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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sam Jones and agencies

Zelenskiy hails Ukraine’s Eurovision win and plans to ‘one day’ host final in Mariupol

Kalush Orchestra with the Ukrainian flag after winning the 2022 Eurovision song contest.
Kalush Orchestra with the Ukrainian flag after winning the 2022 Eurovision song contest. Photograph: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

On Saturday night, far from the ruins that were once homes and the battlefields that were once cities, Ukraine secured an emphatic victory that had nothing to do with rifles, antitank weaponry or Molotov cocktails, and everything to do with hopeful words, folkloric dance moves and a continental eruption of cultural solidarity.

Following the Kalush Orchestra’s triumph in the 2022 Eurovision song contest, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said he hoped next year’s final would take place in the besieged port city of Mariupol, which has endured some of the most merciless onslaughts of the Russian invasion.

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe! Next year Ukraine will host Eurovision!” Zelenskiy said in a Telegram post.

“We will do our best to one day host the participants and guests of Eurovision in Ukrainian Mariupol. Free, peaceful, rebuilt! I am sure our victorious chord in the battle with the enemy is not far off.”

Kalush Orchestra’s entry, Stefania – a rap-folk hybrid originally intended as a tribute to the mother of frontman Oleh Psiuk – swiftly proved a rallying cry in Ukraine and beyond.

As the song’s lyrics, which include the lines “I’ll always find my way home, even if all roads are destroyed”, found new resonance, the group rededicated it to all Ukraine’s mothers.

Many Ukrainians felt Stefania’s triumph had provided a much-needed psychological boost after almost three months of war.

In a basement north of Kyiv, a group of soldiers watching the event also dared hope that next year’s final would be in Mariupol.

“We had a victory – today in Eurovision, but soon we will have a victory in Ukraine-Russian war,” said Tetyana, a military medic, standing in the basement decorated with children’s paintings of the Ukraine flag and “Glory to Ukraine” signs.

The tired-looking but happy soldiers had sat around a screen, some tapping rhythmically on their knees while Kalush performed, and when the winner was announced they clapped and cheered with delight.

“We will also win,” said Vitaliy, another soldier. “We have shown that we can not only fight, but we can also sing very nice. The next Eurovision we will host in liberated Mariupol.”

For Mykola Latsiuk, a bartender in Kyiv, the band’s decision to take part in the contest was more important than their victory. The six men who make up the group had received special permits to leave Ukraine and travel to Italy during the war.

“The most important thing is that the guys went and performed,” said Latsiuk. “They supported us, and we supported them. It is important.”

The track’s success will also live on in the name of a train that runs between Kyiv and Ivano-Frankivsk.

The head of the railway service announced on Sunday that the number 43 train would be renamed the Stefania Express, and that stations in Kyiv, Kalush and Ivano-Frankivsk would play the song when the train rolled in.

Kalush released a new music video for the track on Sunday, which showed Ukrainian servicewomen rescuing children from shelled and ruined towns.

Psiuk’s mother, the eponymous Stefania, said she had been startled by her new-found celebrity and by the requests for photos when she went to her local market.

“I didn’t connect it to myself – that the song was written for me,” she said. “I thought someone had made a mistake and meant his girlfriend Sasha and got the names mixed up.”

Psiuk’s sister Iryna described watching the final with her mother in the band’s home town of Kalush, which lies in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains in Ukraine’s western Ivano-Frankivsk region.

“She was really worried,” said Iryna. “We wept. We sat up until half past six, watching the press conference … Emotions were off the scale, we didn’t believe that our little town of Kalush would bring Ukraine victory this year in the Eurovision.”

Psiuk himself took advantage of the global stage to make an impassioned plea to free the fighters still trapped beneath the sprawling Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.

“Help Azovstal, right now,” he said.

The European Broadcasting Union, which organises the contest, said no action would be taken against the band for using the stage to make a statement.

“We understand the deep feelings around Ukraine at this moment and believe the comments of the Kalush Orchestra and other artists expressing support for the Ukrainian people to be humanitarian rather than political in nature,” the EBU said.

Kalush Orchestra celebrate winning the 2022 Eurovision song contest in Turin.
Kalush Orchestra celebrate winning the 2022 Eurovision song contest in Turin. Photograph: Giorgio Perottino/Getty Images

Stefania had been bookmakers’ favourite 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 the British TikTok star Sam Ryder, who led after the national juries in 40 countries cast their votes.

The 439 fan votes is the highest number of televote points ever received in a Eurovision contest, now in its 66th year. Psiuk thanked the Ukrainian diaspora “and everyone around the world who voted for Ukraine”, adding: “The victory is very important to Ukraine. Especially this year.”

Psuik told journalists the group wanted to “show that Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian music are alive, and they have their own and very special signature”.

One of the band’s original members had stayed to fight, while the others will be back in Ukraine in two days when their temporary exit permit expires.

Ukrainian service members react to Kalush Orchestra’s win.
Ukrainian service members react to Kalush Orchestra’s win. Photograph: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Before traveling to Italy, Psiuk was running a volunteer organisation he set up early in the war that uses social media to help find transport and shelter for people in need.

“It’s hard to say what I am going to do, because this is the first time I win Eurovision,” he said. “Like every Ukrainian, I am ready to fight and go until the end.”

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report

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