Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest, demonstrating popular support for the group’s war-torn country that went beyond music.
The band and their song “Stefania” defeated 24 other artists early on Sunday in the competition’s grand final. The public vote from home, via text message or the Eurovision app, proved decisive, elevating them over British TikTok star Sam Ryder, who led after national juries in 40 countries cast their votes.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the victory, Ukraine’s third since his Eurovision debut in 2003. He said “we will do our best” to host next year’s competition in the devastated port city of Mariupol, almost entirely occupied by Russian troops. .
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When describing the city, Zelenskyy underlined “Ukrainian Mariupol”, adding: “free, peaceful, rebuilt!”
“I am sure that our victorious chord in the battle with the enemy is not far off,” Zelenskyy said in a message on the Telegram messaging app.
Kalush Orchestra frontman Oleh Psiuk took advantage of the massive global audience, more than 180 million last year, to make a passionate plea for free fighters still trapped beneath a sprawling steel mill in Mariupol.
“Help Azovstal, right now,” Psiuk pleaded after his victory performance, speaking from beneath a brightly colored hat that has become the band’s trademark among fans.
He later told a news conference that people can help by “spreading information, talking this out, contacting governments to help”.
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The 439 votes from the fans is the highest number of televoting points ever received in a Eurovision match, now in its 66th year. Psiuk thanked the Ukrainian diaspora “and everyone around the world who voted for Ukraine. … The victory is very important for Ukraine. Especially this year.”
“Stefania” was written by Psiuk as a tribute to his mother, but since the Russian invasion on February 24, it has become a hymn to the motherland, with lyrics promising: “I will always find my way home, even if all roads have been destroyed.”
Kalush Orchestra itself is a cultural project that encompasses folklore experts and blends traditional folk melodies and contemporary hip-hop in a purposeful defense of Ukrainian culture. That has become an even more striking point, as Russia’s invasion has mistakenly attempted to claim that Ukrainian culture is not unique.
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“We are here to show that Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian music are alive, and that they have their own and very special signature,” Psuik told journalists.
The plea to free the remaining Ukrainian fighters trapped by Russians under the Azovstal factory served as a bleak reminder that the hugely popular and at times flamboyant Eurovision Song Contest was being played against the backdrop of a war on Europe’s eastern flank.
The Azov battalion, which is among the last 1,000 defenders of the factory, sent their thanks from the maze of tunnels under the factory by posting on Telegram: “Thank you Kalush Orchestra for your support! Glory to Ukraine!”
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The city itself has been the site of some of the worst devastation of the 2 1/2 month war as Russia tries to secure a land bridge between separatist-controlled Donbas and Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.
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The six-piece, all-male band was given special permission to leave the country to represent Ukraine and Ukrainian culture at the music competition. One of the original members stayed to fight and the others will be back in Ukraine in two days, when their temporary exit permit expires.
Before traveling to Italy, Psiuk ran a volunteer organization he founded early in the war that uses social media to find transportation and shelter for those in need.
“It’s hard to say what I’m going to do because this is my first time winning Eurovision,” said Psuik. “Like any Ukrainian, I am ready to fight and carry on to the end.”
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While support for Ukraine in the song contest was ultimately overwhelming, the contest remained wide open until the last popular votes were counted. And war or not, fans from Spain, Britain and elsewhere entering the PalaOlimpico venue from all over Europe hoped their own country would win.
Still, Ukrainian music fan Iryna Lasiy said she felt global support for her country in the war and “not just for the music.”
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Russia was banned this year after the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, a move organizers say was designed to keep politics out of the game that promote diversity and friendship between nations.
Back in Ukraine, in the battered northeastern city of Kharkiv, Kalush Orchestra’s participation in Eurovision is seen as a new platform for the country to gain international support.
“The whole country is revolting, everyone in the world is supporting us. This is extremely beautiful,” said Julia Vashenko, a 29-year-old teacher.
“I believe that wherever Ukraine is now and there is a chance to talk about the war, we need to talk,” said Alexandra Konovalova, a 23-year-old makeup artist in Kharkiv. “All the leagues are important now because they teach more people about what’s happening now.”
Ukrainians in Italy also used the Eurovision event this week as the backdrop for a flash mob to call for help for Mariupol. About 30 Ukrainians gathered at a bar in Milan to watch the broadcast, many wearing brightly colored hats like Psiuk’s, in support of the band.
“We are so happy that he has called in to help save the people of Mariupol,” attorney Zoia Stankovska said during the show. “Oh, this win brings so much hope.”
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The winner will take home a glass microphone trophy and a potential career boost, though Kalush Orchestra’s primary concern is peace.
The event was organized by Italy after local rock band Maneskin won in Rotterdam last year. The win brought the Rome-based band international fame, opening for the Rolling Stones and appearing on Saturday Night Live and numerous magazine covers in their typically gender-fluid costume code.
Twenty bands were selected in two semi-finals this week, competing with the Big Five of Italy, Great Britain, France, Germany and Spain, who have permanent berths due to their financial support for the competition.
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Ukrainian commentator Timur Miroshnichenko, who does the live voiceover for the Ukrainian broadcast of Eurovision, participated from a basement in a secret location, rather than from his usual TV studio.
“On the fifth or fourth day of the war, they shot down our TV tower in Kiev,” he said. In order to continue broadcasting, “we had to go underground somewhere in Ukraine.”
The Eurovision Song Contest in Ukraine was important, both online and on TV, he said.
“This year I think it’s more symbolic than ever,” Miroshnichenko said.
Ukraine was able to participate in the music competition “thanks to the armed forces of Ukraine and the resistance of our people,” he said.
Barry reported from Milan. Vasilisa Stepanenko contributed from Kharkiv, Ukraine.
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