamala edged out the favourite to win to take the Eurovision crown, signalling both a massive shock for Eurovision officials and a huge political win for Ukraine. 

“Russia didn’t see it as a threat until it beat them… Not only had they spent loads and loads of money, but they sent their biggest star, and also the fact that they lost to Ukraine.” Then you add the fact that they lost to a song about Crimea? They were absolutely livid. “It was like a triple stab in the heart” says Dr. Paul Jordan.

Eurovision rules state that a competing song must be a new song, and a leaked video of Jamala performing a ‘work in progress’ of the winning song ‘1944’ was used in an attempt by ‘sneaky’ Russian officials to disqualify her win; ultimately a pointless endeavour that only made Russia look bitter.

The Eurovision Logo in Kyiv, Ukraine

The capital city of Ukraine, Kyiv, hosts Eurovision in 2017. [Shutterstock: VH-studio]

As a result of Ukraine winning, the 2017 contest was now set to be held in their capital city of Kyiv. This posed an interesting challenge for Russia, who felt undermined by the 2016 competition… Russia’s response?

Enter Juliya Samoylova, a singer with spinal muscular atrophy selected to compete for Russia in 2017. This decision could be seen as an innocent one, but Dr. Paul Jordan disagrees. The singer had performed in Crimea in 2014, and he argues that the Russian delegation absolutely would have known this: “She was a pawn in a geopolitical game.”

As the host country for Eurovision, Ukraine held the right to disqualify performers who broke Ukrainian laws. It is not illegal to enter Crimea via the Ukrainian land border, though Ukraine views the entry into Crimea without permission as an illegal act, and thus Juliya was destined to be disqualified for breaking the host city’s laws. “It was a missed opportunity to make a really powerful positive statement about disability… all because [Russia] were playing this cynical game.”

Not that Ukraine remained entirely unscathed by their actions. The slogan chosen for the 61st edition of the contest in Kyiv came under fire, and Dr. Paul Jordan does not hesitate to highlight how unfortunate it was: “The slogan was ‘Celebrate Diversity’, unless you’re a Russian wheelchair user.”

Juliya remains the only Russian act to not qualify for the grand final since the semi-finals were introduced in 2004. This leaves only one country with a 100% qualifying record in Eurovision history… You guessed it, that country is Ukraine.

Flash forward to the 2020s, however, and tensions between Russia and Ukraine are no longer trivial in any sense of the word. Since mid-2021, military efforts regarding the heavily contested Eastern-European peninsula of Crimea have escalated exponentially, with numerous international media outlets naming this situation a crisis.

Singer Maruv performs Siren Song on stage

MARUV performs ‘Siren Song’, the winning entry in Ukraine’s national selection for 2019. [Shutterstock: Review News]

A talented Ukrainian export that felt the brunt of Crimean controversy was MARUV, who won Ukraine’s national selection for Eurovision in 2019. The dominatrix themed electro-pop performance was almost guaranteed to be a top-5 placement for Ukraine, especially due to the ingenious choreography involving her legs, in thigh high stiletto boots, being cocked like a gun.

A striking performer with a powerful look, MARUV was surprisingly a non-confrontational and apolitical performer. During the national selection for Ukraine’s entry, previous winner Jamala bizarrely asked MARUV: ‘Crimea is Ukraine, Yes?’

Ultimately, what MARUV feels about Crimea is irrelevant. The issue here lies in the asking of a deeply political question in an environment that, officially, is not meant to include politics at all. A significant amount of MARUV’s international fanbase are Russian, which is perhaps why MARUV wanted to leave politics out of it. This resulted in disagreements surrounding MARUV’s Eurovision contract, which ultimately led to Ukraine being absent from the 2019 contest – much to the fans’ dismay.

The chosen 2022 Ukrainian entrant for Eurovision, Alina Pash, has recently decided to pull out of the competition. This comes amidst allegations that the singer entered Crimea illegally. After the legitimacy of her travel documents was called into question, Pash stated that she “does not want to be part of this dirty story anymore.”

With the disqualification of both MARUV and Alina Pash occurring as a result of internal disputes, it is no longer possible to simply blame Russia. Dr. Paul Jordan recalls that a colleague of his once said “Ukraine never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” If Ukraine had applied the same level of strictness back in 2007, the controversial legend that is Verka Serduchka may never have been able to perform on the Eurovision stage.

On February 24th 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. As we approach the 66th edition of the competition in Turin, Italy, the world looks to the Eurovision officials making difficult political decisions. Replacing Alina Pash as this year’s Ukrainian entrant are Kalush Orchestra with the traditional folk-rap song ‘Stefania’ who, following Putin’s invasion, became the favourites to win the entire competition overnight.

Having initially insisted that Russia would be allowed to compete, the EBU vetoed their decision on February 25th, following worldwide backlash and threats from competing countries to withdraw their competing acts. This proves – in the most concrete way we have ever seen – that the Eurovision Song Contest will always be political.

Featured image by Dmytro Larin via https://www.shutterstock.com