TURIN, Italy — Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest in the early hours of Sunday in a clear show of popular support for the war-ravaged nation that went beyond the music.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the victory, Ukraine's third since its 2003 Eurovision debut, and said “we will do our best” to host next year's contest in the hotly contested port city of Mariupol. He underlined “Ukrainian Mariupol,” adding: “free, peaceful, rebuilt!”
"Thank you for the victory, Kalush Orchestra and everyone who voted for us!,'' Zelenskyy said in a post on Telegram messaging app. "I am sure our victorious chord in the battle with the enemy is not far off.''
Kalush Orchestra's front man, Oleg Psiuk, took advantage of the enormous global audience, last year numbering more than 180 million, to make impassioned plea to free fighters still trapped beneath a sprawling steel plant in Mariupol following their performance.
Kalush Orchestra's song, “Stefania,” was the sentimental and bookmakers' favorite 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 Tik Tok star Sam Ryder, who led after the national juries in 40 countries cast their votes.
“Stefania” was penned by Psiuk as a tribute to his mother, but since Russia's Feb. 24 invasion it has become an anthem to the motherland, with lyrics that pledge: “I’ll always find my way home, even if all roads are destroyed."
Kalush Orchestra itself is a cultural project that includes folklore experts and mixes traditional folk melodies and contemporary hip hop in a purposeful defense of Ukrainian culture. That has become an even more salient point as Russia through its invasion has sought falsely to assert that Ukraine does not have its own unique culture.
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.
“Help Azovstal, right now,″ Psiuk implored from beneath a bright bucket hat that has become the band’s trademark among fans.
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 city itself has been the sites of some of the worst destruction of the 2 1/2-month war, as Russia seeks to secure a land bridge between separatist-controlled Donbas and Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.
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 plan to return as soon as the contest is over.
Psiuk told the Associated Press before the contest that he will return to a volunteer organization he set up early in the war that uses social media to help find transportation and shelter for people in need.
While the support for Ukraine in the song contest was ultimately overwhelming, the contest remained wide open until the final popular votes were tallied. And war or not, fans from Spain, Britain and elsewhere entering the PalaOlimpico venue from throughout Europe were rooting for their own country to win.
Still, Ukrainian music fan Iryna Lasiy said she felt global support for her country in the war and “not only for the music.”
Russia was excluded this year after its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, a move organizers said was meant to keep politics out of the contest that promotes diversity and friendship among nations.
Back in Ukraine, in the battered northeastern city of Kharkiv, Kalush Orchestra’s participation in the contest is seen as giving the nation another platform to garner international support.
“The whole country is rising, everyone in the world supports us. This is extremely nice,″ said Julia Vashenko, a 29-year-old teacher.
“I believe that wherever there is Ukraine now and there is an opportunity to talk about the war, we need to talk,″ said Alexandra Konovalova, a 23-year-old make-up artist in Kharkiv. “Any competitions are important now, because of them more people learn about what is happening now.”
Ukrainians in Italy also were using the Eurovision event as a backdrop to a flashmob this week to appeal for help for Mariupol. 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. “And we are pretty sure they are gonna win.”
The winner takes home a glass microphone trophy and a potential career boost — although Kalush Orchestra's first concern is peace.
The event was hosted by Italy after local rock band Maneskin won last year in Rotterdam. The victory shot the Rome-based band to international fame, opening for the Rolling Stones and appearing on Saturday Night Live and numerous magazine covers in their typically genderless costume code.
Twenty bands were chosen in two semifinals this week, and were competing along with the Big Five of Italy, Britain, France, Germany and Spain, which have permanent berths due to their financial support of the contest.
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 Kiev,” 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.
Ukraine was able to participate in the music contest “thanks to the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the resistance of our people,” he said.
Barry reported from Milan. Vasilisa Stepanenko contributed from Kharkiv, Ukraine.