Ukraine in Eurovision: controversies and success4 min read

 In Culture, Eastern Europe, Opinion

It is May, and the main event of the season is upon us: Eurovision. Ukraine is one of the highest tipped winners with their folk-rap song Stefania, performed by Kalush Orchestra. If Ukraine were to take home the win this year in Turin, it would not be the first time the country has succeeded in winning the title. Neither would it be the first time it has competed in the face of political struggle.

Ukraine first participated in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2003, and only a year after its debut, it brought the trophy home. In 2004, Ukraine chose to send the artist Ruslana to perform her song Wild Dances, which proved to be a successful decision. Ruslana later became an important voice in the Orange Revolution and even took up a place in the Ukrainian parliament for a year. She has also been vocal throughout the ongoing war in Ukraine.

The second time that Ukraine took home the victory was in 2016 with 1944 by Jamala —  a song that spoke about the deportation of Crimean Tatars in the 1940s by the Soviet Union. While Russia was critical of the song, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) still permitted its participation, arguing that it concerned a historical event and did not contain any political lyrics. According to the official rules set by the EBU, Eurovision is to be a non-political event. However, this is a rule that is not always upheld.

An article concerning Ukraine’s participation in the Eurovision Song Contest would not be complete without mentioning one of the country’s most memorable entries, Dancing Lasha Tumbai by Verka Serduchka. While it did not come first, the comical song managed to claim second place in Helsinki back in 2007. However, despite it being a seemingly light-hearted entry, the song also received criticism. Although essentially a meaningless phrase, the lyrics “lasha tumbai” apparently sounded like the words “Russia goodbye”, according to some online rumours. Whether these rumours held any truth or not, in response to Russia’s recent invasion Serduchka has stated that they will be singing the anti-Moscow phrase “Russia goodbye” in future renditions of the song.

As Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, the country’s participation in Eurovision was hardly the first thing on anyone’s mind. However, soon after the outbreak of the war, the EBU chose to ban Russia from participating in the contest. Whether the Ukrainian entry would be able to take part due to the ongoing war remained in question until recently, in part due to no men between the ages of 18 and 60 being currently permitted to leave the country. Despite this, all but one band member — who has stayed to fight for the Ukrainian army — have been present in Italy after receiving special permission to leave the country.

This year’s entry, Stefania, has also lived a life outside the Eurovision bubble. The song was written for one of the band member’s mothers, who has been seen as representative of “mother Ukraine”. Lyrics such as “I‘ll always find my way home, even if all roads are destroyed” have resonated with Ukrainians throughout the war. Clad in traditional Ukrainian folk attire with the colours of the national flag present on stage, this is set to be a show of solidarity with their home country.

Initially, it was not Kalush Orchestra who were set out to represent the country in 2022, but rather Alina Pash with the song Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. While Kalush Orchestra won the public vote, Pash claimed the victory based on the jury vote. However, due to investigations regarding a trip made to Crimea in 2015, Ukraine’s national broadcaster stopped her participation. Alina Pash was not the first Ukrainian entry to drop out due to controversies regarding visits to Russia. In 2019, the selected entry, Maruv, dropped out of the contest due to her touring plans in Russia.

According to the bookmakers, the biggest threats to Ukraine’s victory are the UK, Italy and Sweden. While the latter two may come as no surprise, the UK coming up as number two by the bookmakers was less predictable, seeing how the country received 0 points both from the jury and the public last year. 

While Ukraine’s story in Eurovision has not always been straightforward, it has been successful. As it stands, it is the only country to have qualified for the final in every contest in which it has taken part, and it was the first — and so far only — Eastern European country to take home the victory twice.

As support for Ukraine has been high throughout the devastating period since February, this will surely remain the case for the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday. However, if Ukraine was to win, it would not be a win based solely on solidarity votes but also on a catchy song merging Ukrainian folk music with contemporary rap and delivering an exemplary Eurovision entry.

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