Eurovision has always been political.
What Ukraine’s win means (and why it’s a long time coming)
Words by Louise Jackson
The Eurovision Song Contest has literally never not been political. Europe’s proudly apolitical competition is so regularly embroiled in politics that each controversy has its own Wikipedia page. Eurovision has grown from seven countries in 1956 to a pool of 50. It was founded in the tense climate of post-war Europe to foster harmony between nations. The contest straddles a difficult line between the imagined European community it creates, and the real troubles and divisions between the nations.
The Ukrainian Entry — Kalush Orchestra
Kalush Orchestra’s Stefania is a tribute to rapper Oleh Psiuk’s eponymous mother and a fusion of rap and traditional Ukrainian folk. 48 hours after they were selected to compete, Russia invaded. Since the Russian invasion, the song has taken on a new meaning for the people of Ukraine. Psiuk states that ‘people began to associate the song with mother Ukraine’. Stefania had become an anthem of the war and Psiuk ‘would like it to become the anthem of our victory’.
The European Broadcasting Union (Eurovision organisers) were called upon by several national broadcasters to exclude Russia from the contest. Many threatened to withdraw. The decision came from the EBU only a day after the invasion — Russia would be excluded from Eurovision to avoid ‘bring[ing] the competition into disrepute’. Eurovision’s insistence on apoliticism may be reaching a breaking point…
Kalush Orchestra were given a special exemption from current military law forbidding men aged 18–60 from leaving the country. Their backup vocalist and dancer chose to stay behind and were replaced for the competition. Competing at Eurovision was deemed an important opportunity to keep Ukraine visible.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, Ukraine was declared the winner of the 66th Eurovision Song Contest. They received the highest public vote portion in the competition’s history — an unprecedented 93.8%.
The win means far more than the simple ‘sympathy vote’ many are dismissing it as. Fundamentally, European citizens don’t have a lot of practical ways they can show meaningful support. As their governments enforce sanctions on Russia and provide weapons to the Ukrainians, people feel helpless. This win is not a sympathy vote — it’s a solidarity vote. It sends a strong political message; the people of Europe recognise the sovereignty of Ukraine and stand by her people. The song is also a banger.
What will Eurovision 2023 look like? It’s anyone’s guess. Normally the host country would be the previous year’s winner. But will Ukraine be in a position for that? Will the country even still exist? President Zelensky hopes to ‘one day host the participants and guests of Eurovision in Ukrainian Mariupol. Free, peaceful, rebuilt!’ Whatever form next year’s competition takes, this win is a symbol of hope and joy for the Ukrainian people.
The newly released Stefania music video is set to the backdrop of the destroyed cities of Ukraine, but is filled with the hope that one will always find their way back home — back to their mother.
Ukraine and Russia at Eurovision
Kalush Orchestra’s win is the latest part in the saga of Ukraine and Russia at Eurovision. Russia entered the competition in 1994 and Ukraine in 2003. For the early years of their participation, there were no major issues. The trouble began with the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea. The Russian entry that year featured the lyrics ‘telling all the world to show some love’ and was aggressively booed by the audience when they went through to the final. The booing is understood to be a reaction to the annexation and to the anti-LGBT laws Russia had introduced. This incident resulted in the development of anti-booing technology for future broadcasts!
2015 saw more booing for Russia despite placing second and singing about ‘praying for peace and healing’ and ‘believ[ing] in the dream’. Ukraine withdrew from the competition in 2015 due to limited finances caused by the continued conflict with Russia on the Eastern border of Ukraine.
In 2016 Ukraine came back with a vengeance, and one of the most political entries to make it to the stage. The song 1944 by Ukraine’s entry, Jamala, was at surface-level about the dispossession of innocent people during war. The title clearly places it as a response to the 1944 expulsion of the Crimean Tatar people by the Soviet Union.
The Crimean Tatars are the indigenous population of Crimea and were expelled from Crimea under Joseph Stalin. The ethnic group were placed primarily in Uzbekistan, and most were not cleared to return until 1989. Ukraine recognises them as an indigenous population — Russia does not.
In interviews, Jamala focused on the personal nature of the song; it was based on her great-grandmother’s story of the deportation and Jamala’s own childhood. But the political overtones were undeniable. In the wake of the Crimean annexation, 1944 felt like a call for Europe to listen. The Eurovision final came down to Russia and Ukraine. Jamala came out on top, and Russia had to settle for third place.
Further complications came when Kyiv, Ukraine hosted the 2017 contest. Ukrainian law forbids entry to the country for anyone who has travelled to post-annexation Crimea. Russia’s entry had been selected, a song picked; everything was ready to go. Until the Ukrainian government revealed Yuliya Samoylova had performed in Crimea and was currently under a three-year ban from Ukraine. The EBU offered Russia the chance to perform remotely, but it was turned down. Russia withdrew only a month out from the competition. It was the fourth late withdrawal in the show’s history and the only one caused directly by the host nation.
Eurovision grew from a divided continent and persists through Europe’s increasingly dark times. The contest has become a beacon of unity, a platform where once a year, Europe puts away its differences and comes together through music. I think it’s a beautiful message. While many see it as Europe overlooking its problems, the inherent politicism that underpins everything prevents it from being truly ignorant. Europe (and Australia) stood with Ukraine last week. We voted with our hearts — sláva Ukrayíni.