Russia’s decision to nominate wheelchair-bound singer Yulia Samoylova as its entrant for the Eurovision Song Contest in Kiev was a brilliant political gambit. Ukraine has been reprimanded by the European Broadcasting Union for banning Samoylova on the grounds that she performed in Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Now the Ukrainians also look petty for having banned a disabled performer from attending the competition, which reaches a climax on May 13—even though the reason has nothing to do with her disability. 

Russia’s nomination of Samoylova is also an indication of a bigger phenomenon and a growing trend of how Russia is borrowing the language of European morality—and sometimes even means it.  

In Europe’s ethical hierarchy, disability takes precedence over nationality, so Ukraine’s ban leaves a bitter taste in the mouth for Europeans. It gives Russia the opportunity to ask why Ukraine is letting politics intrude in culture, like tar in honey.

Demonstrating an ostensible close adherence to Western values is a staple of Russian public diplomacy. The band t.A.T.u., which made history as an LGBT group, opened the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi even after Russia’s gay propaganda laws had been put into action. We see the same tactic in the informal style of Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, the performance of the “Buranov Babushkas” at the last Eurovision contest, and even the Russian official concert staged in the ruins of Palmyra in Syria, an event designed to show that Russia preserves the heritage of the West better than the West itself.

The gesture may be showy, but that does not necessarily make it false. Russia’s attempt to speak with the West in its own language of humanitarian achievement may look like a trick, a piece of masterful propaganda ordered from on high. Trump insulted a disabled journalist and the whole of Hollywood came to the journalist’s rescue, the Russians gently remind their listeners, after which Putin sends a disabled singer to represent Russia. Where does the moral high ground lie now, the rhetorical question is posed: on which side of the Atlantic, which bank of the Oder-Neisse?

The choice of a disabled singer is an attempt not just to talk with the West in a moral language, but also to speak that language more loudly, more radically. The venue for this choice is important too. Eurovision is known as one of the favorite cultural events for Europe’s LGBT community, and all kinds of minorities have been proudly represented there. In this festival of tolerance, this was a bid to beat the Europeans at their own game. 

One can say that Russia’s selection of a disabled performer represents not the spirit of tolerance but the letter. It is not a gracious act but a tactical imitation. Yet an artificial act may take root and become meaningful.  

In an unremarked way, Russian public morality is following a trajectory already blazed by Russian urban citizens. They are quietly moving toward Europe. Even as people say how the Western way of life is foreign to Russians, Russian cities are becoming more European than they have ever been since the Revolution of 1917. 

It is the last thing that Europeans and Americans who visit Russia expect. Yet while the public discourse is all about a new Cold War with the West, a very real Western invasion is occurring in Russian towns. The look of Russian streets, street signs, trains, parking lots, airports, and banks is a display of nothing less than the transfer of Western daily life onto Russian soil—a process that the Russian public is accepting. 

For sure, sushi places and restaurants named “Florence” or “Manhattan” are no longer in fashion. But inside restaurants with good Russian names like “Voronezh” or “Krasnodar” you now find a much more recognizably global atmosphere, a European culture of food, and European-style sourcing of local products. The act of banishing cars from sidewalks and cleaning up train station bathrooms has made the country look more European than thousands of declarations of intent. 

Choosing a singer in a wheelchair is an act in the same drama. Like any act of imitation, it feels a little excessive at first, and the public is not quite ready for it. But so once did using a bicycle path or taking the express train to the airport—things that Russians took years to get used to. Even if the action seems contrived, it still eventually receives an honest answer.

In a country like Russia, where public opinion is archaic, the very existence of a debate works to erode the archaic status quo. Social issues that would have been unthinkable a decade ago are now topics of commonplace discussion. Hospice care, volunteering at orphanages, and protecting buildings and trees have all become fashionable activities. Equally, some activities are no longer socially acceptable—a one-time city councilor can no longer get away with driving his Mercedes down the pedestrian section of the Arbat street, and a famous actor will not risk driving on the sidewalk. 

Issues like rape or HIV infection are getting a public hearing—and advocates of the old cultural stereotypes are not necessarily winning the debate. It is a sign that the ethical void that we were left with after the crash of the Soviet belief system is finally being filled up. As Andrey Arkhangelsky noted last year, liberal values are being both rejected and championed. It is a process we have seen since the Viking King Vladimir became a Russian monarch in the tenth century.  

An action and a reaction are happening in the same cultural space. The regressive Russian parliament permitted the smacking of children for disciplinary reasons. But when earlier this year a businessman in a jeep outside St. Petersburg tried to publicly punish a kid on the street by hitting him with his car-bumper, there was a public outcry. The head of Russia’s Investigative Committee Alexander Bastrykin called for the driver to be prosecuted.

Russia, a country of limited capacities, is asking the outside world for the same thing that it demanded for its Eurovision contestant, Samoylova: affirmative action without any condescension. It wants to win concessions from other countries, but in a way that nobody notices. Right now, it is still likely to be booed by the crowd. But this is still a good moment for Russia to start building equality on the inside. After all, a positive ethical system built on the respect of the majority for the minority would be the most powerful argument internationally for Russia to gain the respect of the outside world.

  • Alexander Baunov