Ukraine and Eurovision: an interwoven history

How Ukraine’s post-Soviet history has played out on the set of the Eurovision Song Contest


This last month has been a living nightmare for Ukraine. Cities and districts have been decimated and millions of lives changed forever, as Ukrainians are forced to fight, flee or worse. While the world watches in horror, Ukrainians have defiantly challenged an invasion that seeks to absorb the country into a greater Russia. 

Meanwhile, in Turin, Italy, preparations have begun for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. The international songwriting
competition, often mischaracterised by sneering Brits as frivolous, may well seem totally irrelevant amid the current climate of war. But over 66 years, Eurovision has served as a crucial common ground on which countries have performed their statehood and cultural autonomy.

Eurovision is one of the most popular televised competitions in the world, with over 40 participating countries. More than 183 million viewers tuned in to its 2021 final. Ukraine has been one of its most successful competitors since they first participated in 2003, winning in 2004 and 2016. The competition has forged the careers of some of the nation’s most celebrated musicians: Ruslana, Jamala and Verka Serduchka. In a conflict that rests on Ukraine’s independence as a sovereign nation, the Eurovision stage has provided a unique platform to expose Europeans to Ukrainian voices, as they distinguish themselves from the bloc-identity of the USSR. 

Participation in Eurovision has come to symbolise proximity to the very idea of Europe. This will be a defining feature of the 2022 contest, as the European community severs its cultural and economic connections with Russia through sanctions. So far, Russia has been banned from participating, while Ukraine’s contestants, Kalush Orchestra, are tipped to win. Their song, ‘Stefania’, is fast becoming an anthem of resistance through its presentation of Ukrainian heritage, while the group’s members are currently actively serving on the front lines. 

“Forget about Chernobyl!”

Throughout its history, Eurovision has consistently interlocked with important historical events for Ukraine. In the early noughties, a swathe of ex-Yugoslavian and ex-Soviet states entered Eurovision as independent nations. This was a crucial exercise in cultural state building and soft power relations. Winning on their second try, with Ruslana’s infectious ‘Wild Dances’ in 2004, an independent Ukraine was given its first opportunity to host an international event. 

The BBC’s regular Eurovision pundit, academic Dr Paul Jordan (known to some as Dr Eurovision) explains that Ruslana’s song depicted “a western Carpathian culture, sexualised and packaged up for Eurovision”. A mix of trembita horns and traditional Arkan dancing, sung in both Ukrainian and English languages, it bore the new style of ‘ethnopop’. ‘Wild Dances’ was a phenomenon and stayed in the European charts for some 97 weeks. At a conference afterwards, Ruslana declared: “I want my country to open up before you with friendship and hospitality […] I would like you to forget about Chernobyl”.

A rude awakening

Having won the previous year, Ukraine was to host the 2005 contest. But in late 2004, protests erupted after a general election
characterised by voter intimidation and electoral fraud. The leading candidates were Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych, and the results were seen as being rigged by the authorities in favour of the latter. The ensuing anti-corruption protests, dubbed the Orange Revolution, succeeded: in January 2005, Viktor Yushchenko was elected president in a clean vote. And the slogan for the upcoming Eurovision contest? “Awakening”. 

Dr Catherine Baker, professor of post-Cold War history, international relations and cultural studies at Hull University, says the contest was a chance for Yuschenko’s new government to “show an open and democratic face to the rest of Europe”. Former Eurovision winner Ruslana became an icon for the revolution; she later joined Yuschenko’s ‘Our Ukraine’ party and became a politician.

Ukraine’s entry that year was ‘Razom Nas Bahato, Nas Ne Podolaty’, which means “Together we are many, we cannot be defeated”. It had become an unofficial anthem for the revolution at rallies across the country in the months prior to its selection for Eurovision. 

The government’s choice of a hip-hop song (with all the Western connotations of that genre) illustrates just how seriously the procurement of Eurovision was taken: tourism was attraction of hosting Eurovision, but the authorities saw the competition as a wider opportunity to broadcast Ukraine as a liberal, modern nation that was involved with Western trends. Undoubtedly, it was a political choice. A small governmental elite effectively “chose a “Western narrative of Ukrainian identity” over a more authentic one, explains Dr Jordan. The government “decided what Ukrainian culture was”.

Waving goodbye to Russia

In 2007, Verka Serduchka’s ‘Dancing Lasha Tumbai’ provided another moment of cultural gravitas, thanks not least to Verka’s vibrant and shimmering performance. Hidden within it, there was an age-old “sneaky way of singing ‘Russia goodbye’” according to Dr Jess Carniel of the University of Southern Queensland. Its chorus of “Lasha Tumbai” is a coded rhyme (just say the words aloud). In February 2022, Verka announced that going forwards he is ditching the code and will only sing it as “Russia Goodbye” from now on.

