Russian authorities are preparing for the prospect of a terrorist attack, hotel and apartment rental prices are rocketing in Moscow, and the city’s mass transit system is extending its hours. There’s even a gay pride parade planned to take advantage of the media attention.Yes, it’s Eurovision Song Contest time in Moscow. And with the May 12 and 14 semifinals and the May 16 finale going out live in primetime on 42 channels across Europe, the show will be seen by at least 100 million viewers.
The competition, whose most famous winners are Abba and Celine Dion, was conceived 50 years ago as a way to bring all of Europe together via TV. But as the golden-anniversary edition of the event peaks this week, there’s a major divide in how the event is embraced by the participating nations.
Eurovision has long been the butt of jokes in Blighty and elsewhere, but in Russia, it is being taken with deadly seriousness as a cultural coup.
Russia won the right to host Europe’s longest running — and famously cheesy — televised talent show for the first time last year when crooner Dima Bilan scored the most points by belting out “Believe” in Belgrade, Serbia, the previous host country.
It’s hard to escape the juggernaut promotional campaign in Russia: Moscow is plastered with posters featuring Miss World, Russia’s Ksenia Sukhinova, this year’s face of Eurovision, and Anastasia Prikhodko, 22, winner of the “Fabrika zvezd” (Star Factory) talent show, who is representing Russia in this year’s Eurovision. She survived a spat about her selection earlier this year when accusations of jury rigging appeared in the press.
The big guns of local politics and entertainment are on the organizing committee, including Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and Konstantin Ernst, head of state-backed First Channel, the broadcaster that is hosting the contest.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met composer and theatrical impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber, head of the British Eurovision delegation, in Moscow.
Lloyd Webber so charmed him that Putin joked that he would vote for Britain’s Jade Ewen, who has a guaranteed place in the finals with a typically modestly titled song, “It’s My Time.”
Block voting by country or regional allegiance, rather than admiration for the song, is commonplace.
Eurovision is to Europeans what the Super Bowl is to Americans, and seething resentment is never far from the surface.
The event has been characterized by barely concealed nationalism, rampant sexism — in the 1960s and ‘70s, it was common for female performers to try to outdo each other in the teeny frock department — and accusations that the event boils down more to politics than music.
That Brits actually find the event funny and not a source of national pride mystifies Russians.
“We treat Eurovision seriously and consider the contest a very good opportunity to integrate into the European pop music scene,” a Russian TV source told Variety, adding with a touch of incredulity, “Is Andrew Lloyd Webber all right about being part of such a joke?”
But the competition’s importance in Eastern Europe can’t be overestimated.
Ukrainian Prime Minster Yulia Timoshenko diverted her attention last month away from more weighty matters — such as her country’s delicate relationship with Russia — to ensure that Eurovision would air in the Ukraine after the National TV and Radio Co. said its financial problems could affect live broadcasts of the contest.