At the 1982 World Football Championships in Spain, on the stadium that hosted the game between Poland and the USSR, the fans present in the stands and the viewers were able to see how a group of fans displayed the symbols of the “Solidarnosc” Trade Union, the spearhead of the anti-communist struggle in socialist countries at the time, in the context in which martial law had already been declared in Poland. Even television viewers from Romania were able to see those images, broadcast all over the world. Thus, a simple football game became the opportunity for unexpected political advertisement. There are in fact many occasions of this kind in a world that is already “a global village.” The latest was the recent Eurovision pop music contest, extremely popular and long lasting. For many it was a veritable launching pad – for Sweden’s ABBA for instance – which confers it a special stake.
This time Ukraine’s Jamala won, with a song titled “1944.” Not only the competition with Russia’s representative, but the very lyrics of the song inflamed already conflict-prone relations between the two countries. People are willing to forget far too easily the tragedies of those around them, and to recall them has not only a therapeutic role but also a more obvious political one. Because it does not allow the dramas of history to remain a simple statistic of destruction and massacres, but also the occasion of for political processes corresponding to changes in mentalities. How many are still thinking today about the drama of the airliner that crashed in eastern Ukraine almost two years ago?
Although the evidence against the Russians are becoming increasingly obvious – even against the soldiers beyond the Ukrainian border – because of realpolitik reasons the case has already left the media’s limelight behind. Jamala is now singing the drama of her people, the Tatars of Crimea. People deported in their entirety in 1944, “punished” by Stalin for collaborating with the German occupant. They were not the only people in the huge USSR subjected to such mass dislocations. As French historian Nicolas Werth put it, the essence of the Stalinist regime can be summed up as “terror and chaos.” Police brutality and the lack of administrative training greatly hiked the number of victims, the minimum estimate being 20 percent of the total population in the Tatars’ case, although the real figures could be much higher.
But today, in Putin’s Russia, Stalin is a national hero again. In fact, Putin has managed something probable only to a little extent before him: to bring together, as part of the same ideological mix, Solzhenitsyn and Stalin, CEKA/NKVD/KBG and the victims of the Gulag, Orthodoxy and the promoters of ruthless atheism. The Tatars were not only deported, for decades on end they were banned from returning to the Crimea, which was Russified even more in the meantime.
What is worrisome is that, eventually, in Russia the confrontation with the Communist past did not lead to a firm distancing from its legacy. Actually, a metamorphosis took place, which perpetuates mentalities forged during cruel periods based largely on cynicism and arrogance, draped with nationalism and a dangerous taste for authoritarian excesses. But the age of classical colonialism, when empires were promoting their own interests and culture alike, is gone. Now it is much more difficult to convince culturally through simple political strategies. And Russia is far more culturally unconvincing than other countries marred by authoritarian backsliding.
Turkey, for example, despite the re-Islamisation of recent years, has a far more interesting alternative culture, so does Iran after decades of theological dictatorship. Culture and politics have reversed ratios, and to ignore their new dialectics is becoming a losing card now more than ever. “1944” is not just a year among other years, for many, not just Tatars, it is trauma still not overcome. And art, albeit pop art, does not feed solely on unfulfilled love stories.