Page last updated at 14:06 GMT, Thursday, 14 May 2009 15:06 UK

Five minutes of Eurovision fame

Steven Rosenberg talks to Maria Katz during the 1996 Russian Eurovision final

As Eurovision prepares to hit TV screens across Europe, former Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg recalls how he made a surprise appearance in the competition.

1996 was an eventful year for Russia. It was the year Boris Yeltsin had a heart attack - but still managed to get re-elected president.

The first Chechen war came to an end in 1996. And up in space an American astronaut, Shannon Lucid, spent a record 188 days on the Mir Space Station.

Meanwhile back on Earth, Russia entered the Eurovision Song Contest for the third time.

Now, I realise this last event may not sound particularly Earth-shattering. But it meant a lot to me at the time. And I will tell you why.

Crazy costumes

In 1996 I was living and working in Moscow. One day I was given the chance to take a tour of Russian State Television.

When I walked into the main TV studio, I could not believe my eyes - I had stumbled into rehearsals for Russia's Song for Europe competition - the contest which, that evening, would select Russia's entry for the 1996 Eurovision Song Contest.

In 1996, the fact that Russia was taking part in Eurovision after decades of cold war-era isolation was far more important than the quality of the music

I must confess I am a big fan of Eurovision. I have been ever since Abba.

I can remember as a child being fascinated by all the different languages, the crazy costumes and the crackly telephone lines during the voting.

Being allowed by my parents to stay up late to watch Eurovision was like being allowed to wait up for Father Christmas.

TV debut

So you can imagine my excitement in that Russian television studio. I ran up to the show's director to tell him how much I enjoyed Eurovision.

He looked a bit bemused at the sight of this unexpected English visitor babbling away in broken Russian about the Eurovision Song Contest. And then he made a suggestion.

Abba at Eurovision in 1974
The best known winners, Abba, triumphed at Eurovision in 1974

"Would you like to be on the show?"

"On the show?" I repeated, a little confused.

"Yes, you can be Presenter's Friend - you talk about Eurovision - live tonight."

Dazed but excited, I rushed home to dig out a jacket and tie. My TV career was about to begin - in a Russian pop contest.

The presenter was a lovely lady by the name of Maria Katz. She had performed Russia's first ever Eurovision entry - Eternal Wanderer - two years before, and had come a respectable ninth.

In this 1996 Song for Europe contest, I was wheeled on between the songs to answer Maria's questions.

"Steven, what do British people think of Eurovision?" I had to disappoint Maria there - not everyone, I replied, takes it seriously.

"Steven, tell me a funny thing that happened at a Eurovision Song Contest." I told Maria about 1969 - the year four countries had tied for first place.

"Steven, do British people like songs sung in Russian?"

"Er, of course," I said - politely.

But I didn't think they would like any of the tunes being performed in this contest. There was not a decent melody among them.

But that did not really matter. In 1996, the fact that Russia was taking part in Eurovision after decades of Cold War-era isolation was far more important than the quality of the music.

The Iron Curtain had not only divided East and West politically, but musically too.

Communism had viewed Eurovision with deep suspicion.

Eurovision influences

A few years ago, I remember meeting an Estonian pensioner, Karl Pihelgas. At the height of the Cold War, Karl had built his own secret satellite dish so he could watch the Eurovision Song Contest on Finnish TV.

Eimear Quinn
Ireland's Eimear Quinn went on to win in 1996 with 'The Voice'

He used to organise clandestine Eurovision Song Contest parties. He had told me that if the Soviet authorities had found out, he could have lost his job.

Mind you, even the Iron Curtain couldn't block out all Eurovision influences. For many years the weather forecast at the end of Soviet TV's nightly news broadcast was accompanied by an instrumental version of a 1967 Eurovision hit - "Love is Blue".

Not to be outsung, the Warsaw Pact came up with its own version of Eurovision - the Intervision Song Contest.

But it did not last. And in the dying years of the USSR, as if Communism could sense that the game was up, Soviet TV gave in and broadcast Eurovision.

I know one of the people who commentated on it - Masha.

It was her job to translate all the lyrics into Russian and then read out the first eight lines of each song on air. First, though, Masha's translations had to be vetted by the Soviet censors - just to make sure there was nothing politically incorrect about them.

How times have changed. Last year Russia won the Eurovision Song Contest - and this year's competition is being held in Moscow.

But what about that Russian national final in 1996?

Well, it was won by a singer by the name of Andrei Kosinsky.

His song had the rather clumsy title of I am I...or I am Me... or Me am I - doesn't really work well in English, does it?

And sadly, the song never made it to the Eurovision final in Norway. It was knocked out in a pre-selection semi-final. But smiling presenter Maria wasn't to know that.

"Thank you, Steven," she beamed after asking me her final question. "I hope we meet again. Maybe one day in a Eurovision final... in Moscow."

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