TURIN, Italy — Ukrainian rap and folk band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday, as European viewers and juries delivered a symbolic, pop culture affirmation of solidarity behind Ukraine in its defense against the Russian invasion.
After 80 days of fighting that forced millions from their homes, ravaged towns and villages in eastern Ukraine and killed tens of thousands, the band achieved an emotional victory for Ukraine with a performance of “Stefania,” a rousing anthemic song. Written in honor of the mother of the group’s frontman, Oleh Psiuk, the song has been reinterpreted during the war as a tribute to Ukraine as a motherland.
The song has lyrics roughly translated as “You can’t take my willpower from me the way I got it from her” and “I’ll always find my way home even when the roads are ruined.”
After Psiuk sang the song on Saturday night, he put his hand on his heart and shouted, “I ask all of you, please help Ukraine!” European voters listened and gave the band 631 votes to win, far ahead of Great 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 media conference after the game where he thanked everyone who voted for the group. “The win is very important for Ukraine, especially this year,” he said. “In recent times, Ukrainian culture has been attacked, and we are here to prove that Ukrainian culture and music are alive and have their own beautiful signature,” he said through a translator.
Considered a favorite, Kalush Orchestra traveled with special permission to bypass a state of siege that prevented most Ukrainian men from leaving the country.
The band’s win over 39 other national acts illustrated how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has united Europe, inspiring a wave of arms and aid supplies for Ukraine, pushing countries like Sweden and Finland closer to NATO and the European Union on the brink. has brought itself to cut itself off from Russian energy.
And it underlined how profound Russia’s alienation from the international community has become, from foreign ministries to financial markets to culture. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, organizers banned Russian performers from the event, fearing Russia’s participation would damage the competition’s reputation.
After the win, Iryna Shafinska tried to fix her makeup – including two hearts in the colors of the Ukrainian flag on her cheeks – that were smeared with tears of joy. She came to Turin to report for OGAE Ukraine, the Ukrainian Eurovision Fan Club. She said she’s talked to several other artists 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 mothers,” said Ms. Shafinska, who is also involved with the New York-based nonprofit Razom for Ukraine. At the media conference later, she asked for a group hug. The band obeyed.
Eurovision, the world’s largest and possibly most eccentric live music competition, is best known for its over-the-top performances and its star-making potential – it helped bring acts like Abba and Celine Dion international exposure. But as a showcase intended to promote European unity and cultural exchange, it has never really been separated from politics, although the competition rules prohibit participants from making political statements during the event.
In 2005, Ukraine’s entry song was rewritten as 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,” rabbis accused her of violating the values of the Jewish state.
Ukraine also won the competition in 2016 with “1944”, a song by Jamala about Crimean Tatars during World War II. It was also interpreted as a commentary on the Russian invasion of Crimea two years earlier.
And in 2008, when Dima Bilan, a Russian pop star, won the Eurovision Song Contest with the song “Believe”, President Vladimir V. Putin promptly weighed in with congratulations and thanked him for further polishing the Russian image.
Russia started participating in the song contest in 1994 and has participated more than 20 times. His participation had been a kind of cultural touchstone for Russia’s engagement with the world, and it persisted even as relations between Putin’s government and much of Europe deteriorated.
Ahead of Saturday’s final, several bookmakers had said Ukraine was by far the likely favorite to win. Winners are determined based on votes from national juries and home viewers.
Carlo Fuortes, chief executive of the national broadcaster RAI, which hosted the events, said he had felt Ukraine would be a favourite. “It could be that all European citizens are thinking about sending a political signal by voting to Ukraine,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “And I think it could be a good signal.”
War has required other adjustments. The Ukrainian commentator for the show, Timur Miroshnychenko, broadcast from a bomb shelter. A photo posted by Ukraine’s public broadcaster Suspilne showed the veteran presenter sitting at a desk in a bunker-like room, surrounded by computers, wires, a camera and eroding walls revealing chunks of brick beneath. It was not clear which city he was in.
The bunker was prepared to avoid disturbances from air raid sirens, Mr Miroshnychenko told BBC radio. He said Ukrainians loved the match and “tried to capture every peaceful moment” they could.
Not the entire Kalush Orchestra team was present in Italy; Slavik Hnatenko, who manages the group’s social media, was fighting in Ukraine. In a recent video interview from Kiev, Hnatenko said he thought the band’s performance in the Eurovision Song Contest was “as important” as his own service in the war.
“It’s an opportunity to show the world that our spirits are hard to break,” he said, adding that he planned to watch the match if he wasn’t in the fight and could get a signal on his cellphone. to get.
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 shelter, he said. And he was willing to fight if asked, he said. “We have no choice,” he added. “We will be in Ukraine.”
He said they went home after the win. “Like any Ukrainian, we are ready to fight and carry on to the end,” he said.
The question of where the competition would be held next year loomed large. It is tradition for the winner to host the following year’s events. Martin Österdahl, executive producer for the Eurovision Song Contest, handed Oksana Skybinska, the leader of the Ukrainian delegation, a black folder with contact details. “Please know where to find us,” he said through Mrs. Skybinska, who interpreted for him. “We are with you all the time.”
“We will do everything we can to make the Eurovision Song Contest possible in the new peaceful Ukraine,” said Skybinska.