Even in music, the nations are clashing
Even in music, the nations are clashing | youtube, the commons

Ukraine vs. Russia, even at an American theater

The politically charged outcome of this year's Eurovision song competition sparked tension even in Washington on the weekend when opposing factions encountered one another by chance at a cultural event.

"It was supposed to be nice relaxation at theater, and suddenly at our elbows we have Ukrainians," said Pavel Lushkov, a Russian expatriate who attended a Kennedy Center performance on Sunday with friends from Russia. "The Ukrainians pounced on us in the lobby, purring 'good job on your third place finish.' "

The seemingly innocuous encounter was rife with strain in the wake of Saturday's controversial Eurovision finale in Stockholm, where Ukraine routed top-seeded Russia.

Eurovision is a long-running annual competition to chose Europe's best original song of the year. Each participating country is allowed one entry. According to the contest rules, all entries must avoid political topics - hence the controversy that has prompted Russia to threaten boycotting next year's competition.

Going into the finals, Russian pop artist Sergei Lazarev was favored to win with "You Are the Only One," his song about love. But a complex voting system awarded the most points, and the winning title, to Ukrainian singer Jamala, whose "1944" is about war.

Jamala's song addresses a watershed event, when Soviet dictator Josif Stalin deported mass numbers of Tatars from Crimea. The song is widely viewed as a thinly veiled protest against Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

When Ukraine was named the Eurovision winner, Russia immediately called foul.

“It was not the Ukrainian singer Jamala and her song '1944' that won the Eurovision 2016; it was politics that beat art,” Russian defense official Frants Klintsevich told Russian reporters.

European and Russian media are abuzz with Eurovision news and speculation 

At least one culture fan is tired of the dust-up.

"Why must politics intrude on art?" Lushkov asked. "Now, instead of congratulating a singer, the world is turning the spotlight yet again on international relations."

Others believe, though, that the situation in Ukraine merits increased international illumination - especially within the United States.

"Because Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union, many Americans think Russian and Ukrainian is the same," said filmmaker Damian Kolody, who produces documentaries about the Eastern European "breadbasket" nation. "So, there is a general lack of awareness that Ukraine is an independent country, larger than Germany, that sits on Poland's eastern border that has had a long history of being oppressed by Russian rule."

Americans in particular should pay attention to the situation in Ukraine, the filmmaker said, because Russian aggression is a threat to world stability.  "A stable and democratic Ukraine is truly in America's best interests as Putin's Russia attempts to disrupt the Western security order and coalition that has existed since World War II."

Now, in the aftermath of Eurovision, Russia is focused anew on Ukraine for purposes of artistic competition.

According to the contest rules, each year's winner hosts the following year's song battle. Ukraine, then, is slated to host in 2017.  

Russia may - or may not - participate. “If nothing changes in Ukraine by next year, then I don't think we need to take part (in Eurovision in Ukraine),” defense official Klintsevich told the RIA Novosti news agency.

While Jamala is being hailed as a hero in Ukraine, Cold War-style conflict appears to have resurfaced in response to the contest. Russia's Lazarev was labelled a former porn star, and a naked photo of him appeared in the British press. As of Tuesday morning, more than 300,000 people signed a Change.org petition to demand a vote recount. The Russian Army Choir, meanwhile, has offered to represent Russia in the 2107 contest.

For now,  the cultural grudge match apparently is confined to chance encounters in third-party nations, such as the United States.

As relayed by Lushkov, his faction was chatting in a lobby at the Kennedy Center when a group of Ukrainians overheard them speaking Russian. The Ukrainians identified themselves as being from Kiev, and began talking about the previous night's Eurovision contest.

"They spoke in a friendly manner, but we knew. It was gloating," Lushkov said.

How did the Russians respond to the Ukrainian theatergoers?

"We gave them the stare contest," Lushkov said. "They went away without incident. Honestly, we just want to forget about Eurovision."