Winning the Territory, Losing the War: Why Conchita Wurst Is More Powerful Than a Russian Army
“We are unstoppable.” – Conchita Wurst’s message to Vladimir Putin
First Movement: A Bearded Lady Wears the Hapsburgs’ Crown
I had the privilege of spending the second week in May in Vienna, Austria. Modern Vienna, much as I love it, is hardly a city you think of when you think of social liberalism – despite being the city of Mozart, Klimt, and Hundertawasser, it is also, after all, a devoutly Catholic city in which the ultra-right Freedom Party Osterreich somewhat regularly garners over 20% of the vote in multi-party elections. It is also a city that geographically straddles Eastern and Western Europe and, due to its centrality to the Hapsburg Empire, also has deep historic ties to many Slavic nations, including much of modern Ukraine, which were governed from Vienna within the last century. Perhaps most importantly, trade with Eastern Europe is increasingly central to the Austrian economy.
This past weekend, two stories of national significance for Austria developed within a few hours of each other: first, the situation in Ukraine, as near to Vienna as Los Angeles is to San Francisco (or NYC is to Buffalo) escalated ever further as much of Eastern Ukraine, with wink-and-a-nod “opposition” from Russia, allegedly voted to secede; second, Austria’s entry into the Eurovision talent competition won in something approaching a landslide. That entry, as you may know by now, is the above Conchita Wurst, the so-called “Bearded Lady,” who is the female alter ego of a gay Austrian man named Tom Neuwirth.
Although I was aware of Eurovision’s general significance in European pop culture, I was utterly unprepared for the reaction to Wurst’s victory. Coverage of Ms. Wurst’s victory did not merely dominate coverage of the situation in Ukraine, it completely swamped it; in the TV media, coverage of Ms. Wurst occupied easily 10 times the airtime of the Ukraine coverage, and quite likely more than that – not only on Sunday, but also Monday and seemingly Tuesday as well. On Wednesday morning, she was still the cover story in the newspapers.
This wasn’t just a matter of national pride, either: despite the fact that support of Wurst was hardly universal outside of the principal Austrian media (though I think still a clear majority), all of Vienna’s many trams proudly displayed the Rainbow flag on Tuesday.
Nonetheless, the manner in which coverage of Ms. Wurst rendered the Ukraine situation irrelevant was astounding to me. Despite the symbolism of the victory for both Austria and gay rights, Eurovision is ultimately little more than a continental celebration of kitschy pop culture with a sizable, but hardly massive, audience. How could the outcome of such a competition render the increasing possibility of the first war in Europe involving a major power breaking out just 300 miles away close to irrelevant?
It turns out that Ms. Wurst gave the answer to this herself – her landslide victory indeed showed that “we are unstoppable.” Wurst, of course, was referring specifically to LGBT people, and their right to exist, to love, to marry, and to insist upon treatment as fully equal human beings. Even more specifically, she was also thinking in no small part of Russia’s recent and particularly draconian anti-gay laws aimed at stopping the advance of LGBT people.
Yet I can’t shake the feeling that Wurst’s victory has an additional, even broader (but surely unintended) meaning, a meaning which may justify relegating virtually all of Vladimir Putin’s actions to a footnote in much the way the Austrian media did earlier this week: the advance of Western culture and values cannot be stopped, nor may the decline of the Russian/Soviet empire be reversed. And who better to deliver this message than the representative of a nation, Austria, that has spent the last century coming to grips with the collapse of its own empire?
Second Movement: The Tsar Reimagined
For all of the talk in the American media viewing Putin’s actions in Ukraine as little more than a land grab, that ignores the inherently reactionary nature of those actions – surely, had it not been for the success of the Maidan protests in deposing Victor Yanukovych, along with their desire for closer economic and cultural ties with the West, Putin would not have invaded Crimea and fomented separatism in Eastern Ukraine. At least two opposition scholars have argued that the Russian Empire has been in decline for over a century, and Putin’s actions represent a desperate – fundamentally defensive – attempt to prevent the final disintegration thereof. This view is actually quite consistent with the view expressed by Putin sympathizers that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are simply a defense against “another chapter in the West’s ongoing, US-led march toward post-Soviet Russia.”
The manner in which Putin has sought to salvage this concept of the Russian Empire, however, has been notable for the peculiar way in which it has sought to stoke nationalistic fervor. What distinguishes Putin’s nationalism from other forms of nationalism, including the form he claims is embodied by the most extreme right-wing elements of the Maidan movement, is its explicit and passionate rejection of ethnicity. Instead, Putin seeks to stoke Russo-nationalism (and thereby preserve the Russian Empire) by defining “Russian” entirely by a set of cultural markers, and by insisting that the State and culture are one in the same.
