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When Strangers Are Coming: 1944, Diaspora, and Stalin Written by on May 12, 2016 | 3 Comments

Who would have predicted it: the legacy of Soviet despot Joseph Stalin would have implications for a song contest half a century later?  And yet, here we are. 1944, the beguiling entry from Ukraine’s Jamala, has courted attention in the mainstream media before it had won their national final. In this article, John Egan maps Jamala’s personal story against the Eurovision voting public of 2016.

Currently there is a civil war in Ukraine; ostensibly there is a peace agreement in the eastern parts of the country ostensibly under rebel control. Many believe these rebels have been supported by the Russian Federation, in terms of military equipment and more basic supplies. Early in the conflict the Russian Federation took control of the Crimean peninsula by stealth.

Ethnic Ukrainians who lived there—a minority compared to ethnic Russians (which is different than those whose first language is Russian: many ethnic Ukrainians speak little or no Ukrainian)—were unhappy about this. But Crimean Tatars, which includes Jamala, were particularly worried about history repeating itself.

This is where 1944 comes in: it is the story of Jamala’s paternal great-grandmother, who was deported to Central Asia. Most Crimean Tatars were deported; many died en route. Jamala’s parents met in Central Asia: her mother a descendent of Armenia deportees. Jamala herself was born in Kyrgyzstan; her parents moved to the newly independent Ukraine (in Crimea) shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union

Jamala during rehearsals (Image: EBU/

1944 certainly resonated with the Ukrainian public, winning the televote in both the semi-final (49%) and final (38%) back in January.  But to what extent will the voting public for Eurovision 2016 be similarly moved—moved enough to send of their 20 televotes Jamala’s way? Let’s take a strategic look at this; we have let history inform our analysis below.


Whilst the Lenin Soviet regime committed more than its share of political violence, it was when Georgian Joseph Stalin gained control of the Kremlin that the breadth and depth of repression expanded dramatically—as did the footprint of the Soviet Union. Under Stalin Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia became ostensive independent republics within the USSR. In 1940, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Moldova were occupied and become republics of the USSR. Across the Soviet Union in the 1940s thousands were murdered or deported, usually to Central Asia or Siberia.

Stalin Deportation Map –

For this article our research focused on countries that will participate in the televote  of this year’s Grand Final. We were curious about how many populations (or ethnicities or communities, if you prefer) were impacted by these deportations. We found the following (Wikipedia has a more comprehensive, if convoluted, list here):

Population Deportees   Population Deportees
 Estonians 30,000 Kalmyks 97,000
Latvians 67,000 Germans 780,000
Lithuanians 280,000 Finns 100,000
Poles (Ukraine, Lithuania, Russia) 276,000 Crimean Tatars 230,000
Belarussian Poles 100,000 Chechens, Ingush, Balkars 522,000
Azeris 100,000 Armenians 258,000
Moldovans 90,000

As well, 2, 323,000 kulaks–the land owning farmers, located mostly in Russia and Ukraine (whose treatment of peasants made them enemies of Soviet collectivism)–were  also deported.

These figures add up as more than five million deportees. Nearly all were deported under Stalin. So 1944 will resonate for a lot of people, well beyond the Turkic communities of Turks, Azeris and Crimean Tatars. These figures are for deportations: an estimated 3,000,000 persons died in Soviet Union prisons, gulags and forced resettlements.

If we take the communities above and map them across the current voting countries for this year’s contest we find:

Russian Federation: Cossacks Kulaks Kazakhs Chechens Ingush, Kalmyks, Azeris and Armenians
Participating Broadcasters: Finland, Germany, Poland, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Greece, Bulgaria,  Armenia,  Belarus, and Moldova
Diaspora populations: Armenians in France, Georgia, Ukraine, Russia (1,350,000); Azeris in Russia, Georgia and Ukraine (940,000); Poles in France, Germany, Belarus, Lithuania, Ireland, Ukraine (4,200,000); Moldovans in Ukraine, Russia, Italy, Spain (570,000); Belarussians in Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland (1,200,000); Georgians in Greece, Russia (450,000).

