TURIN, Italy (AP) — Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra have won the Eurovision Song Contest, a clear show of popular support for the band’s war-ravaged nation that went beyond music.
The band and their song “Stefania” beat 24 other performers early Sunday in the competition’s grand finale. Public voting at home, by text message or via the Eurovision app, proved decisive, lifting them above British TikTok star Sam Ryder, who led after national juries from 40 countries voted .
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the win, Ukraine’s third since making its Eurovision debut in 2003. He said “we will do our best” to host next year’s contest in the devastated port city of Mariupol, which is almost entirely occupied by Russian forces.
Describing the city, Zelenskyy underlined “Ukrainian Mariupol”, adding: “free, peaceful, rebuilt!
“I am sure that our victorious agreement in the battle with the enemy is not far off,” Zelenskyy said in a post on the Telegram messaging app.
Kalush Orchestra leader Oleh Psiuk took advantage of the huge global audience, which last year stood at more than 180 million, to issue an impassioned appeal to the free fighters still trapped under a sprawling steelworks in Mariupol.
“Help Azovstal, now,” Psiuk implored after his winning performance, speaking under a shiny bob that has become the band’s trademark among fans.
He later told a press conference that people could help by “spreading information, talking about it, reaching out to governments to help.”
The 439 fan votes represent the most television voting points ever received in a Eurovision contest, which is 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 invasion of Russia on February 24, it has become a hymn to the homeland, with lyrics that promise: “I will always find the way back, even if all the roads are destroyed.”
Kalush Orchestra itself is a cultural project that includes folklore experts and mixes traditional folk melodies and contemporary hip hop in a deliberate defense of Ukrainian culture. This has become all the more salient as Russia, through its invasion, has sought to falsely assert that Ukrainian culture is not unique.
“We are here to show that Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian music are alive, and have their own very special signature,” Psuik told reporters.
The call for the release of the remaining Ukrainian fighters trapped under the Azovstal factory by the Russians served as a grim reminder that the hugely popular and sometimes flamboyant Eurovision song contest was being played against the backdrop of a war on the eastern flank from Europe.
The neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, which is among the last 1,000 defenders of the factory, sent their thanks from the maze of tunnels under the factory, posting on Telegram: “Thank you Kalush Orchestra for your support! Glory to Ukraine!”
The city itself was the site of some of the worst destruction in the 2.5-month war, as Russia seeks to secure a land bridge between separatist-controlled Donbass and Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.
The all-male group, consisting of six members, received special permission to leave the country to represent Ukraine and Ukrainian culture in 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 permits expire.
Before heading to Italy, Psiuk ran a volunteer organization he started at the start of the war that uses social media to help find transportation and shelter for people in need.
“It’s hard to say what I’m going to do, because it’s the first time I’ve won Eurovision,” Psuik said. “Like any Ukrainian, I am ready to fight and go all the way.”
While support for Ukraine in the song contest was ultimately overwhelming, the contest remained wide open until the final popular votes were counted. And war or not, fans from Spain, Britain and beyond entering the PalaOlimpico hall from across Europe were rooting for their own country to win.
Still, Ukrainian music fan Iryna Lasiy said she felt global support for her country during the war and “not just for the music”.
Russia was excluded this year after its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Back in Ukraine, in the battered north-eastern city of Kharkiv, Kalush Orchestra’s participation in Eurovision is seen as giving the nation another platform to garner international support.
“The whole country is rising up, everyone in the world is supporting us. It’s extremely pleasant,” said Julia Vashenko, a 29-year-old teacher.
“I believe that wherever there is Ukraine now and there is an opportunity to talk about the war, we have to talk,” said Alexandra Konovalova, a 23-year-old make-up artist in Kharkiv. “All competitions are important now, thanks to them more people learn what is happening now.”
Ukrainians in Italy were also using the Eurovision event as the backdrop for a flash mob this week to ask for help for Mariupol. Around 30 Ukrainians gathered at a bar in Milan to watch the broadcast, many of whom wore shiny bucket hats like the one Psiuk is sporting, in support of the group.
“We are so happy that he called to help save the people of Mariupol,” lawyer Zoia Stankovska said on the broadcast. “Oh, this win brings so much hope.”
The winner takes home a glass microphone trophy and a potential career boost – although Kalush Orchestra’s primary concern is peace.
The event was hosted by Italy after local rock band Maneskin won last year in Rotterdam. The victory propelled the Rome-based band to international fame, opening for the Rolling Stones and appearing on Saturday Night Live and numerous magazine covers in their distinctively gendered costume code.
Twenty groups were chosen in two semi-finals this week and competed against the Big Five of Italy, Britain, France, Germany and Spain, who have permanent places due to their support funding for the competition.
Ukrainian commentator Timur Miroshnichenko, who does the live voiceover for Ukraine’s Eurovision broadcast, was participating from a basement at an undisclosed location, rather than from his usual television studio.
“On the fifth or fourth day of the war, they shot at our television tower in kyiv,” he said. To continue broadcasting, “we had to move underground somewhere in Ukraine.”
Broadcasting of Eurovision in Ukraine was extensive, online and on TV, he said.
“This year, I think, is 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.