January 2014

Eurovision and the Post-Soviet Experience

Julie A. Cassiday, “Post-Soviet Pop Goes Gay: Russia’s Trajectory to Eurovision Victory”

Russia’s participation in the Eurovision Song Contest confirms the popular music extravaganza’s ability to create a Europe that bears an eccentric yet powerful relationship to the geopolitical entity that this word usually describes. Since Russia’s debut in 1994 through 2008, when pop star Dima Bilan took Eurovision’s Grand Prix, Russian acts leveraged the contest’s appeal to an LGBT audience, camp esthetic, and ability to construct a queer European identity by incorporating Russian constructions of Western homosexuality in an increasingly evident manner. This gay trajectory to Eurovision victory produced a mixed message that struck an uneasy balance between Russia’s historic homophobia and Eurovision’s gay identity politics. Although Russia’s gay trajectory to Eurovision victory began unintentionally, Bilan’s two acts established his mastery of the contest’s camp esthetic by blurring the lines between hetero- and homosexual romance in 2006 and expressing homoeroticism via metrosexuality in his winning performance of the ballad “Believe” in 2008. However, after reaching its zenith in 2008, this gay trajectory came to a homophobic halt in Moscow’s own production of Eurovision 2009. In addition to televising a heteronormative spectacle, officials banned the first ever pan-Slavic Pride parade timed to coincide with the contest’s finals. Subsequent Eurovision acts from Russia show that Russia’s gay trajectory to Eurovision victory had nothing to do with entering the Western European arena of accepting and protecting LGBT subjects and instead has resulted in new forms of camp that distance themselves from the contest’s gay fan base.

Emily D. Johnson, “A New Song for a New Motherland: Eurovision and the Rhetoric of Post-Soviet National Identity”

In March 2009 Russia’s Channel One aired a live competition to choose Russia’s entry for the 2009 Eurovision Song Competition, which was scheduled to be held in Moscow in two months’ time. The results were scandalous: Anastasiia Prikhod’ko, a former participant in Russia’s equivalent to the American Idol competition, Fabrika zvezd, who was Ukrainian in both citizenship and nationality, won with “Mamo” (Mother) an emotional ballad on the pain of love and female suffering that she performed half in Ukrainian and half in Russian. This article considers what Prikhod’ko’s selection as Russia’s national entry for Eurovision and the ensuing scandal tell us about the construction of Russian national identity in the post-Soviet era and about Russia’s attitude to its closest geographic neighbors. The author argues that Prikhod’ko’s performance can best be understood as part of the larger phenomenon of post-Soviet nostalgia: both the way “Mamo” was staged for the Eurovision international competition in Moscow and public statements made by a variety of cultural figures in defense of the song evoked Soviet aesthetics and Soviet rhetoric about the “friendship of peoples” (druzhba narodov). In the context of Russia’s on-going quarrels with other former Soviet Republics, the presence of these nostalgic elements in “Mamo” inevitably seemed politically freighted: the song effectively juxtaposed to present tensions Soviet style “ethnic harmony” and hence, depending on one’s point of view, either read as a touching appeal for peace and tolerance or as an veiled threat that hinted at the possible renewal of Russia’s cultural dominance over the other former Soviet republics.


Rafaella Vassena, “‘Chudo nevedomoi sily’: “Public Literary Readings in the Era of the Great Reforms”

Up to the first half of the nineteenth century, Russian poets and literati read their own works aloud mainly at private literary circles or in the drawing rooms of the aristocrats where musical and literary evenings were held for an elite audience. At the beginning of the 1860s, new forms of “public readings” arose. On these occasions literati, musicians, and singers with varying degrees of fame performed in front of a paying public. The first part of this article looks at the salient phases of the roots of public readings at the start of the 1860s and the political and social events which marked their development, while the second part examines the evolution of this phenomenon, and its subsequent decline, over the next two decades, noting how public readings carried different meanings for different parties: the masses regarded them as a symbol of the freedom of expression that the state’s reform package failed to include, inserting meaning into the readings that writers often did not intend, and that censors had not anticipated. Writers, meanwhile, welcomed a new opportunity to connect with a broader audience and tap into the growing commercialization of literature through journalism. Conceived in part as a way to exert an aesthetic and moral influence upon the attending masses, public literary readings would instead make their most significant impact in the social and political spheres.

Susan McCaffray, “Ordering the Tsar’s Household: Winter Palace Servants in Nineteenth-Century St. Petersburg”

During the “apogee of autocracy” Russian monarchs successfully deployed their baroque masterpiece, the Winter Palace, as a stage within which and from which they could convey messages about monarchy to the people who lived in their capital city. The importance of retaining the deference of urban crowds had been made manifest in the wake of the French Revolution. Chief among the intermediaries of the tsars’ household were the middle and lower ranks of the people who worked and served in the palace. This article describes the ways that city people entered and exited palace service, rendering porous the border between the city and the palace. The article also explores the living and working experience of palace servants as well as the impressions of the imperial household that they may have carried into the city.

Chia Yin Hsu, “The ‘Color’ of Money: The Ruble, Competing Currencies, and Conceptions of Citizenship in Manchuria and the Russian Far East, 1890s-1920s”

Transformed by Russian colonial expansion in the late 1890s, the Chinese territory of Manchuria turned from a remote frontier into a locus of global metropolises in the making, where a complex money economy comprising of multiple currencies took root. Mirroring localized contestations and global rivalries, Russian proposals first advocated supporting a Chinese currency to “squeeze out” Mexican and “English” dollars, but settled on creating a ruble for Manchuria, to inscribe Manchuria as Russian. As depicted by Georg Simmel contemplating the European metropolis in the 1900s, money was “colorless,” an instrument of equivalence without intrinsic quality, or “color,” that homogenized qualitative differences. In the colonial and multiethnic setting of Manchuria, however, money took the form of competing currencies that by the 1920s included various Russian rubles, the Soviet chervonets, a Japanese yen, and a variety of Chinese dollars. In this form, money in Manchuria was “colored”--by the qualitative differences associated with supposed national character and perceptions of strengths and weaknesses that found expression in the way currency exchange rate became an everyday concern for the local urban population. This paper traces Russian and Chinese efforts to render their currencies “colorless” in the sense understood by Simmel, with colorlessness meaning uniformity and absence of qualities that would hinder the currencies’ ideal function. The paper explores how these efforts--such as Soviet currency “unification” policies in the Russian Far East after 1922--worked to erase the diversity of the region with respect to monetary practices. Reading these efforts at achieving uniformity and eliminating “color” in another light, my paper suggests that the experience of living with competing currencies in the Manchurian urban environment also had a socializing effect that worked toward acceptance of difference and diversity, reflected in the emphasis on a currency’s convertibility to another, rather than on any one currency’s unique presence. This paper thus also investigates the ways competing currencies in Manchuria might have shaped Russian and Chinese conceptions of citizenship in the direction of disregarding the “color”--the supposed intrinsic qualities marking their differences--of the diverse ethnicities of the region’s population, in favor of a vision of functional equivalence, equality, and equal participation indicated by the principle of currency circulation.

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