In other words, there are millions of Europeans whose families either witnessed or suffered repression under Stalin. Ethnic Russians also suffered under Stalin. So did perhaps some of the 1,900,000 Ukrainians living in Russia. Plus, there’s still Crimea itself…based on the 2014 census of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, the population of Crimea includes:

Ethnicity Number Percentage
 Russian 1,492,000 65%
Ukrainian 344,500 16%
Crimean Tatar 246,073 12%

We cannot confirm how many ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars remain in Crimea. Many have remained there, however, including Jamala’s own parents (who she has not seen since the Russians occupied Crimea). The phone system in Crimea was integrated into the Russian system a year ago: if Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars in Crimea are motivated to vote, ‘1944′ might well benefit in the Russian televote.

And Our Twelve Points Go To…

It is unlikely the entire population impacted by Stalin will watch this year’s Grand Final, let alone participate in the televote. Regardless, there is a massive constituency on offer here. The question is, can Jamala’s team harness it? Here’s where team Jamala becomes important, as does it’s messaging that this is a historical song, not a commentary on recent events in Ukraine.

Jamala speaks often about her strong Crimean Tatar background. However, being half Armenian will also not hurt: she might well get similar levels of support from both Azerbaijan and Armenia.  Add in a fair number of people in the Eurovision viewership rather willing to toss some coin at any entry that allows them to poke the Russian Bear, and you have even more televote potential, regardless of the entry or its quality.

This is where the commentators become very important. Most will explain what ‘1944′ is about; some might imply that this song is as much about Crimea’s occupation today as it is about Jamala’s great-grandmother’s deportation to Central Asia. We know that ‘1944′ began picking up mainstream press back in February. Jamala was interviewed by a few international wire services and several TV news agencies carried the story as well. Being available to do interview in English makes it easier to stay on message to a wide audience.

Back in March I remember Jamala correcting an interviewer who described her as a Crimean Tatar singer: “no, I am a Ukrainian singer of Crimean Tatar ancestry.” It’s a clear, subtle way of denotating that Crimean Tatars are Ukrainian and that Crimea is part of Ukraine. Without getting enmeshed in politics.

A few months on and ‘1944′ is gaining media traction again—including negative press in the russophone media sphere. People talking about your entry in the days before the Grand Final is almost always a good thing: it makes people take notice when your performance starts. That means an attentive audience…if you can hold their attention.

In 2014 there was a sudden surge of media interest in a bearded lady from Austria—a fair bit of it negative. When she came on stage during the semi-final Europe was waiting to see what Conchita could deliver: she did not disappoint, and ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ romped to victory. People who knew Conchita and understood her message were not disappointed; many who were skeptical or uncomfortable with the idea of a bearded lady were won over by her performance. Few would argue ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ was the best song of 2014, but Conchita’s performance was outstanding and the presentation elevated it. It all combined to create a remarkable moment.

And let’s not forget the juries. All the above still applies, plus many jurors will do a bit of research about the entries. What they will find is that Jamala is an incredible, versatile musician, adept and comfortable in opera, jazz and pop. Having written ‘1944′ herself will count for a lot with musician jurors. If Rona Nishiu can bring ‘Suus’ to 5th place (thanks largely to jurors) with a song few understood, ‘1944’s’ balance of artistry and accessibility (most of it is sung in English) will not escape many jurors.

It All Comes Together

1944′ is a stunning, contemporary song, it is quirky, its lyric in English is readily understandable, and it builds to a musical climax. A The presentation is, by most reports, stunning. Finally, ‘1944′ is Jamala’s song – it suits her range perfectly. Putting a great singer into a song contest with a challenging song that shows off their range is often a smart strategy. Give them a song that is laden with profound personal meaning—so long as they keep it together—and you have all the things needed to create a remarkable moment.
This year’s Ukrainian entry was always either going to seem totally self-indulgent or transformative: it seems to be the latter, based on the first two rehearsals. Rather paradoxically, instead of  the chorus—which introduces a new language to the Eurovision pantheon, Crimean Tatar, though few can sing along—it will perhaps be the verses with which people will connect, particularly the second:

We could build a future
Where people are free to live and love,
The happiest time.
Our time

Who can disagree with that sentiment? Besides Kyiv in May would be lovely.

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3 responses to “When Strangers Are Coming: 1944, Diaspora, and Stalin”

  1. V says:

    Kyiv might be lively in May but Sochi would be much better

  2. Seattlesque says:

    Fantastic article, John. Thanks for delving into the history for us.

  3. John P Egan says:

    Thanks Seattlesque; we shall see V. 🙂

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