The New Face of Russia: Buranovskie Babushki

Eurovision 2011

Shock shock, horror horror: Putin is back in power. As predicted, the results of the March 4th election saw the former President returned to power for another twelve years, putting any hopes for an irrigation of Russia’s stagnant socio-political quagmire on ice for the foreseeable future. However, all is not lost, after another nationwide vote, all be it in the name of something slightly more trivial, yielded a somewhat more uplifting result. I am, of course, talking about the inimitable ‘Buranovskie Babushki’, an all-singing, all-dancing sextet of pensioners who emerged triumphant as Russia’s Eurovision candidates.

Firstly, it’s refreshing to see women who are, shall we say, no longer spring chickens, being selected to represent Russia on an international stage. Although incredibly respectful of the wisdom and experience that age brings, Russia’s preoccupation with perfection has resulted in the monopolisation of the nation’s ‘face’ by the young, beautiful and oh, so glamorous. In fact, continuing the (I am aware, somewhat bizarre) election parallels, this was no better exemplified than in calls for girls to ‘Strip for Putin’ last year, or in United Russia’s provocative campaign videos. Indeed, a noticeably smoother, tauter and more feline version of the man himself appeared on Red Square at the post-election victory party, suggesting that he has been no stranger to the surgeon’s knife in creating an unnaturally evergreen appearance to keep up with his own affirmation of youth.

As well as ignoring the Russian rule of thumb regarding the age at which the limelight becomes unforgiving, the babushka also buck the trend in terms of the ethnicity of Russia’s public face. The women are all natives of Udmurtia, a Central Russian republic with a high proportion of ethnic Udmurts and Tatars. They have made a career of performing, when possible, in their native language and, as in last week’s competition, regularly sport the republic’s traditional ceremonial garb. Not only is it often all too easy to forget that Russia incorporates not just Moscow and Saint Petersburg, but everything and everyone 8 000 km East of its capital city, it is also rare to see minorities represented in a country where racism is institutionalised, the police are guilty of arbitrary violence against ethnic non-Russians and state-backed white supremacist youth groups are encouraged to exercise vigilante justice on the streets. The fact that these women were chosen as representatives of the country is, hopefully, indicative of the existence of some positive attitudes towards race issues within Russia.

There’s no doubt, of course, that Eurovision is little more than a whole load of kitsch and silliness. Perhaps this is all a bit of stretch. There’s every possibility that seeing six old women jigging around a stage and professing a ‘party for everybody’ simply gave the audience a laugh. Even so, it still suggests one thing: that Russia is, slowly but surely, beginning to open up and embrace its ability to laugh at itself. A publicly self-deprecating sense of humour is something which Russia, with its stereotypically stern and frosty population matching its climate, has always been seen to lack: it would certainly be interesting to see what a satirical perspective on the current state of affairs, unconcerned with upholding a façade of strength and ultimately gearing up for change, could do for Russia.

I do hope the old dears get your vote.

Leave a Reply