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.
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, pushing countries like Sweden and Finland closer to NATO and bring the European Union to about to cut 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, the organizers banned Russian artists from participating in the eventciting concerns that Russia’s inclusion would damage the contest’s reputation.
Eurovision, the biggest and perhaps quirkiest live music competition in the world, is best known for its on top performances and his star potential – he 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 on the Russian invasion of Crimeawhich 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.
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 fighting in Ukraine. 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, transport 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.
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