TURIN, Italy — Ukrainian rap and folk group Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday, as European viewers and juries gave a token pop culture endorsement of solidarity behind Ukraine in its defense against the invasion of Russia.
After 80 days of fighting that forced millions from their homes, wreaked havoc on towns and villages in eastern Ukraine, and killed tens of thousands, the group has won an emotional victory for Ukraine with a performance of “Stephanie», a catchy and anthemic song. Written in honor of the band leader’s mother, Oleh Psiuk, the song was reinterpreted during the war as a tribute to Ukraine as a homeland.
The song includes lyrics that roughly translate to “You can’t take my will from me, like I got it from her” and “I’ll always find my way back, even if the roads are destroyed”.
After Psiuk performed the song on Saturday night, he put his hand over his heart and shouted, “I’m asking all of you, please help Ukraine!” European voters listened, giving the group 631 votes to win, far ahead of Britain’s Sam Ryder, who took second place with 466 votes.
Psiuk’s mother had texted him after the win to say she loved him “and was proud,” he said at a post-contest press conference in which he thanked everyone who voted for the group. “The victory is very important for Ukraine, especially this year,” he said. “Ukrainian culture has been under attack lately, and we are here to prove that Ukrainian culture and music are alive and have their own beautiful signature,” he said through a translator. .
Kalush Orchestra had been considered a favorite, traveling with special permission to circumvent a martial law preventing most Ukrainian men from leaving the country.
The group’s victory over 39 other national acts illustrated how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine united Europe, inspiring a wave of arms deliveries and aid to Ukraine, bringing countries like the Sweden and Finland from NATO and bringing the European Union to the verge of cutting itself off. Russian energy.
And it underscored how radical Russia’s estrangement from the international community has become, extending from foreign ministries to financial markets and the realm of culture. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, organizers banned Russian performers from participating in the event, fearing that Russia’s inclusion would damage the competition’s reputation.
After the victory, Iryna Shafinska was trying to fix her makeup – including two hearts in the colors of the Ukrainian flag on her cheeks – which had been smudged with tears of joy. She came to Turin to report for OGAE Ukraine, the Ukrainian Eurovision fan club. She said she’s spoken to several of the other performers and that, “they all tell me they want Ukraine to win because it’s important to them too.”
And “it’s a great song about moms,” said Ms Shafinska, who is also involved with the New York-based nonprofit, Razom for Ukraine. At the press conference later, she asked to have a group hug. The group complied.
Eurovision, the world’s biggest and perhaps quirkiest live music competition, is best known for its over-the-top performances and star-making potential – it helped launch artists like Abba and Celine Dion to international fame. But as a showcase to promote European unity and cultural exchange, it has never really been separated from politics, although contest rules prohibit contestants from making political statements at the event.
In 2005, Ukraine’s entrance song was rewritten after it was deemed too political, as it celebrated the Orange Revolution. When Dana International, an Israeli transgender woman, won in 1998 with her hit song “Diva,” the rabbis accused her of flouting the values of the Jewish state.
Ukraine also won the contest in 2016 with “1944», a song by Jamala about the Crimean Tatars during the Second World War. It was also interpreted as a comment about the Russian invasion of Crimea, which took place two years earlier.
And in 2008, when Dima Bilan, a Russian pop star, won Eurovision with the song “Believe,” President Vladimir V. Putin hastened to congratulate him, thanking him for having further improved the image of Russia.
Russia started participating in the singing competition in 1994 and has participated more than 20 times. His participation had been something of a cultural touchstone for Russia’s engagement with the world, persisting even as relations soured between Mr Putin’s government and much of Europe.
Carlo Fuortes, chief executive of national broadcaster RAI, which hosted the events, said he felt Ukraine would be a favourite. “It could be that all European citizens think of giving a political signal by a vote to Ukraine,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “And I think that could be a good signal.”
The war necessitated further adjustments. The show’s Ukrainian commentator, Timur Miroshnychenko, broadcast from a bomb shelter. A photo posted by Suspilne, Ukraine’s public broadcasting company, showed the veteran presenter at a desk in a bunker-like room, surrounded by computers, wires, a camera and eroded walls that revealed brick slabs below. We didn’t know what city he was in.
The bunker had been prepared to avoid disruption from air raid sirens, Mr Miroshnychenko told BBC radio. He said Ukrainians love the contest and “try to catch any peaceful moment” they can.
The entire Kalush Orchestra team was not present in Italy; Slavik Hnatenko, who runs the group’s social media, was in Ukraine to fight. In a recent video interview from Kyiv, Hnatenko said he felt the band’s Eurovision appearance was “just as important” as his own wartime service.
“It’s a chance to show the world that our spirit is hard to break,” he said, adding that he intended to watch the contest, if he wasn’t in combat and could get a signal on his cell phone.
In an interview in the days leading up to the competition, Psiuk said that even if Kalush Orchestra won, its members would return to Ukraine. He ran an organization there to provide people with medicine, transportation and housing, he said. And he was ready to fight if asked, he said. “We will have no choice,” he added. “We will be in Ukraine.
He said that after the victory they were going home. “Like all Ukrainians, we are ready to fight and go all the way,” he said.
The question of where next year’s contest would be held weighed heavily. It is traditional for the winner to host the following year’s events. Martin Österdahl, the executive producer of the Eurovision Song Contest presented Oksana Skybinska, the head of the Ukrainian delegation, with a black binder with contact details. “Please know that you know where to find us,” he said, speaking through Ms Skybinska, who was interpreting for him. “We are with you all the way.”
“We will do everything we can to make the Eurovision Song Contest possible in the new, peaceful Ukraine,” Skybinska said.