Beyond Eurovision: Why Ukraine Should Fully Embrace Crimean Tatar Culture

Jamala’s Eurovision Song Contest victory demonstrated the importance of soft power on the international stage - Ukraine’s cultural diplomacy strategy now needs to pay far more attention to safeguarding the nation’s rich but neglected Crimean Tatar heritage

Beyond Eurovision: Why Ukraine Should Fully Embrace Crimean Tatar Culture
More than mere pop politics: Crimean Tatar singer Jamala became a national hero thanks to her Eurovision exploits but Ukraine must do more to embrace Crimean Tatar culture beyond high-profile events like the Eurovision Song Contest
Myroslava Hartmond
Thursday, 09 June 2016 00:50

Ukrainian singer Jamala’s 2016 Eurovision Song Contest victory was unquestionably independent Ukraine’s greatest cultural diplomacy success. As Jamala delivered the coup de grace to her rivals with a soaring crescendo while bathed in the golden light of a sprawling tree symbolizing Crimea Tatar nationhood, she also reminded the world of Ukraine’s ancient multicultural roots while highlighting the nation’s historic and ongoing struggle against Kremlin injustice.

It was a triumphant demonstration of soft power that returned the unresolved issue of Russia’s illegal Crimean annexation to the centre of international attention. While the song was technically apolitical, few missed the underlying geopolitical meaning of Jamala’s powerful ballad about her family’s experience during the 1944 Soviet deportation. If the subsequent torrents of discontent and anger on display in the Russian media were anything to go by, the Kremlin clearly got the message.


Ukraine’s international image woes

This success makes a refreshing change. Ever since 1991, Ukraine has struggled to project itself onto the global stage, leaving the country with a chronically low international profile and making it uniquely vulnerable to the disinformation component of Russia’s hybrid warfare doctrine. Over the past two-and-a-half years, these international image problems have been exposed as a major national security issue. Russia’s infowar tactics have repeatedly demonstrated that outside audiences with no prior knowledge of the real Ukraine will inevitably be susceptible to deliberate Kremlin distortions, with disastrous consequences for Ukraine itself and for European stability as a whole.

Jamala’s victory could now become a landmark event in the evolution of Ukrainian cultural diplomacy, but this will only happen if the country is able to harness and build on the positive attention engendered by the recent flurry of Eurovision coverage. If Ukraine wants the world to take the country’s European ambitions seriously, it must demonstrate a commitment to the European values at the core of Jamala’s winning Eurovision entry. This means creating the conditions for the preservation and development of Crimean Tatar culture at home. 


Political pop

Many people struggle to take the ultra-kitsch Eurovision Song Contest seriously, but we should be wary of underestimating its importance as a high-profile medium for soft power messaging. Ukraine’s 2016 entry was not the first song accused of seeking to use the contest as a platform for political statements. Georgia’s 2009 entry ‘I Don’t Wanna Put In’ and Armenia’s ‘Face the Shadow’ in 2015 were both banned, but Jamala’s haunting tune avoided exclusion after officials decided the song’s content was historical rather than political. 

Jamala’s entry had already made a significant impact prior to emerging as the ultimate winner of this year’s Eurovision. From the very start of the national selection campaign in early spring, it attracted considerable Ukrainian and international media coverage. This was a textbook example of cultural diplomacy: the delivery of a political message through a high-quality cultural product – in this case, a perfectly constructed and brilliantly delivered pop performance.


Ukraine needs to take cultural diplomacy seriously

Kateryna Smagliy, Director of the Kennan Institute in Kyiv, is one of many who are now urging Ukrainian authorities to take the political impact of culture more seriously. She says the positive impact of Jamala’s victory highlights the need to develop a concerted cultural-diplomatic strategy to protect Ukraine’s interests abroad.

As anticipated, Ukrainian politicians were quick to latch on to the cache that the young performer had garnered via her Eurovision heroics. In the days following Jamala’s triumphant homecoming from Eurovision in Sweden, she was in huge demand for photo-ops with a range of political leaders. Amid the general euphoria surrounding her victory, she even found herself nominated for the role of UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. President Poroshenko was among those who spoke approvingly of the potential appointment, commenting, ‘it could help solve the problem of Russian-occupied Crimea and the return home of the entire Crimean Tatar nation.’

