Generally speaking, Eurovision is not meant to be a political contest, with blatantly inflammatory or pointed messages nixed, as in the case of ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In’. However, there is a distinction between “political” and “historical”, and few songs in Eurovision’s back catalogue have danced upon that line (and possibly lit it on fire) quite like Ukraine’s entry for this year, ‘1944’ by Jamala. By sending a personal song about a historical event that echoes into today’s news, this mugham-infused dark jazz-pop composition has divided opinions and raised eyebrows, both musically and thematically.
This is certainly not the first time that history has been referenced in the Song Contest.
The Eurovision Song Contest, by virtue of embracing ethnic and national diversity, always flirts with the idea of veering towards cultural themes and issues. Jamala is sharing the story of her family’s exile and heartbreak at a time when Crimea happens to be firmly back in the international spotlight, but ‘1944‘, at its heart, is a historical retelling of a facet of history.
This is not something new to the Song Contest. Just last year, Genealogy honored the centennial of the Armenian Genocide with ‘Face the Shadow‘, and the same delegation made allusions to the nation’s shared history a few years earlier with ‘Apricot Stone’. Back in 1990, a number of songs referenced the fall of the Berlin Wall and the political unification of Europe. Entries like ‘Brandenburger Tor‘, ‘Keinen mauern mehr‘, and eventual winner ‘Insieme: 1992‘ all touched upon issues that were affecting the continent at the time. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s debut song in 1992, ‘Sva bol svieta‘, referenced the ongoing war in their homeland.
These songs didn’t point fingers or make accusations; they simply highlighted the events, past or present, that united a nation and its people.
So, now that we’ve looked at earlier examples of history at Eurovision, what about Ukraine’s song for 2016, ‘1944‘? In order to understand the situation (and the song), we need to take a look at who the Crimean Tatars are and what they’ve gone through, as a population. Generally speaking, the Crimean Tatars are a Turkic ethnic group that were first recorded in the region over six hundred years ago. Primarily Sunni Muslim, estimations on their numbers vary between half a million and over six million (depending on who you ask and their calculation methods).
A large diaspora of Tatars exists in Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine, but their largest numbers are in Crimea, where they number just around a quarter of a million, or about 12 percent of the current population. Since the turn of the twentieth century, the percentage of Crimea’s Tatar population has fluctuated wildly, from 35.55% in 1897 to no recorded population in the 1959 and 1970 censuses, to the slowly re-climbing numbers today.
The reason for that fluctuation is at the heart of ‘1944’.
As with most historical events, there are multiple ways to look at the story, and it’s incredibly tough to detail the history of the region without potentially offending people, so I’ll try to keep this somewhat brief. In 1941 and 1942, the Crimean Peninsula, previously controlled by the Soviets, fell to the Germans. The Soviet resistance against the invasion often made attacks against the local Crimean Tatar civilian population for runs on supplies. A small group of Tatars created defensive militias that were sanctioned by the occupying Germans. Some had actually been prisoners of war captured from Red Army battalions and were given the choice to either languish in prisoner of war camps or join the militias. Even though the number of men in these militias was small compared to the large numbers of Tatar men fighting in the Red Army, the entire population was painted with the same treasonous brush. When the Soviet Union regained control of the region in 1944, steps were made to rid Crimea of the Tatars.
Approximately 200,000 Tatars (primarily women and children) were evicted from their homes with little notice. They were forced onto train cars with little or no ventilation, food, water, or hygienic facilities, and shipped off to a number of far-flung places to the east. Of those 200,000, it is estimated that about 5 percent died en route to their destinations, and many thousands more died in the years that immediately followed due to a lack of housing and food in their new locations. It took until 1968 for the Soviet government to drop the charges of treason, but they were not completely welcomed back into their homeland until the mid-1980s.
May 18th, less than a week after the Eurovision Final, marks a Ukrainian Day of Remembrance for the victims of the expulsion and genocide of Crimean Tatars, or Sürgünlik in Tatar.
Echoes From Nazylkhan
One person who was a victim of this deportation was a woman named Nazylkhan, whose husband was fighting on the side of the Red Army when she and her four children were deported. One of those children, a daughter, died en route to Central Asia and was not given a proper burial. Nazylkhan’s great-granddaughter, Susana Jamaladynova, returned to Crimea when the doors of repatriation were opened in the 1980s and grew up to sing about her family’s history on one of the largest stages in the world, right as her homeland was back into the global spotlight.
Susana, who took the stage name Jamala, first came to the attention of Eurovision fans back in 2011 with the swinging, jazzy, irrepressibly fun ‘Smile‘, which came in 3rd place in a hotly contested Ukrainian National Final. But since then, her music has transformed from the bright and sunny melodies of ‘You’re Made of Love‘ and ‘It’s Me, Jamala‘ to the more emotional, introspective works found on her most recent album, ‘Podykh‘. Listening to songs like ‘Inie (Other)‘ and ‘Schlaych Dodomu (The Way to Home)‘. Her work has undoubtedly matured in the past five years, as artists tend to do. She has taken the time to discover herself and delve into the themes that mean something to her.
By singing about the Sürgünlik, Jamala has become a beacon as well as a lightning rod, showing the world a bit of history that is rarely covered in history textbooks. While this is a deeply personal family history for her, she said in her press conference (as well as in an interview with Eurovision Ireland) that this means so much more to her than even that. In her own words, “if you really respect venerate your family, your own culture and history, you learn how to respect other cultures. It’s the way we could make this world better.” Furthermore, by spreading the word about even the darkest chapters in human history, a single voice can hopefully make an impact and play a small part in having prevented other atrocities like this in the future.
From ‘1944’ To ‘2016’
Just because the Eurovision Song Contest isn’t intended to be a political event doesn’t mean the Song Contest should be devoid of culture, and a major part of culture is a group’s shared history. Whether a song’s lyrics talk about tragedy or triumph, it is important to be able to honor one’s past. And now, tonight, as the dust settles on another incredible Eurovision night, voters and jurors from around Europe and Australia came together to honor Jamala and her history, as well as our own collective history. As she said tonight in her winner’s press conference, “I always knew if you sing about truth, you can touch people. And I was right.”
As we all know, the Eurovision Song Contest was created as a way to unite broadcasters and strengthen technological ties, but as a side consequence, it has allowed us a forum to examine the wounds of our not-so-distant past. Tonight, Europe and Australia put Susana Jamaladanova and her great-grandmother Nazylkhan in the spotlight, and has gotten us to discuss something that many of us had no knowledge of.
But more importantly, as Jamala has said repeatedly, this is a family story. If the greatest lesson we learn from tonight is simply to love our families, hold them tight through times of trouble, and treat those around us with love and respect, then we’re all ahead of the game.
After all, SVT told us to ‘Come Together’, didn’t they?