ZOiS Spotlight 10/2017

An incomplete rainbow

by Robert Deam Tobin 17/05/2017
Powerful symbol: The incomplete 'Arch of Diversity' in Kyiv. Inga Pylypchuk/n-ost

Founded in 1956 to unify Europe through televised popular music spectacles, the Eurovision Song Contest has consistently reflected the growing integration of the continent. Organized by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the first contest featured singers from only six countries, all of which were also members of the European Coal and Steel Community, the predecessor of the European Community. As the European Community grew, so too did participation in Eurovision, also known as the Grand Prix. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, countries from Eastern Europe hastened to join: the number of countries participating moved from over twenty in the early 1990s to over fortx in the 2000s. Although broadcast television has decreased in importance in the twenty-first century, the EBU’s song contest has, if anything, increased in stature as the appeal and importance of a unifying Europe have grown.  With over 200 million spectators, interest remains strong, despite—or perhaps because of—concerns about the future of the EU and Europe more generally.

A liberal attitude towards sexual matters, particularly LGBTQ rights, has become one of the markers of European identity. This has stoked resistance in conservative Eastern European countries. Russian politicians have warned ‘there will be gay parades’ in Kyiv if Ukraine pursues pro-European policies, and questioned the values exhibited by the Eurovision song contest when it was won by the Austrian drag artist Conchita Wurst in 2014. In turn, Russia has been criticized for repression of LGBT rights and the deadly persecution of gays in the Russian republic of Chechnya. Europe has consciously promoted gay rights. The European Convention on Human Rights, for instance, effectively requires the elimination of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. All members of the Council of Europe, including Russia and Ukraine, have ratified the Convention.

In an article written on the occasion of the Song Contest, Nash Mir, an LGBT human rights centre in Ukraine, declares that ‘reforms tending toward European integration’ should lead to ‘visible changes’ for LGBT people. Lesbian activist Ruslana Panuchnyk is on record saying that Ukraine’s politicians want  ‘Europe, but not all of it’ – i.e. not the part that promotes the inclusion of gays and lesbians. The 2017 contest maintained this liberal tradition, featuring the slogan Celebrate Diversity. At the end of the 2017 grand finale, the Ukrainian moderators turned to the camera and informed television viewers that Ukraine was a ‘tolerant, modern, and very open country’. (See 4:36 in this clip.)

The singer Ruslana, who gave Ukraine its first victory in 2004, has been known for her progressive activities ever since. Because of Ruslana’s 2004 victory, Ukraine hosted the event in 2005, and the country's entry that year, Razom nas bahato (‘Together we are many’), explicitly referred to the rallying call of the Orange Revolution. Thus, in Ukraine Eurovision has been openly political several times. In 2016, Jamala won with the song 1944, which was about Stalin's deportation of the Crimean Tatars from Crimea. In the context of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the song drew attention to the issue and the renewed repression of the Crimean Tatars. In 2017, Russia responded to Jamala’s victory by nominating Yulia Samoylova, who had performed in occupied Crimea, making it illegal for her to enter Ukraine. Kyiv refused to make an exception on the issue, and Russia withdrew from the competition. The choice of a disabled singer to represent Russia in 2017 highlights the ambiguous attitude to diversity in Russia.

Two physical spaces vividly demonstrate the tensions characterizing the context of Eurovision in Ukraine. The Eurovision Village, with souvenirs, concerts, and public screenings, stands next to Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, the centre of the 2004–5 Orange Revolution and the 2013-14 Euromaidan, which resulted in the ouster of Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych. Eurovision’s celebration of diversity blends smoothly with these liberal moments in Ukraine’s history, monumentalized in enormous banners declaring Freedom Is Our Religion. At the same time, however, a powerful exhibition of losses suffered during the Second World War abuts these liberal memorialisations. Now men circulate here, collecting money for victims of the current conflict against Russia in the east.

The alliance between liberalism and nationalism breaks down completely at the so-called Arch of Diversity. This monument dates back to Soviet times, when it originally commemorated Russian-Ukrainian friendship. Organisers of the Eurovision Song Contest tried to reclaim it by painting the Arch in rainbow colours to celebrate diversity. Ukrainian ultranationalists understood the implications of the rainbow flag in the name of diversity, and put a stop to the paint job, leaving the rainbow unfinished. An incomplete rainbow is perhaps not such a bad representation of the situation of gay rights in Ukraine, caught between liberalism and nationalism.

Robert Deam Tobin is the inaugural occupant of the Henry J. Leir Chair in Foreign Languages and Cultures at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts (USA), where he teaches comparative literature with an emphasis on German Studies. Known especially for his publications on Goethe and Thomas Mann, his scholarship focuses on the interconnections between literature and medicine, sexuality, gender, and human rights.