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Eurovision: Tajik singer polarizes Russia

Anastassia Boutsko
May 19, 2021

Manizha calls her song for the Eurovision Song Contest a manifesto against prejudice and for more women's rights. The self-confident singer has polarized Russian society.

Singer Manizha
Manizha represents Russia at the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest in RotterdamImage: Th.Hanses/EBU

In terms of the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC), Russia is good for surprises — ranging from the Buranovskiye Babushki ethno-pop band of elderly ladies in 2012 to a smooth soft-voiced singer by the name of Sergey Lazarev in 2019.

A year later, the competition was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Russia's chosen contestant, the St. Petersburg rave band Little Big, was clicked big-time on the internet.

This year, Russia is sending Manizha into the musical fray. The YouTube video for her entry, "Russian Woman," has already been viewed over 11 million times, garnering over 300,000 likes — and more than 170,000 negative reactions.

"This song is a monologue by Manizha, her narrative of what she's been through," the performer told DW ahead of the show in Rotterdam.

In Russia, the nomination of the Tajik-born woman, who describes herself as a singer with a "softly feminist approach" triggered quite a debate, and led to an uproar from the nationalist camp.

Who is Manizha, and why is her selection controversial in Russia?

Strong women in the family

The 29-year-old was born Manischa Chamrajeva in the Tajik capital Dushanbe. Her family fled the civil war in their homeland in 1994 — she was only 2 years old at the time — and moved to Moscow.

Manizha, who studied psychology in Moscow, started singing at an early age, and later honed her singing techniques in London and New York.

She writes her own lyrics, openly addressing issues that tend to be repressed in Russian society, including domestic violence and xenophobia. She personally experienced the latter, as xenophobia is part of everyday life for the many Central Asian migrants in Russia.

According to various estimates, between 18 and 22 million migrant workers from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan live in Russia, for the most part in large cities. They eke out a living as construction workers, street vendors, cleaners or cab drivers. As they rarely have official papers, they often are at the bottom of Russian society.

City of  Duschanbe, view from above
The mountains of her native country shaped her, says ManizhaImage: Getty Images/AFP/E. Feferberg

Most of them come from rural areas and are often uneducated, with patriarchal traditions still prevailing in many families.

That wasn't the case in Manizha's family: Her mother studied nuclear physics, and her father is a doctor. The singer is also proud of her great-grandmother, who is said to have been the first woman in Tajikistan to remove her headscarf.

The pivotal figure in the singer's life, however, is her grandmother. After her parents divorced, she took on her grandmother's last name, Sangin. Her grandmother was the first to recognize and encourage her granddaughter's great talent and also helped finance the girl's singing lessons.

Manizha recalls that the family had next to nothing when they fled to Moscow. The family, with five children, lived in poverty for a long time. "Only two things we could not do without — food and education," she says. In an earlier interview with Tajik media, the singer described herself as a "single art project" of her mother and grandmother. "In our family, strong women determine everything, I guess it's in the genes."

Manizha and her team on stage
Manizha and her team on stageImage: Patrick van Emst//AFP/Getty Images

A modern Russian woman

At the age of seven, Manizha began composing her own songs, and as a teenager, she edited her first, rather awkward, video clips. She made a name for herself in 2018 with the album Manuscript. By then she had found her central theme, the self-image of a young woman in a contradictory society, caught between patriarchy and modernity.

Various high-profile appearances and campaigns followed, including a contract to be the "face" in a cosmetics manufacturer's "body-friendly" campaign. The former refugee became a UN ambassador on refugee issues. She showed solidarity with Russia's LGBTQ community and accepted the hostility that came with it. Most importantly, she continued on her path as an artist.

Manizha writes lyrics in Russian, Tajik and English. When asked by Russian media whether she feels more like a Russian from Tajikistan or a Tajik with a Russian passport, the singer replied that being grounded in the Slavic and Tajik cultural contexts is her real identity. Manizha actually had to fight for a long time to get her Russian passport, which she received only recently.

Her ESC entry "Russian Woman" is about the modern Russian woman who gets nothing for free and who follows her path with confidence and determination, despite all obstacles and social prejudice.

"Actually quite pretty, but should lose weight"/ "What, almost thirty already — and where are the children?"/ "Grown up without a father, that's why she's roaming the streets," Manizha sings.

Some critics have accused Russia of being calculating. Manizha, they say, is exactly what Europe wants to see; she stands for diversity, the MeToo movement and the dignity of women in general.

Calculated or not, as she moves on to the finale following her semi-final qualification, Manizha is triggering debates that Russian society desperately needs.

This article has been translated from German.