Such political opportunism is to be expected, but it will take more than the efforts of a talented young pop performer to resolve the complex geopolitical issues surrounding the Russian occupation of Crimea. Ukraine won an important pop battle at the Eurovision Song Contest, but it has a long way to go before it can win the war. Cultural diplomacy can certainly play an important role in countering the Kremlin’s hybrid war in Ukraine, but soft power initiatives must begin on the Ukrainian domestic front. Support for Crimean Tatar culture and identity could help highlight Ukraine’s emerging multicultural, multidenominational civic identity while drawing attention to the country’s commitment to European values at a time when Russia is facing mounting international condemnation over its treatment of the Crimean Tatar minority.


Forgotten Crimean Tatar culture

By almost any estimate, both traditional and contemporary Crimean Tatar culture is currently in pretty bad shape. Artists, musicians, and writers routinely experience impoverishment and displacement, while those still living in Russian-occupied Crimea suffer from mounting persecution. The Russian occupation authorities in Crimea are prone to labelling any expression of national sentiment by Crimean Tatars as ‘extremism’, placing huge strains on cultural life. Jamala’s Eurovision victory highlighted the soft power value of Crimean Tatar culture to the Ukrainian national cause, but there is little evidence of broader efforts to preserve this valuable inheritance.

Even the most superficial of examinations into Crimean Tatar culture quickly reveals the extent of our ignorance of this rich yet vanishing cultural milieu. While Susana Jamaladynova (Jamala) is arguably the most prominent performer of Crimean Tatar heritage, it would be silly to suggest that her pop music is genuinely representative of contemporary Crimean Tatar culture. Jamala’s true success lies in exposing the injustices waged against her people to an international audience. It is now up to Ukrainian policy-makers and activists to fight for that justice, and for citizens to demand it of them.


Crimean Tatar issues back on the international agenda

Ukrainian politicians first began paying particular attention to protecting the rights of the Crimean Tatar ethnic minority in the immediate aftermath of the illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014. The Ukrainian authorities were encouraged to speak out over Russia’s undemocratic actions against the Crimean Tatar population by vocal members of the Crimean Tatar community such as Mustafa Dzhemilev, and by international human rights organizations.

Numerous international reports since the Russian seizure of the Ukrainian peninsula have highlighted the worsening plight of the Crimean Tatars, leading to condemnation from the likes of the European Parliament. In November 2015, the Ukrainian Parliament took the important symbolic step of making 18 May a National Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the Crimean Tatar Genocide.

In recent years, there had been some efforts to place Crimean Tatar issues on the international agenda via cultural initiatives. In 2008, UK journalist and author Lily Hyde’s book ‘Dream Land’ received widespread critical acclaim. Based on numerous interviews with Crimean Tatars, it received an endorsement from Amnesty International for raising issues of displacement and genocide in the little-known context of the Crimean Tatar deportation. Hyde’s book was subsequently translated into French, Ukrainian, and Crimean Tatar.

In 2013, filmmaker Akhtem Seitablaiev’s ‘Haytarma’ (‘Return’) made a cinematic statement about the Crimean deportation that received positive reviews and also succeeded in stirring up a controversy involving the Russian Consul in Simferopol. The Russian official attacked the film for failing to highlight alleged Crimean Tatar collaboration with the WWII Nazi German regime in Crimea, revealing how contentious the Crimea Tatar deportation remained in Ukrainian-Russian relations, even prior to the Kremlin invasion of February 2014.

With Crimea back in the international spotlight, international interest in the Crimean Tatars is growing. One of the most eye-catching initiatives is a new academic course focusing on Crimean Tatar language and culture at the Ukrainian Studies department of Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. It is significant that these studies should take place within the broader context of Ukrainian Studies, thus reinforcing the idea that the Crimean Tatar legacy is part of the collective Ukrainian historic past as well as the political present.


