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At Eurovision, Ukraine Aims for the Prize as War Continues at Home

6 minute read

No matter what happens on Saturday night at the Grand Final of the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest in Turin, Italy, Kalush Orchestra’s Oleh Psiuk won’t be celebrating much. Instead, he—and the four band members that make up Ukraine’s entry into the annual televised musical competition—will be preparing to head back to their country, where mandatory martial conscription laws suggest they will be required to serve in the ongoing war with Russia.

Kalush Orchestra is right now the bookies’ safest bet to win the 66th edition of the contest as they compete against 25 countries with their song “Stefania,” a Ukrainian-folk-meets-hip-hop concoction that Psiuk wrote about his mother before the conflict broke out. Now, it has been adopted by listeners as a broader allegory about Mother Ukraine. “After the war, a lot of people seem to be finding new meanings there,” Psiuk says over Zoom, via a translator, on the penultimate evening of the competition. He appears in the pink bucket hat that has become his signature fashion statement. It’s a visual at odds with his demeanor: somber and measured. “I hope that Europe also enjoys this song; my mom is enjoying it very much. And I know that it’s now her ringtone on her phone,” he says, lightening up for a moment. “The enemy is trying to destroy our culture. But we are here to prove that we still exist, that we deserve to be seen. We deserve to be known. We’re asking for help to protect our culture.”

Ukraine has won the competition twice before, most recently in 2016 with a song about the experience of the Crimean Tartars deported by former Soviet leader Stalin; it was considered by many to be a commentary on Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. This year, Russia was banned from participating due to their invasion of Ukraine. To longtime Eurovision blogger, commentator, and author of upcoming Eurovision memoir William Lee Adams, who has been on the ground in Italy for the competition, the conflict is a dark cloud over the year’s events. Eurovision is often a celebration of culture and camp, a joyful and over-the-top representation of some of the most buoyant pop characters of the 40 countries who participate. But this year, Adams says, has felt different. “The energy in the press area feels somehow deflated,” he says. “There’s a sense that in the background, something is rumbling, that this festival of joy has a cloud hanging over it. You see this in the literal sense that the kinetic sun, the centerpiece of the stage, was supposed to move. It was a series of arches that were supposed to move, celebrating what they call the sun within. But it doesn’t work. It’s now a black rainbow of death.” To Adams, it’s a symbolic representation of the negativity engendered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Last year, the pandemic tamped down the energy of the event. But this year, Adams says, feels even “less free.”

And then there is the Kalush Orchestra and their chances. “A huge conversation that’s taking place among journalists and fans is whether Ukraine should win because of sympathy,” Adams says. It makes him uncomfortable to have to separate our emotional reactions to the narrative of Ukraine from the music itself, though. “Music is feeling, right? Music is here to tell stories. And what story is more relevant at this moment than the war in Ukraine? Eurovision was founded to help prevent war, to bring country warring countries together to promote peace,” he says. “People talk about fairness. They say, is this unfair to other countries? Well, I say no, Ukraine didn’t ask for this war.”

Despite the fact that he’s seen their performance “about 17 times,” he says it makes an emotional impact each time, thanks in part to staging that centers the maternal narrative and references Ukrainian history and folk aesthetics. “Honestly, every time I see it, I well up,” Adams says. “They gave a statement before Eurovision, and they said our stage show will not be political. However, when you watch it, you can very clearly read a story. People always say Eurovision is a political, but I say that’s impossible, because popular music reflects the zeitgeist.”

The historical references, at least, are intentional: “As a band, Kulash Orchestra is trying to mix together the old folklore that’s been forgotten by now with the new, contemporary hip-hop, and bringing it together into this vibe that is like nothing else that you know,” Psiuk explains. “The whole world is watching us perform. And it is important that we promote Ukraine successfully, that we do Ukraine proud.”

Win or lose, however, Kalush has already made a point—to ardent Eurovision fans, to their Ukrainian countrymen, and to casual viewers who may just be hearing about the group now. “No one is trying to destroy another country’s culture. But ours is [being destroyed], and that is why we need all the support we can get,” Psiuk says. The future—and the present—are already weighing on him. “It’s been pretty challenging, all of it,” he says. “It is very stressful knowing that missiles are just flying at Ukraine, and you never know where it hits. And even when you are not in Ukraine, but your family is, it’s extremely stressful. So it’s just not easy to focus at all.” Adams has noticed that weight, too. “The other contestants are celebrating, laughing, doing impromptu dances on the street. And these guys have this quiet dignity to them,” Adams says.

When the competition is complete, Psiuk and his bandmates will return directly to their homes in Ukraine. They received a temporary permit from Prime Minister Zelensky to represent their country, but that ends this weekend. (Currently, a sixth bandmember is already fighting back home.) “If we have to, of course we will take arms and we will go fight for our land,” Psiuk says.

In the meantime, they are playing the Eurovision game as well as anyone can. On a red carpet recently, Adams and Psiuk interacted—and Psiuk gave him a copy of a pink bucket hat, his signature. “They’re going through the biggest crisis of their country’s modern history, and he’s bringing gifts to journalists at Eurovision? I can’t even compute,” he says.

If they win, as tradition dictates, Ukraine would be expected to host the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest. Psiuk is optimistic. “It will be a whole different Ukraine. It will be newly rebuilt, and happy, and prosperous,” he says.

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Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com