When Austrian transvestite Conchita Wurst won this year’s Eurovision song contest, many considered her triumph to be a victory for the LGBT community worldwide. However, while much western social media was awash with congratulatory support, with celebrities from Boy George to Lady Gaga sending Wurst messages of solidarity, the picture that emerged in Russia was more than a little different. Wurst was lambasted as a sign of the west’s moral decay, with one politician denouncing Wurst’s victory as “the end of Europe”. The schism between her reception in Russia and the west laid bare important cultural differences.
Everybody had an opinion on how Russia should respond to a Eurovision in disgrace: Valery Rashkin, deputy leader of the Communist Party, demanded a “heterosexual” alternative to the contest be created. St Petersburg lawmaker Vitaly Milonov, infamous for his hand in initiating the “gay propaganda” law, appealed to Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky to ban Wurst from entering Russia altogether, a plea rejected by the ministry, who lamented it was unable “to ban visits from bearded men or women to Russia”.
Nevertheless, within days of the start of the outrage, Vladimir Putin’s government announced that the Intervision song contest — Eurovision’s Soviet analogue — was to be revived this October after a 34-year hiatus, with confirmed participation only from the six member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO): China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Despite the seeming light-heartedness of the gesture, the choice of song contest reflects a shift in international political allegiances. The move to revive Intervision is consistent with Putin’s current geopolitical posturing, in which NATO and the EU are being rejected in favour of new, more ideologically friendly allies.
Speaking to The Calvert Journal, Russia’s 1996 Eurovision entry Andrei Kosinski bemoaned the inseparability of politics with today’s competition. “I personally don’t like the current politicisation, and, at times, lack of objectivity in the distribution of votes in Eurovision,” he said. “It was utterly ridiculous and predictable that this year saw Greece vote in favour of Macedonia and Cyprus, and Belarus for Russia. Ukraine was once one of ‘ours’, too.”
"By resurrecting Intervision, Putin is repackaging his global agenda into an easily digestible event that will deliver politics to people’s television screens via the medium of besequinned divas and cheering crowds"
Eurovision has long been used as an arena to air political disputes. In 1978, Jordan switched off the competition’s live broadcast to protest Israel’s success, just one of many Eurovision moments that bear a political mark. This year was no different. The Russian act, Shine by the Tolmachevy Twins, was met with boos from an audience eager to express contempt both for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the “gay propaganda” law. The political tensions between Russia and Ukraine were also played out at Eurovision this year, where Ukraine received only four points from Russia, one less than given to Wurst.
The line-up for this year’s Intervision unites NATO’s counterweights — China and the four Central Asian states — who all present themselves as possible Russian allies in a re-aligned Europe. This, however, is a much thinner offering than the Soviet-era song contest: during the 1970s and 1980s, Intervision was a staple of Soviet ideological expansion in Europe, with former participants including Poland, Hungary and Romania, all of whom will be absent from the event’s upcoming rebirth, after choosing to remain loyal to Eurovision. Acknowledging the cross-cultural benefits of the competition, Putin told Russian news agency Interfax, “Conducting a modern international song contest, Intervision, would strengthen cultural ties between our nations.”
Conchita Wurst performing Rise like a phoenix at Eurovision 2014 in Denmark
Launched in 1961, a week after the Berlin Wall was erected, the Polish-based Sopot Music Festival — rebranded as Intervision in 1970 — was from the outset a competition intended to challenge the west. In a bid to rival Eurovision, Intervision did not limit participation to the Soviet Union and its satellite states, but instead extended an invitation to communist nations across the world, with Cuba a regular at the event.
Polish music journalist Maria Szablowska recalled the rivalry as being a key element of the competition. “[Sopot’s organiser] wanted to challenge Eurovision,” she told the BBC. “He knew about Eurovision’s popularity in the west. We in Poland could never watch it, but we knew about it because of the winning songs, like Waterloo or Puppet on a String. The Polish TV chief wanted to have an eastern Eurovision and this contest became a tool of propaganda for eastern [European] countries.”
Alexander Cooley, professor of political science at New York’s Barnard College, sees Intervision’s revival as a product of Putin’s cultural diplomacy agenda. In an interview with Newsweek, he said: “Russia uses the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as an arena to build its non-western links, including cultural exchange. An alternative to the Eurovision Song Contest fits very well into that pattern by creating a space for Russia to partner with China in opposition to the west.”
"The political tensions between Russia and Ukraine were also played out at Eurovision this year, where Ukraine received four points from Russia, one less than given to Wurst"
By resurrecting Intervision, the Kremlin is repackaging its global agenda into an easily-digestible event that will deliver politics to people’s television screens via the medium of besequinned divas and cheering crowds. In this way, Intervision presents something of a contrast to the usual clunky delivery of propaganda through state media.
Hot on the heels of the announcement of Intervision's revival, Tatarstan’s Ministry of Culture revealed that the second finals of Turkvision, a Eurovision equivalent for countries with a Turkic population, would be hosted in Kazan in November this year. Other cultural projects reflecting new political allies have been launched in recent weeks, with Poland's withdrawal from a bilateral Year of Culture with Russia in 2015 quickly followed by an announcement that Argentina would step in instead.
For former Eurovision competitor Kosinski, the narrow scope of Intervision’s current line-up undermines its potential for an inclusive, global event. “Intervision has the possibility of becoming a truly international musical event,” he said. “Internationalism has always been a fundamental principle of life in our country, both during Soviet times and now. Intervision will be an interesting contest, so long as the organisers intend to create a multi-ethnic European congress of talented performers.”