Putin set this philosophy forth in a fair amount of detail in a 2012 speech, summed up by these critical paragraphs:
The self-determination of the Russian people is to be a multiethnic civilisation with Russian culture at its core. The Russian people have confirmed their choice time and again during their thousand-year history — with their blood, not through plebiscites or referendums….
The Russian people are state-builders, as evidenced by the existence of Russia. Their great mission is to unite and bind together a civilisation. Language, culture and something Fyodor Dostoyevsky defined as “universal responsiveness” is what unites Russian Armenians, Russian Azeris, Russian Germans, Russian Tatars and others, in a type of state civilisation where there are no ethnicities, but where “belonging” is determined by a common culture and shared values.
This kind of civilisational identity is based on preserving the dominance of Russian culture, although this culture is represented not only by ethnic Russians, but by all the holders of this identity, regardless of their ethnicity. It is a kind of cultural code which has been attacked ever more often over the past few years; hostile forces have been trying to break it, and yet, it has survived. It needs to be supported, strengthened and protected….
There is no need for anyone living in Russia to forget their religion or ethnicity. But they should identify themselves primarily as citizens of Russia and take pride in that.
In some ways, this is not a horribly different concept from Russia’s historical claim to be “protector of the Slavs,” except that it places the emphasis on the proclaimed superiority of Russian culture rather than Russian military capability – indeed, despite Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine, one of the most noteworthy aspects thereof has been its repeated denials that it has used military force at all. What’s more, the reality of imperial decline significantly limits how far Russia could push with any such interventions even if they became more open. The narrative that Putin has instead pursued is that local populations are being prevented from protecting their cultural interests.
It is through this lens that Putin’s actions not only in Ukraine, but also his assault on the basic human rights of LGBT people, must be viewed. For Putin, all that is necessary to be “Russian” is to share a certain set of cultural values, and one who does not share those values is not “Russian.” In this worldview, which seems to enjoy widespread popular support in Russia, the march of Western culture, as well as values perceived as Western (such as tolerance for LGBT lifestyles), diminishes Russia itself by reducing the populations operating according to Russian cultural norms and rules. It is thus Western culture writ large – rather than merely Western or American leaders, as in the past – that is to be feared and stopped. As we have seen with the recent Russian anti-gay laws, tolerance and respect for LGBT lifestyles is high on the list of Western values to be feared.
Third Movement: Europe Triumphant
And so we arrive at the hysterical Russian reactions to Wurst’s victory, reactions that make the most extreme propaganda directed at the Maidan protests appear tame by comparison. One Putin ally characterized the victory as an emblem of “a vulgar ethno-fascism from the distant past,” while another described it as the “end of Europe.” A widespread campaign of men symbolically shaving their beards in protests was launched, and the Russian Orthodox Church denounced it as symptomatic of global moral decline, and in particular the decline of Christianity in Europe. And the Russian Parliament initiated an attempt to create a breakaway competition and to refuse to participate in Eurovision at all going forward.
The problem for Putin in the long run is that this kind of state-defined cultural imperialism is not sustainable. Russia may be able to withdraw from Eurovision and it may be able to crack down ever-further on behavior deemed insufficiently consonant with the official definition of “Russian” culture. It may indeed be able to restrict the inflow of Western culture entirely. But it is near impossible to see how such a rigidly defined culture can spread or remain influential outside of its political borders, where it must compete with other, more fluid, cultures. Nor will it be able to stop completely the inflow of other cultural influences, no matter how much it seeks to restrict those influences – black markets have always existed, and the Digital/Internet Ages have made stopping the flow of culture even more difficult.
Indeed, as Ms. Wurst’s victory shows, Putin’s vision of a “Russian world” may already be dead. Only four of the 31 eligible voting nations failed to place Ms. Wurst in the top 10 votegetters. What’s more, neither Russia nor Ukraine were amongst those four, with Russia voting her as their 6th favorite performer and Ukraine as their 3rd favorite. But the news is even worse for the “Russian world” concept, because the popular vote in Eurovision accounts for only half of the total score a performer receives from a given country; the other 50% is awarded by a country’s hand-picked judges. In Russia’s case, that popular vote placed Ms. Wurst as the third most-popular performer. Indeed, for three of the four countries that failed to place Ms. Wurst in their top 10, the popular vote would have placed her in the top 5 performers in the competition: Poland, Armenia, and Belarus.* And finally, perhaps worst of all for this “Russian world” concept, every single Slavic or formerly Soviet nation (except Estonia) placed Ms. Wurst in the top 5 performers in terms of popular vote. The supposedly “ethno-fascist” Western cultural value of tolerance and acceptance for LGBT lifestyles embodied by Ms. Wurst would thus seem to already have a substantial foothold in Putin’s “Russian world.”
