“We will do our best to one day host the participants and guests of Eurovision in Ukrainian Mariupol. Free, peaceful, rebuilt! I am sure our victorious chord in the battle with the enemy is not far off.”
Kalush Orchestra’s frontman, Oleh Psiuk, had earlier taken advantage of the enormous global audience, last year numbering more than 180 million, to make an impassioned on-stage plea to free fighters still trapped beneath the sprawling Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.
“Help Azovstal, right now,” Psiuk implored.
The European Broadcasting Union, which organises the contest, said no action would be taken against the band for using the stage to make a statement.
“We understand the deep feelings around Ukraine at this moment and believe the comments of the Kalush Orchestra and other artists expressing support for the Ukrainian people to be humanitarian rather than political in nature,” the EBU said.
Kalush Orchestra’s song Stefania was the sentimental and bookmakers’ favourite among the 25 competing performers in the grand finale. The public vote from home, via text message or the Eurovision app, proved decisive, lifting them above British TikTok star Sam Ryder, who led after the national juries in 40 countries cast their votes.
The 439 fan votes is the highest number of televote points ever received in a Eurovision contest, now in its 66th year. Psiuk thanked the Ukrainian diaspora and “and everyone around the world who voted for Ukraine … The victory is very important to Ukraine. Especially this year”.
Kalush Orchestra is a cultural project that includes folklore experts and mixes traditional folk melodies and contemporary hip-hop in a purposeful defence of 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 six-member, all-male band received special permission to leave the country to represent Ukraine and Ukrainian culture at the music contest. 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 was running a volunteer organisation he set up early in the war that uses social media to help find transportation and shelter for people in 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.”
In a basement north of Kyiv, a group of soldiers joyfully watching the event also hoped that next year’s final would be in Mariupol.
“We had a victory: today in Eurovision, but soon we will have a victory in Ukraine-Russian war,” said Tetyana, a military medic, standing in the basement decorated with children’s paintings of the Ukraine flag and “Glory to Ukraine” signs on them.
The tired-looking but happy servicemen had sat around a screen, some tapping rhythmically on their knees when Kalush performed, and when the winner was announced they clapped and cheered with delight.
“We will also win,” said Vitaliy, a soldier. “We have shown that we can not only fight, but we can also sing very nice. “The next Eurovision we will host in liberated Mariupol.”
In Italy, about 30 Ukrainians gathered in a bar in Milan to watch the broadcast, many wearing a bright bucket hat like the one Psiuk sports, in support of 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.”
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.”
Showing Eurovision in Ukraine was important, online and on TV, he said.
“This year, I think it’s more symbolic than ever,” Miroshnichenko said.