TURIN, Italy — Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest, a clear show of popular support for the group’s war-ravaged nation that went beyond music.
The band and its song “Stefania” beat 24 other performers early Sunday in the grand final of the competition. They won the public vote via text message and the Eurovision app from their home. This was a decisive victory over Sam Ryder (British TikTok) who led the way after 40 national juries cast their votes.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the victory, Ukraine’s third since its 2003 Eurovision debut. He said “we will do our best” to host next year’s contest in the devastated port city of Mariupol, which is almost completely occupied by Russian forces.
In describing the city, Zelenskyy underlined “Ukrainian Mariupol,” adding: “free, peaceful, rebuilt!”
“I am sure our victorious chord in the battle with the enemy is not far off,” Zelenskyy said in a post on the Telegram messaging app.
Kalush Orchestra’s frontman, Oleh Psiuk, took advantage of the enormous global audience, last year numbering more than 180 million, to make an impassioned plea to free fighters still trapped beneath a sprawling steel plant in Mariupol.
“Help Azovstal, right now,” Psiuk implored following his victory performance, speaking from beneath a bright bucket hat that has become the band’s trademark among fans.
He later told a news conference that people can help by “spreading information, talking out this, reaching out to governments to help.”
In its 66th season, the 439 fan votes was the most televote points received by a Eurovision contestant. Psiuk thanked the Ukrainian diaspora “and everyone around the world who voted for Ukraine. … The victory is very important to Ukraine. Especially this year.”
“Stefania” was penned by Psiuk as a tribute to his mother, but since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion it has become an anthem to the motherland, with lyrics that pledge: “I’ll always find my way home, even if all roads are destroyed.”
Kalush Orchestra, a cultural group that includes folklorists, mixes traditional folk songs with contemporary hip hop to protect Ukrainian culture. That has become an even more salient point as Russia through its invasion has sought falsely to assert that Ukraine’s culture is not unique.
“We are here to show that Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian music are alive, and they have their own and very special signature,” Psuik told journalists.
The plea to free the remaining Ukrainian fighters trapped beneath the Azovstal plant by Russians served as a somber reminder that the hugely popular and at times flamboyant Eurovision song contest was being played out against the backdrop of a war on Europe’s eastern flank.
The Azov battalion, which is among the plant’s last 1,000 defenders, sent their thanks from the warren of tunnels beneath the plant, posting on Telegram: “Thank you to Kalush Orchestra for your support! Glory to Ukraine!”
The city itself has been the site of some of the worst destruction of the 2 1/2-month war, as Russia seeks to secure a land bridge between separatist-controlled Donbas and Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.
All-male, six-member band was granted special permission to leave Ukraine in order to present Ukrainian culture and Ukraine at the music contest. One member of the original group stayed on to fight. The rest will be returning to Ukraine in the next two days when their temporary leave permit expires.
Psiuk had been running an organization of volunteers that he started in wartime to provide shelter and transportation for those in dire need.
“It is hard to say what I am going to do, because this is the first time I win Eurovision,” Psuik said. “Like every Ukrainian, I am ready to fight and go until the end.”
Although Ukraine won the song contest, it was supported by overwhelming numbers until the end. War or not, the PalaOlimpico was filled with fans from across Europe, including from Britain, Spain and Britain, who were cheering on their country’s victory.
Still, Ukrainian music fan Iryna Lasiy said she felt global support for her country in the war and “not only for the music.”
Russia was expelled this year following its February 24 invasion of Ukraine. Organisers said that it was done to preserve diversity and friendship between nations.
Back in Ukraine, in the battered northeastern 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, everyone in the world supports us. This is extremely nice,” 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 need to talk,” said Alexandra Konovalova, a 23-year-old make-up artist in Kharkiv. “Any competitions are important now, because of them more people learn about what is happening now.”
The Eurovision broadcast was also used by Italian Ukrainians to host a flashmob to call for Mariupol’s aid. Around 30 Ukrainians met in Milan for the broadcast. Many were wearing bright bucket hats like that worn by Psiuk, to support the band.
“We are so happy he called on helping to save the people in Mariupol,” said lawyer Zoia Stankovska during the show. “Oh, this victory brings so much hope.”
The winner takes home a glass microphone trophy and a potential career boost — although Kalush Orchestra’s first concern is peace.
After Maneskin, a local rock band won in Rotterdam last year, Italy hosted the event. This victory brought the Rome-based group international success. They opened for the Rolling Stones, appeared on Saturday Night Live, and were featured in numerous magazines covers wearing their gender-fluid costumes.
Two semifinals were held this week and twenty bands were selected. These were competing with Spain’s Big Five, France, Germany, Britain and France who have permanent berths thanks to their financial support.
Ukrainian commentator Timur Miroshnichenko, who does the live voiceover for Ukraine’s broadcast of Eurovision, was participating from a basement in an undisclosed location, rather than from his usual TV studio.
“On the fifth or fourth day of the war, they shot our TV tower in Kyiv,” he said. To keep broadcasting, “we had to move underground somewhere in Ukraine.”
He stated that Eurovision was an important show online as well as on TV.
“This year, I think it’s more symbolic than ever,” Miroshnichenko said.
Ukraine was able to participate in the music contest “thanks to the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the resistance of our people,” he said.
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