Ms. Wurst was right, then: LGBT people cannot be stopped. Her victory shows that the same cannot be said for Putin’s final attempts to salvage a decaying empire.
UPDATE: Fourth Movement – Culture Reborn
In comments below, Kazzy quite rightly questions the triumphal tone of this post, asking whether Western cultural dominance is necessarily a good thing, and a clarification is in order. Despite the triumphal tone of this piece (since I obviously believe the particular Western value demonstrated by Wurst’s victory is an indisputably good one), I’m not offering an opinion on whether Western values on the whole are better than traditional Russian values – to do that would be foolish, and certainly the advance of Western culture could on the whole be ugly just as much as it could be good.
Instead, my concern in this piece is more with the effects on Putin’s “Russian World” vision, which is inherently reactionary and which I strongly believe seeks to create a false imitation of culture that cannot withstand cultural exchange. This kind of reactionarianism is, in my view, never a good thing wherever it occurs, and prevents the culture from being itself, replacing it instead with a rigid, fixed, highly idealized vision of culture that ignores what makes culture valuable.
While there are differences between Putin’s “Russian World” and American movement conservatism, the similarities are quite striking. Over the years, there’s been a number of discussions in these parts (and I’ve even had these discussions off-site with some movement conservatives) about how there is so little good creative work produced by movement conservatives. The reason for this, in my view, is that reactionarianism inherently seeks to stifle creativity and to prevent culture from evolving, instead insisting on a return to a set of “traditions” without seeking to place those traditions in context. The result is an imitation of culture rather than culture itself – it’s functionally the equivalent of Disney saying that the China Pavilion at EPCOT Center actually is Chinese culture, or at least is itself a part of Chinese culture, rather than an artificial and sanitized representation of Chinese culture.
None of which is to say that the advance of Western culture means the end of Russian culture. It doesn’t, or at least it shouldn’t. Instead, the likely result is that it should meld with Russian culture in a way that denizens of Eastern Europe and Russia choose by virtue of their revealed preferences.
Vienna itself is actually a great example of this. Much as was the case for Moscow and St. Petersburg, it spent its imperial days as a cultural hub for its sphere of influence, developing a unique and peculiar culture that I don’t think could be said to have been integrated within Western culture. After the fall of the Hapsburg Empire, it went through a particularly intense reactionary period (to say the least; I’d go so far as to say that the fall of the Hapsburgs was one of the most tragic things to come out of WWI). It’s the prospects of such a reactionary period that we should obviously be most concerned about; that said, the difference here is critical – we’re now talking about a situation where militarily restoring empire to a meaningful extent is not remotely feasible and where the digital/internet age has made artificial cultural barriers extremely porous.
Post-WWII, though, it’s safe to say that Vienna is fully integrated with the West. American TV shows and movies, for better or worse, are on TV and in the theaters constantly, and American/British music dominates the radio stations. Nearly everyone you encounter is likely to speak fluent or near-fluent English, from the checkout girl at the grocery store on up. And so on.
And yet…..it still retains its distinct cultural character. Viennese people are proudly “grumpy” in a manner consistent with its history as a center of bureaucracy despite the fact that they enjoy about the highest standard of living on the planet. Concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein still sell out months in advance. The coffee houses are just as crowded at 4:00 PM in the low season as they are during tourist season. The Opera Ball is broadcast live on at least three of the national TV stations.
Nor is this distinct cultural character entirely stuck in the past – Hunderwasserhaus was built in the early 1980s, and there are few things more simultaneously cutting edge and uniquely Viennese than the Gasometer and the community that has developed within it.
The point instead is that the end of empire and the ascendancy of Western culture hasn’t prevented the Viennese from choosing to maintain and develop their own distinctive culture or from choosing the elements of Western culture they could do without. The key to that has been that they’ve been able to make those choices themselves rather than preventing those choices from being made by erecting artificial cultural barriers.
The “Russian World” concept, and the desperate imperialism that underlies it, is troubling not because it threatens to restore Russian culture to its glory despite that being its claimed intention. It is troubling because its actual aim is to stamp out, or at least stagnate, culture – both Russian and non-Russian in the name of salvaging empire. Ms. Wurst’s victory helps to show that this concept must fail.
*The sole exception was San Marino, which is such a small country that relying on the popular vote as an indicator of anything is probably unwise. Regardless, San Marino is not a country that Russia would usually consider as being within its cultural sphere of influence.
(I’d like to especially thank Nob Akimoto for his invaluable assistance with this post.)