The Null Device

The geopolitics of Conchita Wurst

The results of Eurovision 2014 are in, and, as reported here, the big winner was Austria's Conchita Wurst, a bearded drag performer, with a resolute and melodramatic torch song titled Rise Like A Phoenix. Wurst (whose real name is Tom Neuwirth) won a runaway victory, with 290 points and a string of 12s, including ones from countries who might otherwise haver found a bearded drag performer too transgressive. The runner-up was the Netherlands, 52 points behind with a rather nice piece of slow-burning Americana.

2014 was arguably the most geopolitically charged Eurovision Song Contest in years, if not decades; the kitschy music equivalent of the World Chess Championship of 1972, in that, within its formalised, tightly circumscribed arena, the tensions of an active geopolitical fault line manifested themselves. As back then, the fault line was between the West and Russia, only the ideologies and alignments were different.

One thing that was evident was a collapse of Russia's public image at Eurovision; no longer were they another country in friendly competition; they were the enemy, the face of oppression. Their performers (two teenaged girls who, to be fair, probably had little to do with the invasion of Crimea or anti-gay laws) were booed, as was their announcer during the voting, or the few instances of other countries, mostly former Soviet satellite states, giving Russia douze points. Also telling were the low scores which Russia got; whereas in the past, states bordering Russia or containing large Russian-speaking populations (as most former Soviet republics did, thanks to Stalin's population transfer programmes) could be counted on to give Mother Russia a solid vote, this largely seemed to collapse. This seems to support reports of a schism between ethnic Russian minorities in countries such as the Baltic states and the state of Russia, with many Russian-speaking citizens of other countries deciding that their feelings for their linguistic homeland don't translate into loyalty to an aggressive authoritarian regime.

An obvious proximate cause of this collapse was the Ukrainian crisis; within days of the end of the Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia annexing the Crimea and making threatening noises at the rest of Ukraine (and some to say Finland, the Baltic States or even Alaska may be next in the hungry Red Bear's sight). Finally, the half-hearted pretence that Russia was a democracy (albeit a managed one, like, you know, Singapore or someone) and a member in good standing of the community of peaceful, cooperative nations was discarded for good, and a more brutal, Hobbesian order asserted itself for all to see. And no longer shackled by the need to feign liberalism or tolerance, Russia has been moving as rapidly at home as it has abroad; just this week, a law requiring bloggers to register with the government has been passed.

Russia's anti-gay laws, and the tacitly state-sanctioned persecution of gay Russians by vigilante groups had already been on the radar, particularly in the context of Eurovision (which, whilst not specifically a gay event, has always had a strong gay following, because camp). The disproportionately harsh prosecution of Pussy Riot, whilst attracting less criticism in more conservative countries, didn't do Russia any favours either, and the gradual closing down of opposition media and occasional unsolved murders of journalists did not make for an optimistic mood. Recently, these elements have been converging to form an image not of a country struggling with democracy and pluralism, but one governed by an ideology which holds these ideas in contempt as signs of weakness, a country where closing itself off against the outside world. The ideology of Putin's Russia is what they call the Russkaya ideya (Russian Idea), or sometimes “Eurasianism” or “National Bolshevism”; explicitly anti-liberal, mystical rather than rationalistic, strongly authoritarian and hostile to foreign influences. The ideology is new, though it is synthesised from a strain of absolutism that has existed in Russia, in one form or another, since the time of the Czars: the State being at the centre of things (the “unique state-government civilisation” that is Russia, according to its ideologues), and all power flowing from it. Even the Russian Orthodox Church, with its enhanced influence in the new order, is subordinate to the state; in Russia, God serves the Czar.

It is not clear whether, had Russia kept its troops within its borders, paid lip service to liberalism and pluralism and not said anything about gays and “traditional values”, Conchita Wurst would have won, certainly by such a large margin; her song was good, in a Bond-theme sort of way, but not overwhelmingly superior to everything else. The Netherlands' entry (which came second), for example, was quite good, and there was a sentimental case for giving the gong to Sweden, it being the 40th anniversary of ABBA winning and all. (Sweden's entry was in the good-but-not-memorable Eurovision standard basket, which, geopolitics notwithstanding, might well have sufficed.) Undoubtedly some of the douze points Austria got were a vote not so much for the music but for what it represented and, perhaps more importantly, against what an endorsement of it represented a rejection of.

With liberalism as anathema to this new cult of Holy Russia, Eurovision has been in its sights for a while; Russian legislators have condemned it since last year, and there are calls to set up a rival one, one with firmly enforced “traditional values”. (This wouldn't be the first time something similar happened; during the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact countries briefly attempted to run a song contest to rival Eurovision; it was held in Poland, and was by all accounts a ramshackle affair. Interestingly, neutral Finland participated in both Eurovision and it.) In any case, Conchita Wurst's resounding victory will probably do little to calm the situation, but is likely to embolden those in Russia calling for restrictions on such foreign imports. (Their proposed solution, to omit the offending song in Russia, would be forbidden under EBU rules; some years ago, Lebanon ended up dropping out of Eurovision because the rules did not permit it to ban its citizens from voting for Israel.) It would be unsurprising if Russia (and perhaps some politically dependent states like Belarus) are notably absent from next year's contest, and the new cultural iron curtain becomes slightly more opaque.

Another interesting consequence may be that of Russia ending up owning a certain type of reactionary conservatism, making it less palatable abroad, and forcing conservatives in eastern Europe to choose between siding with the Great Bear across the border or siding with the gays and feminists within their own borders, establishing a geopolitical schism much like the Cold War one, only this time with elements of the Right rather than the Left being beholden to Moscow. We are already seeing admiration for Putin from the envious beta-males of the populist Right, from UKIP in Britain to teabaggers in America; if Russia succeeds in establishing a “Conservative International“ (along the lines of Stalin's Comintern) and drawing like-minded reactionaries and authoritarians abroad into its orbit, we may soon see Alexander Dugin's books on Eurasianism (in English translation, from a state-run publishing house in Moscow) alongside the Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises and Bill O'Reilly that fill the reading lists of the right-wing fringe.

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