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 acknowledgment of the solidarity behind Ukraine in its defense against Russian invasion.
After 80 days of fighting that displaced millions from their homes, destroyed cities and towns in eastern Ukraine and killed tens of thousands, the band won an emotional victory for Ukraine with their performance of “Stefania,” a stirring, anthemic song. Written in honor of the mother of the group’s frontman Oleh Psiuk, the song was reinterpreted during the war as a tribute to Ukraine as a motherland.
The song features lyrics that roughly translate to “You can’t take my willpower from me like I got hers” and “I’ll always find my way home even when the roads are ruined.”
After performing the song on Saturday night, Psiuk put his hand to his heart and shouted, “I beg of you all, please help Ukraine!” Europe’s voters listened and gave the band 631 votes to victory, well ahead of Sam Ryder Great Britain, who placed second with 466 votes.
Psiuk’s mum had texted him after the win to say she loved him “and she was proud,” he said at a media conference after the competition, where he thanked everyone who voted for the group. “The win is very important for Ukraine, especially this year,” he said. “Lately Ukrainian culture has been under attack 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, the Kalush Orchestra traveled under special permission to circumvent a martial law that prevented most Ukrainian men from leaving the country.
The band’s victory over 39 other national acts illustrates how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unified Europe, unleashed a wave of arms and aid shipments to Ukraine, pushed countries like Sweden and Finland closer to NATO and marginalized the European Union has to isolate itself from Russian energy.
And it underscored how far-reaching Russia’s alienation from the international community has become, stretching from foreign ministries to financial markets to culture. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, organizers banned Russian artists from the event, fearing that including Russia would tarnish the competition’s reputation.
After the win, Iryna Shafinska tried to fix her makeup smeared with tears of joy, including two hearts in the colors of the Ukrainian flag on her cheeks. She came to Turin to report for OGAE Ukraine, the Ukrainian Eurovision Fan Club. She said she spoke to several of the other cast members 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 also volunteers with the New York-based nonprofit Razom for Ukraine. At the media conference later, she asked for a group hug. The band complied.
The world’s biggest and possibly most eccentric live music competition, Eurovision is best known for its dazzling performances and star potential – helping to 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, despite competition rules prohibiting contestants from making political statements at the event.
In 2005, Ukraine’s entrance song was rewritten after it was deemed too political for celebrating the Orange Revolution. When Dana International, an Israeli transgender woman, won in 1998 with her hit song “Diva,” rabbis accused her of flouting the values of the Jewish state.
Ukraine also won the 2016 competition with “1944,” a song by Jamala about the Crimean Tatars during World War II. It has also been interpreted as a commentary on the Russian invasion of Crimea that had taken place two years earlier.
And when in 2008 Dima Bilan, a Russian pop star, won the Eurovision Song Contest with the song “Believe”, President Vladimir V. Putin promptly went overboard with congratulations and thanked him for further polishing Russia’s image.
Russia took part in the song contest in 1994 and has participated more than 20 times. His participation had been a cultural touchstone of sorts for Russia’s engagement in the world, one that endured even as relations between Mr Putin’s government and much of Europe soured.
Ahead of Saturday’s final, several bookies had named Ukraine as by far the favorites to win. Winners will be determined based on votes from national juries and home viewers.
Carlo Fuortes, chief executive of national broadcaster RAI, which hosted the events, said he suspected Ukraine would be a favourite. “It could be that all European citizens think about sending a political signal to Ukraine by voting,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “And I think it could be a real signal.”
The war has necessitated other adjustments. The show’s Ukrainian commentator, Timur Miroshnychenko, broadcast from an air-raid shelter. A photo posted by Suspilne, the Ukrainian public broadcaster, showed the veteran presenter at a desk in a bunker-like room surrounded by computers, cables, a camera and eroded walls, revealing brick patches underneath. It was unclear in which city he was staying.
The bunker had been prepared to prevent interference from air raid sirens, Mr Miroshnychenko told BBC radio. He said Ukrainians loved competition and “tried to capture every peaceful moment” they could.
Not the entire Kalush Orchestra team was present in Italy; Slavik Hnatenko, who runs the group’s social media, fought in Ukraine. In a recent video interview from Kyiv, Hnatenko said he considered the band’s performance at the Eurovision Song Contest “as important” as his own service in the war.
“It’s a chance to show the world that our spirits are hard to break,” he said, adding that he intends to watch the competition when he’s not in combat and can get a signal on his cellphone.
In an interview in the days leading up to the competition, Psiuk said that even if the Kalush Orchestra won, its members would return to Ukraine. He runs an organization there to provide people with medicine, transportation and shelter, he said. And he is ready to fight if asked, he said. “We will have no choice,” he added. “We will be in Ukraine.”
He said that after winning they would go home. “Like every Ukrainian, we are ready to fight and go to the end,” he said.
The question of where the competition would take place next year was raised. Traditionally, the winner hosts the following year’s events. Martin Österdahl, Executive Producer of the Eurovision Song Contest, presented Oksana Skybinska, head of the Ukrainian delegation, with a black binder containing contact details. “Please know you know where to find us,” he said. “We’re with you all the way.”
“We will do everything to make the Eurovision competition possible in the new peaceful Ukraine,” Skybinska said.