Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion has yet to get Ukraine membership in NATO or the European Union, but it does look set to push the country to its third victory in the annual Eurovision Song Contest.
Kalush Orchestra’s performance of “Stefania” — a song ostensibly about frontman Oleh Psiuk’s mother that features lyrics like “I’ll always find my way home, even if all the roads are destroyed” — is the hot favorite to win this Saturday’s final.
Those competing in Eurovision solemnly pledge the songfest “shall in no case be politicized,” but this is not the first time the country has strayed close to the line.
Here are eight times, including “Stefania,” that Ukraine’s Eurovision entries got political.
The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the alliance of public service media organizations that runs the Eurovision contest, has always insisted the annual event is strictly apolitical and should show that music can unite Europe. To that end, the EBU has forced national representatives to change their lyrics, rejected entries for being overly political and even implemented anti-booing technology.
But with this year’s contest in Turin taking place in the shadow of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, the EBU’s commitment to political neutrality has been severely tested.
The EBU spent the first hours after Putin launched his February 24 invasion resisting calls for Russia to be kicked out of the contest. But less than a day later, it had performed a spectacular U-turn, announcing the Russian entry would be barred because it could “bring the competition into disrepute.”
Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra wrote “Stefania” before the invasion, but the song is infused with a barely masked patriotic sentiment: “Mother Stefania, Stefania mother; The field is blooming, but her hair is going gray.”
The song is ostensibly about frontman Psiuk’s eponymous mother, but the lyrics sound very much as if they were written about his motherland. “She was rocking me as a baby, she gave me a rhythm,” goes one verse. “And you can’t take willpower from me, as I got it from her.”
Kalush’s performance is eye-catching. It features an on-stage waterfall, an extended flute break, a rapper in a hot pink bucket hat, a double-bass player wearing a full-body shag carpet and a breakdancer sporting a do-rag and a gimp suit adorned with the traditional embroidery of the western Ukrainian Hutsul ethnic group.
“Stefania” sailed through the Eurovision semifinal on Tuesday and is now the firm favorite to take the whole shebang on Saturday — in no small part due to the way the contest is judged: Kalush is expected to sweep up solidarity points from the public vote, which makes up 50 percent of the final score that determines the winner of the competition, with the other 50 percent determined by a professional jury.
Kalush wasn’t Ukraine’s first pick for the contest. The band came in second in Vidbir, the Ukrainian national competition that determines the country’s Eurovision entry.
The winner was Alina Pash, with her song “Tini Zabutykh Predkiv,” or “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” — an explicitly nationalistic song about Ukraine’s woes through the ages. But after accusations emerged that Pash had broken Ukrainian law by traveling in 2015 to Crimea from Russia, which annexed the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014, she was forced to withdraw.
Not all members of Kalush have made it to Turin: Vlad Kurochka, aka MC KylymMen, aka MC CarpetMan, had to pull out in order to carry out his duties in Ukraine’s territorial defense force.
If Kalush does win on Saturday, Eurovision tradition dictates that Ukraine would host next year’s contest. Whether Eurovision can return to Kyiv in 2023 may be the ultimate political statement.
Controversy plagued Ukraine’s 2019 Eurovision.
Popstar Maruv won Vidbir that year with her “Siren Song” but came under fire over her upcoming concerts in Russia, with then-Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kyrylenko tweeting: “A representative of UKRAINE cannot be an artist who is touring in the aggressor state, plans to do so in the future and does not see anything unacceptable in this.”
Maruv pulled out of the contest, claiming on Facebook that she had come under pressure to sign what she described as an unfair and over-restrictive contract in order to attend. Both the second- and third-place acts in Vidbir declined to take Maruv’s spot in the competition in Tel Aviv, forcing Ukraine to withdraw altogether.
Ukraine hosted the 2017 Eurovision, after winning the 2016 contest (more on that below). Given its ongoing conflict with Russia, the event was always going to be politically charged — and it didn’t disappoint.
After initial calls in Russia for the country to boycott the Ukrainian-hosted competition, Russia’s contestant was Julia Samoylova, with her song “Flame Is Burning.” Samoylova, who uses a wheelchair, was famous for having sung at the opening ceremony of Russia’s 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi.
But before the contest started, the Security Service of Ukraine announced it was investigating Samoylova over reports she had performed in the Crimean city of Kerch in 2015, and traveled there via Russia. Ultimately, the SBU barred Samoylova from entering Ukraine for three years after concluding its investigation. While the EBU attempted to negotiate for Samoylova to perform remotely, Russia instead pulled out of the contest.
In 2016, Ukraine’s Jamala won Eurovision with her song “1944,” about her great-grandmother’s experience of being among the around 240,000 Crimean Tatars deported from Crimea to Central Asia by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Given Russia’s annexation of Crimea just two years before the contest, many commentators saw “1944” as an allegory for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It started with the lyrics, sung in English: “When strangers are coming; They come to your house; They kill you all and say; ‘We’re not guilty, not guilty.’”
Russia protested that the song violated the EBU’s ban on performances containing “lyrics, speeches or gestures of a political or similar nature.”
But while critics of Jamala’s song noted that the EBU had the previous year forced Armenia’s Genealogy group to change the title of its song about the Armenian genocide from “Don’t Deny” because it was too political (it would ultimately be called “Face the Shadow”), the EBU gave the green light to Jamala’s “1944” on the grounds it referenced historical events.
When Jamala ultimately won the contest, pushing Russia’s Sergey Lazarev (who had previously been the favorite) to third place, Russians reacted with fury. Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, suggested the following year’s contest could be won with a song about Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, proposing the lyrics: “Assad bloody, Assad worst. Give me prize, that we can host.”
In 2014, less than two months after Putin invaded and illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, the crowd in Copenhagen booed Russia’s Tolmachevy Sisters in the Eurovision final, prompting the EBU to introduce anti-booing technology.
In 2007, Ukraine’s Andriy Danylko, known by his stage name Verka Serduchka, came in second with a bombastic performance of “Dancing Lasha Tumbai.” The song was seen as a mondegreen of “Russia goodbye,” though Danylko first (incorrectly) claimed it meant “whipped cream” in Mongolian, then said it was just nonsense. In February this year, after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Danylko said in an interview that he would only sing “Russia Goodbye” in the lyrics of the song, confirming the song’s status as a political statement.
Just months after Ukraine’s popular Orange Revolution saw Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych ousted from power and replaced by Viktor Yushchenko, the country hosted the 2005 Eurovision contest.
The host country was represented by the band GreenJolly singing “Together We Are Many.” The song had been an anthem during the Orange Revolution, featuring the lyrics: “No to falsifications, no to lies. Yushchenko — yes! Yushchenko — yes!” But after the lyrics were deemed too political, GreenJolly ultimately performed a modified version, singing: “No to falsifications, no to lies. We believe — yes, we can — yes.”
The band’s drummer wore orange, while the frontman sported a T-shirt featuring Che Guevara, a major figure of the Cuban Revolution.
The first time Ukraine won Eurovision was the second year it had participated. Singer Ruslana took home the top prize with a fierce performance of “Wild Dances.” The song wasn’t overtly political, but it embraced a post-Soviet national identity for Ukraine by recalling the folklore of the Hutsuls, a western Ukrainian ethnic group.