1944 OR 2016?

A Muslim woman won Eurovision with a warning about mass deportation. But did the world hear it?

Queen for a day.
Queen for a day.
Image: TT News Agency/Maja Suslin/via Reuters
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

This Saturday (May 14), for the first time ever, Americans were able to watch the final round of the Eurovision song contest live. The contest is a very big deal. Two hundred million people around the world watch contestants from 42 countries (mostly Europe as well as Australia and Israel) compete in a massive, campy sing-off. Those fortunate enough to watch the 61st contest this year, however, saw something very different from the usual fare.

The war-torn country of Ukraine was represented by Jamala, a Crimean Tatar Muslim woman. Her winning song “1944” respected Eurovision rules by not being overtly political. But with lyrics evoking the deportation of Crimean Tatars by the Soviet Union, the point was hard to miss. Many in the audience, however, were left with an interesting question: Was she singing only about 1944, or about 2016 too?

The right direction and the wrong direction

In 1944, well after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union had failed and the Red Army was on the offensive, Joseph Stalin accused Jamala’s entire people of colluding with the Germans. The charge was, like most of his charges, ridiculous. The solution, as per most of his policies, was monstrous. Stalin ordered the entire population of Tatars deported from their homeland in the Crimean Peninsula.

And so in May of 1944, Soviet troops began a massive house-to-house operation, giving many Tatars just minutes to gather their belongings. That includes Jamala’s great-grandmother, who never saw her homeland again. Some 200,000 Tatars were forced onto trains and deported to what is now Uzbekistan. Some estimate that, within a few years, nearly half the Tatars died. Half the entire population of a people, wiped out, in a matter of years.

Sound familiar?

History has a funny way of remembering some tragedies while erasing others. Just a few years after the horrors of the Holocaust, in May 1948, the establishment of Israel resulted in and required a mass expulsion of the indigenous Palestinian Christians and Muslims, many of whom are now refugees in their own homes, or unable to return to them. Their plight is not so different from that of the Tatars, who also continue to find themselves under occupation.

When, in the 1980s, Tatars were finally allowed to return, they found Russian settlers had taken their homes and property. It’s no wonder the Tatars so welcomed the fall of Communism, or that so many of their fellow Ukrainians did, too. It’s also not hard to see why so many Tatars, and so many other Ukrainians, risked their lives in 2014’s Maidan revolution. That revolution, which started with student protests but eventually led to the overthrow of the government, was supposed to make the country more democratic and more aligned with the interests and politics of the West.

But you don’t escape history that easily. Since the Maidan revolution, Putin has backed Ukrainian separatists in the country’s east, an effort designed to minimize the revolution and isolate Ukraine from the European Union. Russia annexed Crimea outright, too, putting the Tatars back under the rule of a historically hostile government.

The persecution of Tatars, like other European Muslim peoples—for example the Circassians—is rarely recognized. And so Eurovision’s choice really does matter. But it remains to be seen what this awareness—or, for that matter, the sanctions slapped on Russia by the West—will accomplish. A much more effective solution would be to strengthen Europe by adding more members to the European Union. Unfortunately, this seems like the last thing many Europeans are in the mood to do.

Earlier in May, Sadiq Khan was elected mayor of London by a wide margin. His opponent, Zac Goldsmith, chose to run an Islamophobic campaign, which failed. That prospect of democratic security and respect for diversity is the reason why Ukraine, like Albania and other candidate countries, aim for EU membership. But the thing they seek to join may be abandoned by its founders.

On June 23rd, Britain will vote on whether or not it wants to stay in the EU. A “Brexit” could accelerate the unraveling of the EU, and empower the nationalisms menacing Europe all over again. Incidentally, the Eurovision song contest was founded to help ease these same nationalisms back in 1956. The theory was that countries could compete over music instead of power and territory.

Put them on trains

Europe is not the only region grappling with its newly emboldened demons. Across the West, we see rising intolerance and violence. Talk of mass deportations, of moving and eliminating people as if they were furniture, is back in vogue.

This January conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat effectively argued that to prevent European fascism, we must turn to fascist strategies. Douthat proposed that Europe commence with the deportation of able-bodied male Syrian refugees en masse. Put them on trains! Only the removal of refugees, he argued, could save the continent from forces of toxic xenophobia and hate. Eliminate diversity to save diversity?

At least he makes an attempt to employ a moral logic.

Trump, of course, wants to uproot even more people–roughly 11 million, an impossibly huge number. He seems to think people can be torn from their homes willingly, even peacefully, and lots of Americans seem unperturbed. It seems we’ve forgotten what happens when people are empowered to force other people onto trains.

Meanwhile, a growing number of “isolated” incidents are starting to look more and more like a pattern. We have American academics calling for Muslims to be interned, the French school system is at war with halal and kosher meat, and neo-Nazi and far-right movements are rising across Europe. A protest against refugees in Poland ended with a Hasidic man, wrapped in an EU flag, burned in effigy.

And the next leader of the free world could very well be a man who believes we should leave NATO and the EUpraises Putin while insulting our European allies, and has made mass deportation a literal part of his election platform. This weekend “1944” won, but it remains to be seen whether the song’s deeper message was heard.