Ukraine has chosen a song about wartime mass deportations of the Crimean Tatar ethnic minority ordered by Joseph Stalin to represent the country at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.
Susana Jamaladinova‘s song 1944, performed under her stage name Jamala, was chosen Sunday night by a three-person jury and 380,000 votes from viewers of the country’s televised final selection round for the pan-European song competition.
Jamala sang in English, dressed in a cream silk evening gown. The song’s opening line is: “When strangers are coming, they come to your house; they kill you all inside [and say] ‘We’re not guilty, not guilty’.”
The song, a mixture of pop music and pain-filled lyrics that are stated more than sung, was inspired by the life of her great-grandmother, who was among those Crimean Tartas deported en-masse by Stalin in 1944, according to the singer. The ancient Muslim minority was regarded as disloyal and unreliable after nearly three years of Nazi occupation and, in a form of collective punishment, as many as 240,000 Crimean Tartars were packed into train boxcars and sent to Central Asia.
Thousands died during the journey, and none were allowed to return until the 1980s.
Although Jamala, who was born in Kyrgyzstan, does not refer to Russia’s seizure of the Crimea in 2014, an act that sparked the civil war between Russian backed separatists and Ukrainian forces that continues in the east of the country, the choice of the song seems to be a calculated move at reminding people of the takeover.
Since Russia reincorporated the peninsula into its territory, Crimean Tartas living there have complained of renewed discrimination by authorities.
Vladislav Davidzon, an American-Ukrainian writer and editor of the Odessa Review, told The Hollywood Reporter: “Jamala is an up-and-coming musician and actress and widely popular as a singer – nearly 38 percent of the country supported her.” He added: “Crimean Tartars are being savagely repressed by the Russians, [with] their young men kidnapped and activists disappearing in what looks like an organized attempt to make life so difficult for them they will leave. The Russian occupation of Crimea has been brutal towards them, and the song illustrates parallels to the mass deportations.”
Eurovision rules ban songs with explicitly political content. In 2004, Ukraine’s entrant Green Jolly was forced to rewrite a song based on the anthem of the previous year’s Orange Revolution. In 2009, a year after the brief Georgian-Russian war, Georgia’s choice was deemed ineligible because the song poked fun at Russian president Vladimir Putin.
A spokesman for Eurovision said: “All entries for the upcoming contest, including the Ukrainian song, will be assessed under the rules by the EBU (European Broadcast Union) and the reference group by the submission deadline” of March 14.
If Jamala’s song does not fall foul of Eurovision rules, she could be competing against the rest of Europe at the contest’s finals in May in Stockholm.
The competition has never been short of controversy, with voting among nations often reflecting current political relations and various onstage antics aimed at generating headlines.
Earlier this month a Ukrainian official, Volodymyr Vyatrovich, head of the Institute of National Remembrance, said that if Ukraine won, the next Eurovision should be held in the city of Sevastopol. The city in Crimea is part of the Crimean Federal District of the Russian Federation, but Ukraine and much of the international community continues to regard Sevastopol as a Ukrainian city. In response, city officials said they would host the Eurovision contest, typically held in the previous year’s winner’s capital, only if Russia won.
This article was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter.