TURIN, Italy (AP) — Ukrainian rap and folk band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday, as European viewers and juries gave symbolic pop culture support for solidarity with Ukraine in their defense. against the Russian invasion.
After 80 days of fighting that forced millions from their homes, ruined cities and towns across eastern Ukraine, and killed tens of thousands, the band won an emotional victory for Ukraine with a performance of “Stefania,” a moving song and anthem. Written in honor of the mother of the group’s leader, Oleh Psiuk, the song has been 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 willpower away from me, since I got it from her” and “I’ll always find my way home, even if the roads are destroyed.”
After Psiuk performed the song on Saturday night, he put his hand to his heart and shouted, “I pray for all of you, please help Ukraine!” Europe’s voters listened and gave the band 631 votes to win, well ahead of Britain’s Sam Ryder who came in second with 466 votes.
Psiuk’s mother texted him after the win to tell him she loved him “and was proud,” she said at a news conference after the contest thanking everyone who voted for the group. “The victory is very important for Ukraine, especially this year,” she said. “Lately, Ukrainian culture has been attacked and we are here to show that Ukrainian culture and music are alive and have their own beautiful signature,” she said, speaking through a translator.
The Kalush Orchestra had been considered a favorite, traveling on special permission to circumvent martial law that prevented most Ukrainian men from leaving the country.
The band’s victory over 39 other national acts illustrated how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unified Europe, inspiring a wave of arms and aid deliveries for Ukraine, bringing countries like Sweden and Finland closer to NATO and leading to the European Union. on the brink of isolation. of Russian energy.
And he underscored how radical Russia’s withdrawal from the international community has become, spreading from foreign ministries to financial markets to the realm of culture. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, organizers banned Russian artists from the event, citing fears that Russia’s inclusion would damage the contest’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 she had smeared with tears of joy. She came to Turin to work as a reporter for OGAE Ukraine, the Ukrainian Eurovision Fan Club. She said that she had spoken with several of the other artists and that: “They all tell me that they want the Ukraine to win because it is important to them as well.”
And “it’s a great song about moms,” said Ms Shafinska, who is also involved with the New York-based non-profit Razom for Ukraine. Later, at the press conference, she asked for a group hug. The band complied.
Eurovision, the world’s biggest and arguably most eccentric live music competition, is best known for its over-the-top performances and star-making potential – it helped launch acts like Abba and Celine Dion to international fame. But as a showcase intended to promote European unity and cultural exchange, it has never really been separate from politics, even though the 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, because 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 Jamala song about the Crimean Tatars during World War II. It was also interpreted as a comment on 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 was quick to jump in with congratulations, thanking him for further polishing Russia’s image.
Russia began competing in the song contest in 1994 and has competed more than 20 times. Their involvement had been something of a cultural touchstone for Russia’s engagement with the world, one that persisted even as relations between the Putin government and much of Europe worsened.
Before Saturday’s final, several bookmakers had said that Ukraine were by far the presumed favorites to win. Winners are determined based on votes from national juries and viewers at home.
Carlo Fuortes, chief executive of national broadcaster RAI, which hosted the events, said he had felt Ukraine would be one of the favourites. “It could be that all European citizens think about giving a political signal by voting for Ukraine,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “And I think that could be the right sign.”
The war has required other adjustments. The show’s Ukrainian commentator, Timur Miroshnychenko, broadcast from a bomb shelter. A photo released by Suspilne, the Ukrainian public broadcasting company, showed the veteran presenter at a desk in a bunker-like room, surrounded by computers, cables, a camera and weathered walls revealing patches of brick beneath. It was not clear which city he was in.
The bunker had been prepared to avoid interruptions from air raid sirens, Miroshnychenko told BBC radio. He said the Ukrainians loved the contest and were “trying to catch whatever moments of peace” they could.
Not the entire Kalush Orchestra team was present in Italy; Slavik Hnatenko, who runs the group’s social media, has been fighting in Ukraine. In a recent video interview from kyiv, Hnatenko said he felt the band’s appearance at Eurovision was “just as important” as his own service in the war.
“It’s an opportunity to show the world that our spirit is hard to break,” he said, adding that he intended to watch the competition, 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 contest, Psiuk said that even if the 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 prepared 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 to the end,” he said.
The question of where next year’s competition would be held loomed large. It is tradition that the winner hosts the following year’s events. Martin Österdahl, executive producer of the Eurovision Song Contest, handed Oksana Skybinska, leader of the Ukrainian delegation, a black folder with contact details. “Keep in mind that you know where to find us,” she said, speaking through Ms. Skybinska, who interpreted for him. “We are with you all the way.”
“We will do everything to make the Eurovision contest possible in the new peaceful Ukraine,” Skybinska said.