Eurovision parallelled Ukraine’s political tensions again in 2016, just two years after Kyiv’s Euromaidan clashes of 2013, in which protestors came out in favour of European integration. The protests were sparked by the Ukrainian government’s sudden decision not to sign the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement, instead choosing closer ties to Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union. 

Contestant Jamala (real name Susana Jamaladinov) won with the song ’1944’. It was an emotional ballad about Stalin’s deportation of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians from Crimea to Central Asia during WW2. Not only had Jamala’s family members been affected by the deportation, but the song spoke to a contemporary situation during Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Donbass. “For Russia to have lost to Ukraine was bad, but for Russia to lose to Ukraine with a song about Crimea – let’s just say they weren’t very happy,” says Dr Jordan, who served as a member of Ukraine’s communications team that year. 

Jamala’s victory not only implied tacit European support for Ukraine’s narrative of the conflict in Crimea (50 per cent of points are scored through voting), but it also gave Ukraine soft political power during a decisive time for its geopolitical standing: yet again, it was to host the competition. “We can think of Jamala’s performance as inviting a European audience to join in a shared community of memory,” reflects Dr Baker.

In February 2022, Jamala performed a devastating rendition of ‘1944’ on German TV. Its opening lines – “When the strangers are coming, they come to your house / They kill you and say ‘we’re not guilty’” – took on new meaning now that Jamala herself has become a refugee. Speaking of her ordeal and fleeing to Turkey with her children, Jamala told Reuters “it felt like a nightmare”. 

The impact of ‘1944’ may have contributed to contemporary responses to the war in Ukraine, says Dr Baker. “When the full-scale invasion of Ukraine did come and the European public had to decide whether Putin or Zelenskiy were right, that narrative that viewers had seen win Eurovision six years will have formed some people’s background knowledge of Ukraine.” 

The selection process after 2017 mirrored an escalation of tensions between Russia and Ukraine. While hosting the 2017 contest, Ukraine banned Russian contestant Yulia Samoilova, as she’d broken Ukrainian law by visiting Crimea after its annexation by Russia. In 2019, contestant Maruv – who had won the public vote to represent Ukraine – withdrew from the competition, as she was unwilling to sign a contract that would have banned her from performing in Russia. 

Singers and fighters

This year’s contest reflects a devastating new chapter of Ukrainian history. The country is represented by Kalush Orchestra, a rap group formed in 2019 consisting of Oleh Psuik, Ihor Didenchuk and MC Kilimmen. Named after the village in the Carpathian mountains where its members come from, their song ‘Stefania’ is written about Oleh’s mother, and combines modern hip-hop with traditional Ukrainian folklore sounds. Although they are now widely tipped to win the competition, their path to Eurovision wasn’t straightforward. The group had initially come second in the public vote, behind Alina Pash, but Pash subsequently exited the competition, accused of an unauthorised trip to Crimea.

But while Kalush Orchestra are tipped for Eurovision success, the reality of their situation remains grim. “I cannot enjoy it while I am worried for my loved ones. The war separated me and my girlfriend,” Oleh told Reuters. Oleh is running a 20-person strong volunteer group supplying medical supplies and helping individuals flee as refugees, while another member fights for the territorial defence team in Kyiv. 

Speaking to Sky News, Oleh described ‘Stefania’ as “the anthem for Ukraine, and everybody is singing it. Originally, the song was dedicated to my mother, and now it’s the song for all mothers.” The lyrics are a call for home: “Sing me a lullaby, mum / I want to hear your native word”. These words will have a renewed cultural imperative if they are able to sing them in May. Dr Baker explains that ‘Sefania’ “stands in for the resilience of countries that have been torn apart by invasion, still passing the national culture and language down to the next generation”.

The show must go on

Despite the uncertainty and the bombing of Kyiv’s television tower, Ukraine’s public TV channel UA:First confirmed Kalush’s participation in the Eurovision Song Contest via their Instagram account. The competition is fast becoming an important avenue for united condemnation of Russia and expressions of European solidarity. “If Ukraine wins this year, I think that would be a very powerful sense of solidarity and a strong symbol,” predicts Dr Jordan. 

Of course, when musing about a Ukrainian victory on the Eurovision stage in May, the first thing that must be considered is the physical safety of Kalush and the Ukrainian Eurovision community. But the importance of Eurovision as a cultural site was explained best by Oleh. “I cannot say what’s going to be in the future,” he said, “but I think that the Eurovision Song Contest is a good way to make all the world sing Ukrainian songs, and know Ukrainian rap.”

This year’s Eurovision is momentous, not only because culture is one battleground where Russian aggression is being resisted, but because its stage offers a unique look into contested realities of ‘Europeanness’, however contradictory these borders may be. As Dr Carniel suggests, “the idea that it was silly or frivolous to think about Eurovision at a time like this is wrong. It isn’t – this is precisely the time where the meaning and significance of something like Eurovision can come into clear view.” Ukrainian defiance has historically been interwoven with the Eurovision Song Contest, and this year will continue that cultural thread. 

10th May 2022