TURIN, Italy (AP) – Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest in the early hours of Sunday, clearly showing popular support for the war-ravaged nation that went beyond music.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hailed the victory, Ukraine’s third since its Eurovision debut in 2003, saying “we will do our best” to host next year’s competition in the hotly contested port city of Mariupol. He underlined “Ukrainian Mariupol” and added: “free, peaceful, rebuilt!”
“Thanks for the win, Kalush Orchestra and everyone who voted for us!” Zelenskyy said in a post on the Telegram messaging app. “I am sure that our victorious string is not far away in battle with the enemy.”
Kalush Orchestra frontman Oleg Psiuk used the massive worldwide audience, which numbered more than 180 million last year, to make an impassioned appeal to the Free Warriors, who are still trapped beneath a sprawling steel mill in Mariupol after their performance.
The Kalush Orchestra’s song “Stefania” was the sentimental and bookie favorite among the 25 competing performers in the grand final. Public voting from home, via SMS or the Eurovision app, proved crucial, elevating her above Britain’s Tik Tok star Sam Ryder, who led after national juries in 40 countries cast their votes.
“Stefania” was written by Psiuk as a tribute to his mother, but since the February 24 invasion of Russia it has become a hymn to the motherland, with lyrics that promise: “I’ll always find my way home, too.” when all streets are empty destroyed.”
The Kalush Orchestra itself is a cultural project that includes folklore experts and mixes traditional folk tunes and contemporary hip-hop in a purposeful defense of Ukrainian culture. This has become an even more important point as Russia, by invading it, has falsely attempted to claim that Ukraine does not have its own unique culture.
The appeal to free the remaining Ukrainian fighters trapped by the Russians beneath the Azovstal plant served as a grim reminder that the hugely popular and sometimes flamboyant Eurovision Song Contest was being staged against the backdrop of a war on Europe’s eastern flank .
“Help Azovstal, now,” Psiuk pleaded from under a brightly colored bucket hat that has become the band’s trademark among fans.
The Azov Battalion, which is among the last 1,000 defenders of the plant, sent their thanks from the maze of tunnels beneath the plant, posting on Telegram: “Thank you to the Kalush Orchestra for your support! Glory to Ukraine!”
The city itself was the scene of some of the worst destruction of the two-and-a-half month war as Russia attempts to secure a land bridge between separatist-controlled Donbass and Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.
The six-piece, all-male band received 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 plan to return once the competition is over.
Psiuk told the Associated Press ahead of the competition that he will be returning to a volunteer organization he founded early in the war, which uses social media to help find transportation and shelter for those in need.
Although support for Ukraine at the song contest was ultimately overwhelming, the contest remained wide open until the last referendums were tallied. And war or not, fans from Spain, Great Britain and other countries, who descended on the PalaOlimpico venue from all over Europe, cheered on their own country’s victory.
Still, Ukrainian music fan Iryna Lasiy said she felt global support for her country at war and “not just for the music.”
Russia was excluded this year after its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, a move organizers say should keep politics out of the competition that promotes diversity and friendship between nations.
Back in Ukraine, in the ailing northeastern city of Kharkiv, the Kalush Orchestra’s participation in the competition is seen as yet another platform to bring international support to the nation.
“The whole country is rising up, everyone in the world is supporting us. That’s very nice,” said Julia Vashenko, a 29-year-old teacher.
“I think wherever there’s Ukraine now and there’s an opportunity to talk about the war, we need to talk,” said Alexandra Konovalova, a 23-year-old makeup artist in Kharkiv. “All competitions are important now because it allows more people to know what’s happening.”
Ukrainians in Italy also used the Eurovision event this week as the backdrop for a flash mob asking for help for Mariupol. About 30 Ukrainians gathered at a bar in Milan to watch the show, many wearing a light-colored bucket hat like Psiuk wears in support of the band.
“We are so happy that he called to help save the people of Mariupol,” attorney Zoia Stankovska said during the show. “And we’re pretty sure they’re going to win.”
The winner takes home a glass microphone trophy and a potential career boost — although the Kalush Orchestra’s primary concern is peace.
The event was hosted by Italy after local rock band Maneskin won in Rotterdam last year. The win launched the Rome-based band to international fame, opening up for the Rolling Stones and appearing on Saturday Night Live and numerous magazine covers in their typically genderless costume code.
Twenty bands were selected in two semi-finals this week, competing alongside the Big Five of Italy, Britain, France, Germany and Spain, who have secured spots thanks to their financial backing of the competition.
Ukrainian commentator Timur Miroshnichenko, who does the live voice-over for the Ukrainian Eurovision broadcast, attended from a basement at an undisclosed location rather than his usual television studio.
“On the fifth or fourth day of the war, they shot our television tower in Kyiv,” he said. In order to continue broadcasting, “we had to go underground somewhere in Ukraine.”
It is important to show Eurovision in Ukraine, online and on TV, he said.
“I think this year 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.