Any views that I express in this post do not necessarily reflect those of my employers. (Gosh, I’ve been saying that a lot this year.)
It is interesting to follow news from Russia right now. The country has seen a large number of protests recently after opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested in January. Navalny had returned to Russia for the first time since being hospitalized in Germany after being poisoned with a nerve agent. He accused President Vladimir Putin of engineering the attack in retaliation for his work exposing corruption in the Russian government. As he and his supporters share information on social media, Russian authorities are trying to crack down on services like Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram while simultaneously cracking down on the protests before September’s parliamentary election.
Meanwhile, The Sun reported in November that Putin has Parkinson’s disease and is being pressured to step down. The Kremlin denied the report, which was kind of a gimme: it was a report in The Sun, after all. Still, I can’t help but wonder if there is something to that story.
I mention all of this in a review of a Eurovision Song Contest entry is not because I’m an American and we still have a Cold War view of Russia here. (Though we do.) It’s because it is in this environment that Manizha not only competed in, but won a national final held by the state-owned television station Channel One.
At first glance, it’s easy to assume that Manizha is singing an ode to Mother Russia. But there is something a bit off about her song. In fact, sometimes it sounds like she’s being sarcastic. Then she sings in English, “Every Russian woman needs to know/You’re strong enough to bounce against the wall.” That’s when you realize Manizha is no run of the mill pop singer.
Born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Manizha and her family moved to Moscow when she was a kid to escape the country’s post-Soviet civil war. Being Tajik-Russian, she faced bullying as a child and prejudice in the music industry. She has used her music and her platform to call attention to Russia’s discrimination against Central Asians, as well as to support women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. She also serves as a goodwill ambassador for UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
We're proud to see that former refugee, Tajik-born singer and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Manizha has been chosen to represent Russia in this year's @Eurovision Song Contest after a national vote. 👏🎤 #ESC2021 https://t.co/kR4E4b1CPN pic.twitter.com/JAH4CHHMDZ
— UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency (@Refugees) March 10, 2021
Not surprisingly, the news of her win led to certain sectors of Russia’s population complaining about her being Tajik, while a prominent Russian musician alleged that her song is not Russian enough (making me wonder if he listened to the song before denouncing her). Fortunately, artists like Dima Bilan, Dina Garipova, and Yulia Savicheva have leapt to her defense.
“Russian Woman,” which she wrote on International Women’s Day in 2020 and debuted on International Women’s Day in 2021, is about expanding the role of women in Russian society. Manizha highlighted her theme in her national final staging when she dropped her traditional garb for a factory worker’s coveralls (which I took as a sly reference to Soviet Russia’s industrial history). In her lyrics, she mocks people who put her down by telling her she’s too fat, too arrogant, or just needs to find a man and settle down.
The music is herky-jerky, sometimes diving into traditional Russian folk, sometimes dipping into hip hop. It’s raw and striking and its unusual rhythms grab my attention as much as Manizha’s commanding stage presence. She is bold, expressive, and powerful. She strikes me as someone who is funny, warm, and supportive and also someone you shouldn’t mess with.
Manizha has said she will add some English to the final version of the song, but will be keeping much of the Russian lyrics. Hopefully, she doesn’t change the music up too much, because I really don’t want “Russian Woman” to lose its immediacy. It’s a brilliant track.