TURIN, Italy — While in the third month of fighting Russia’s invasion at home, Ukraine came out victorious at Europe’s musical competition Eurovision.
Swept along on a wave of solidarity, the Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra racked up a record popular vote after performing a catchy folk-rap tune and sending an emotional plea for the bombarded city of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine. Russia has been shelling the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, a strategic port city that has been besieged for more than two months. Around 500 Ukrainian fighters have been trapped at the plant in the last pocket of resistance.
“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Telegram.
Ukraine’s triumph in Europe’s long-running musical competition, watched by nearly 200 million around the world, is more than just a talent award — it carries a special political meaning. As NATO diplomats gathered this weekend in Germany, the military alliance’s deputy chief called the Ukrainian victory in Turin a testament to the country’s bravery and a rebuke to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “most brutal and cynical war” since World War II.
“So I’m saying that we are united. We are strong, [and] will continue to help Ukraine in winning this war,” NATO Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Geoană said.
European politicians also jumped onto Twitter to salute the victory. European Parliament President Roberta Metsola promised to go to Kyiv for Eurovision next year, while Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas saw the victory as a renewed sign Europe was steadfast in its support of Ukraine.
The overwhelming popular support in the Eurovision competition also came despite energy sanctions on Russia that are taking a growing bite out of Europeans’ wallets.
A tribute to lead singer Oleh Psiuk’s mother, the Ukrainian folk-rap song became a rallying cry for Ukraine amid the Russian war. An enormous total of 631 points put Ukraine well clear of the other contestants. The country received the highest number of points from the public in the history of Eurovision with 439 points.
The European Broadcasting Union, which organizes the Eurovision contest, banned Russia from participating in this year’s event the day after its invasion of Ukraine. While the body has previously disqualified songs for being overtly political, the last time it kicked out a country was Yugoslavia in 1993, nearly 30 years ago.
Kalush Orchestra was given special permission to leave Ukraine to perform in the European musical contest. One band member stayed behind to fight on the frontlines. The group is expected to go back in two days. A volunteer in the country’s war effort, front man Psiuk said he needed to help people find shelter, transportation and medicine.
“Like every Ukrainian, we are going to fight, and fight until the end,” Psiuk said at a press conference after the victory.
More than two thousand kilometers away from the standing ovation in Turin, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy pledged to host next year’s Eurovision contest in a free, peaceful and rebuilt country. He suggested inviting fans and contestants to Mariupol “one day.”
The European Broadcasting Union, organizer of the competition, was more cautious and highlighted the “unique challenges” involved in hosting Eurovision.
The U.K. defied the odds by coming in second after being last with zero points in the previous year. The country received the highest marks from EU members including France, Belgium, Germany and Austria.
“We got more points today than we got in the last 10 years,” said Mike, 54, from Nottingham, exulting in his Union Jack jacket. “No one believed this would happen after Brexit.”
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed how “incredibly proud” he was of British singer Sam Ryder and extended his congratulations to Ukraine. “It is a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom,” said Johnson.
Back in Turin’s stadium where many were waving blue and yellow flags, Irina, 34, who fled Ukraine at the start of the war and now lives in Austria, said the musical victory gave her hope.
“It’s good to have Europe on our side.”