The Ukrainian band wins the Eurovision music competition as the war with Russia continues

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Ukrainian the Kalush Orchestra band won the Eurovision Song Contest in the early hours of Sunday in a clear show of popular support for the war-torn nation that has gone beyond music.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskii welcomed the win, Ukraine’s third since its Eurovision debut in 2003, and said “we will do our best” to host next year’s competition in the hotly contested port city of Mariupol. She stressed “Ukrainian Mariupol”, adding: “free, peaceful, rebuilt!”

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The Kalush Orchestra from Ukraine celebrates after winning the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final at the Palaolimpico in Turin, Italy on Saturday 14 May 2022. (AP Photo / Luca Bruno)

The Kalush Orchestra from Ukraine celebrates after winning the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final at the Palaolimpico in Turin, Italy on Saturday 14 May 2022. (AP Photo / Luca Bruno)

“I’m sure our victorious deal in the battle with the enemy is not far off,” Zelenskyy said in a post on Telegram’s messaging app.

Kalush Orchestra frontman Oleh Psiuk took advantage of the huge global audience, which last year numbered more than 180 million, to make a passionate appeal to free fighters still trapped under a vast steel plant in Mariupol after their exhibition.

“Help Azovstal right now,” Psiuk begged from under a glowing bucket hat that has become the band’s trademark among fans.

He later said at a press conference that people can help “by spreading information, talking about it, contacting governments for help.”

The Kalush Orchestra song, “Stefania”, was a favorite of sentimentals and bookmakers among the 25 artists competing in the grand finale. Audience vote from home, via text message or the Eurovision app, proved decisive, elevating it above British Tik Tok star Sam Ryder, who he led after national juries in 40 countries cast their votes.

The 439 fan votes is the highest number of televoting points ever received in a Eurovision competition, now in its 66th year. Psiuk thanked the Ukrainian diaspora and “and everyone in 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 Russian invasion of February 24 it has become a hymn to the motherland, with lyrics promising: “I will always find my way home, even if all roads are destroyed.”

The Kalush Orchestra itself is a cultural project that includes folklore experts and mixes traditional folk melodies and contemporary hip hop in a targeted defense of Ukrainian culture. This became an even more salient point as he sought Russia through its invasion falsely claiming that Ukrainian culture is not unique.

“We are here to show that Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian music are alive and have their very special signature,” Psuik told reporters.

The Russian call to free Ukrainian fighters trapped under the Azovstal plant served as a reminder that the hugely popular and sometimes flamboyant Eurovision song contest was taking place against the backdrop of a war on Europe’s eastern flank.

The Azov battalion, which is among the last 1,000 defenders of the plant, sent its thanks from the labyrinth of the tunnels under the plant, posting on Telegram: “Thanks to the 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 Donbas and Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.

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The Kalush Orchestra from Ukraine arrives for the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final at the Palaolimpico in Turin, Italy on Saturday 14 May 2022. (AP Photo / Luca Bruno)

The six-member all-male band received special permission to leave the country to represent Ukraine and Ukrainian culture in the music competition. One of the original members remained to fight, and the others will return to Ukraine in two days, when their temporary exit permits expire.

Before traveling to Italy, Psiuk headed a volunteer organization he founded at the start of the war that uses social media to help find transportation and shelter for people in need.

“It is difficult to say what I will do, because this is the first time I have won Eurovision,” Psuik said. “Like any Ukrainian, I am ready to fight and go to the end.”

Although support for Ukraine in the singing contest was ultimately overwhelming, the contest remained wide open until the final popular votes were counted. And war or not, fans from Spain, Great Britain and elsewhere who entered the PalaOlimpico headquarters from all over Europe were cheering for the victory of their country.

However, Ukrainian music fan Iryna Lasiy said she feels global support for her warring country and “not just music”.

Russia was excluded this year after the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, a move organizers said was intended to keep politics out of context that promotes diversity and friendship between nations.

Back in Ukraine, in the battered northeastern city of Kharkiv, the Kalush Orchestra’s participation in Eurovision is seen as yet another platform for the nation to gain international support.

“The whole country is growing, everyone in the world is supporting us. This is extremely beautiful,” said Julia Vashenko, a 29-year-old teacher.

“I believe that wherever there is Ukraine now and there is an opportunity to talk about war, we need to talk,” said Alexandra Konovalova, a 23-year-old makeup artist in Kharkiv. “Every competition matters now, thanks to them, more people get to know what’s going on now.”

Ukrainians in Italy were too using the Eurovision event as the backdrop for a flash mob this week to ask Mariupol for help. About thirty Ukrainians gathered in a bar in Milan to follow the broadcast, many wearing a flamboyant bucket hat like Psiuk’s sports one, in support of the band.

“We are so happy that he asked to help save people in Mariupol,” lawyer Zoia Stankovska said during the show. “Oh, this victory brings so much hope.”

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Cornelia Jakobs from Sweden arrives for the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final at the Palaolimpico in Turin, Italy on Saturday 14 May 2022. (AP Photo / Luca Bruno)

Cornelia Jakobs from Sweden arrives for the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final at the Palaolimpico in Turin, Italy on Saturday 14 May 2022. (AP Photo / Luca Bruno)

The winner takes home a trophy with a glass microphone 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 last year in Rotterdam. The victory brought the Roman band to international fame, opening for the Rolling Stones and appearing on Saturday Night Live and numerous magazine covers in their typically genderless costume.

Twenty bands were chosen in two semi-finals this week and competed alongside the Big Five of Italy, Great Britain, France, Germany and Spain, who have permanent seats thanks to their financial support for the competition.

Ukrainian commentator Timur Miroshnichenko, who voices the Ukrainian Eurovision broadcast, was attending from a basement in an unfamiliar location rather than from his usual TV studio.

“On the fifth or fourth day of the war, they shot our TV tower in Kiev,” he said. To continue 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.

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Ukraine was able to participate in the music competition “thanks to the Ukrainian armed forces and the resistance of our people,” he said.