A proud and ancient people

The Crimean Tatars are not simply political pawns or victims of history.  They are a proud and ancient people with a strong claim to nationhood and a history in Crimea stretching back for many centuries before the advent of Russian imperial involvement. As direct descendants of the Khanate of Crimea, the longest-lived of the Turkic khanates that succeeded the Mongol Empire of the Golden Horde, the Crimean Tatars constituted one of the strongest powers of Eastern Europe from the early Middle Ages until the last decades of the eighteenth century.

For hundreds of years, their Crimean homeland was a world centre of Islamic civilization. The name itself, ‘Crimean Tatar’, at once vague and misleading, is a collective name given to the tribes that inhabited the region during the time of the Khanate. Crimean Tatars actually have little in common with the Tatars of Tatarstan in Russia.

Waves of Russian oppression beginning at the end of the eighteen century led to a serious of Crimean Tatar exoduses. As is the case with many marginalized ethnic minorities, emigration has helped bring Crimean Tatar talent to prominence. While the Crimean Tatar community in Ukraine is the focus of contemporary attention, many Crimean Tatars have made significant contributions to the national cultural milieus of Russia, Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria.

For example, Crimean Tatars have flourished in modern Turkey, which has served as home to millions of Crimea Tatars since the mass migrations of the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Crimean Tatar contribution in these different societies has often been lost in the broader national narratives of each country, leading to a further diluting of the Crimean Tatar cultural footprint.


Lviv: Crimean Tatar renaissance city?

There are signs that a Crimean Tatar cultural renaissance is slowly gaining ground in today’s mainland Ukraine. Lviv, Ukraine’s undisputed cultural capital and gateway to Europe, has emerged since 2014 as an unlikely stronghold of Crimean Tatar music and culture. Thousands of Crimean Tatars have fled occupied Crimea since spring 2014 and set up home in the western Ukrainian city. Halil Halilov, a music producer from Simferopol, has established a production studio for Crimean Tatar artists in Lviv. “I came to realize that cultural development was being affected by the conflict,” Halil says. “I felt my responsibility lay in helping to develop the Crimean Tatar culture outside of Crimea.”

The young performers who congregate at Halilov’s Lviv studio draw on traditional elements of Crimean Tatar music, but are also well versed in the lexicons of rock and jazz. They are not interested in simply reproducing folk music, but instead seek to blend their unique influences into modern compositions that deal with contemporary Crimean Tatar issues – if only on an emotional level. For them, the studio is a place to meet with others who have suffered similar loss and displacement.

It is too early to name bands, they say, as collectives face frequent line-up changes and personal issues – few of them are able to sustain themselves through music alone – but given time, we may see the emergence of some truly unique bands, or even a scene, that could become part of the global world music realm. Lviv, with its vibrant cultural climate, is surely capable of incubating such talent.


Crimean Tatar rights and a European Ukraine

Today, Ukraine faces a tough nation-building challenge: cementing its contemporary national identity while remaining receptive to external culture influences. Post-Maidan Ukraine must find its own unique voice, but at the same time must shape its cultural and political institutions in keeping with the best European practices of openness, public accountability, and civil dialogue. It is not enough to denounce the human rights violations of the Russian government. Ukraine must be demonstrably different. Citizens of multicultural Ukraine come from a wide range of ethnic or religious backgrounds. Only a civic national identity grounded in European values has any real chance of uniting them.

As Ukraine looks to the future, it must also safeguard the past. The conservation of cultural heritage is a prerequisite for the development of any nation. Ukraine must reconcile the country’s considerable historical overlap with other cultures – notably, Russian culture – while crystallizing its inherent cultural capital.

Actively supporting the Crimean Tatars in their quest to revive and reinvent their traditional culture must become a strategic priority for the Ukrainian government. It represents a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate Ukraine’s ability to embrace cultural diversity and protect the rights of a vulnerable ethnic minority. Jamala’s Eurovision performance put the issue of Crimean Tatar identity on the international agenda, but Crimean Tatar culture has yet to flourish in contemporary Ukraine. We can only hope that we live to see its fragrant bloom.



About the author: Myroslava Hartmond is the owner of Triptych: Global Arts Workshop ( and a Research Associate of the Centre for International Studies, University of Oxford, where she explores the role of cultural diplomacy in Ukraine.

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