The song “1944,” by singer-songwriter Susana Jamaladynova who performs as Jamala, has won the 2016 Eurovision song contest for Ukraine. This victory makes the annual event something more than a musical competition.
“1944” recalls Stalin’s mass deportation of Crimean Tatars. As the Guardian explained, Stalin accused the Tatars of collaborating with Nazi forces who occupied the Crimean peninsula and in 1944 forcibly moved them to central Asia and other remote areas. Between 20 and 50 percent of the deportees died within the first two years of exile.
For Jamala, it’s more than a historical reference. The deportees included her great-grandmother, her four sons, and one daughter. So as she told reporters in February, the song “really is about my family.”
“When strangers are coming,” the lyrics explains, “they come to your house, they kill you all and say, we’re not guilty.” Her parents and family still live on the Crimean peninsula but she has not been back there since 2014, the year Putin’s forces moved in. That year, current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waded into the Ukrainian crisis by invoking history.
Referring to Vladimir Putin’s plans to provide passports to Russians outside the nation’s borders, she said it was “what Hitler did back in the ‘30s.” Clinton ignored the “back in the ‘30s” history most applicable to Ukraine. The shot-caller then was Joseph Stalin, and he set out to crush all vestiges of Ukrainian nationalism, as Russian tyrants had done for ages. In his forced collectivization campaign, Stalin raised Ukraine’s grain procurement quotas by 44 percent.
That meant that there would not be enough grain to feed the people, but to make sure, Stalin also deployed regular troops and secret police units in a merciless war of attrition. And that condemned millions to death by starvation. That is genocide by any standard, but for Stalin it was a big success. As one of his commanders said, it showed the Ukrainians “who is the master here.” Walter Duranty of the New York Times denied that any famine had taken place and won a Pulitzer Prize.
Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State from 2009-2013, also failed to mention that in 1939 Stalin signed a pact with Hitler, and that the two dictators jointly invaded Poland. The man who deported the Crimean Tatars was therefore the biggest Nazi collaborator of them all.
As it happened, music has also played a role in resistance to Soviet imperialism in the Baltic States, which the Stalin-Hitler Pact consigned to the USSR. Estonia was occupied by the Soviets in 1939, then by the Nazis, and then by the Soviets again. By the end of World War II, more than one-quarter of the population had been deported to Siberia, been executed, or had fled the country.
In 2007, The Singing Revolution film showed how, between 1987 and 1991, hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered publicly to sing forbidden patriotic songs, risking their lives to proclaim their desire for independence. That came with the fall of the USSR but events in in Ukraine have left the Estonians fearful. They stand helpless against Putin’s Russia and do not find the current US administration a faithful defender of their independence and freedom.
Putin also seems to wield clout in musical competitions. In 2009, the Eurovision contest asked Georgia to change the lyrics of its openly anti-Putin “Don’t Wanna Put In.” Georgia refused and was disqualified, so that makes this year’s victory of “1944” a breakthrough of sorts.
This year the Eurovision competition was televised for the first time in the United States, but American singers have not been eager to expose Stalinist atrocities. With Pete Seeger, just about everything was an “Ode to Uncle Joe.” In 2007 Seeger attempted to make amends by composing “Big Joe Blues,” supposedly an acknowledgement that Joe Stalin, not Joe McCarthy, had been the major problem back in the day. But Seeger never released the song.
One finds no such hesitation in Susana Jamaladynova, and the victory of “1944” keeps hope alive for songs about the Katyn Forest massacre and Stalin’s delivery of German Jews to the Gestapo during the Nazi-Soviet Pact. In the interest of diversity, maybe somebody could compose a tune about the Cultural Revolution, which according to the New York Times claimed 1.5 million lives. As an inscription on one grave had it “Heads can roll, blood can flow, but Mao Zedong Thought must never go.” 1944 wasn’t the only time Communists came to somebody’s house, killed everybody, and said they were not guilty.