Ukraine is the only country in Eurovision never to have failed to qualify from the semi-finals.
And in a happier year, that would be the first fact on fans’ minds when thinking about Kalush Orchestra’s chances in the competition.
Ten weeks ago, when Russian forces had just launched their full-scale invasion of Ukraine, far more urgent and horrific unknowns were pressing on Ukrainians and the watching world than whether their country would be in a position to send their entry to Eurovision in May. Under martial law, all men of military age, including the band members, were prohibited from leaving the country, while at least 5.7 million Ukrainians have fled abroad since the invasion began.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians are already thought to have died in the invasion, with the full extent of brutalities committed by the occupying forces in places like Mariupol still to be revealed, and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have reportedly been deported to remote locations in Russia. Yet Ukraine’s victories around Kyiv and elsewhere, the determination of the Ukrainian public, and the military aid rallied by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have all meant that, in a war where Putin has targeted Ukraine’s very existence as a nation, Ukraine still endures.
Indeed, it wasn’t until 2 April, the same day that Ukrainian forces finished retaking control of the entire Kyiv region, that Ukraine’s public broadcaster UA:PBC announced Kalush Orchestra would travel to perform live in Turin after all.
Since 2014, when Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea and tried to create de facto Russian entities out of separatist uprisings, Russia’s war in Ukraine and Ukraine’s reactions to the provocation have become one of the most contentious geopolitical themes confronting Eurovision almost every year.
But from Ukraine’s earliest days in Eurovision, the contest has represented a platform for cultural diplomacy and an opportunity to convey narratives of Ukrainian cultural identity to a West that has often been scarcely able to differentiate between Ukraine and Russia – while the style and scale of 21st-century Eurovision contests also owes something to Ukraine.
Dai-na dai-na, wanna be loved, dai-na, gonna take my wild chances
Ukraine’s debut entry in 2003, Oleksandr Ponomariov’s ‘Hasta la vista’, looks with hindsight almost like Australia’s out-of-competition performance in Eurovision 2014 – an ambitious delegation’s first opportunity to gauge the scale of the contest and start working out what it would take to make Eurovision their own.
Besides the graphics of an Apollo rocket marked with the Ukrainian flag and the presence of a spinning contortionist dressed in light blue, Ponomariov’s song was a relatively undemanding production with the mildly Latin flavour that Estonia and Latvia had both brought to their winning songs in 2001 and 2002.
Riga, the host city in 2003, was the second in a string of capital cities on the eastern, northern and southern peripheries of Europe that would host the contest throughout the 2000s, as the prize for their countries winning Eurovision the previous year. Estonia’s surprise win in 2001 had become the perfect launchpad for a nation-branding strategy that Estonia’s national enterprise agency had already been preparing in any case: ‘Brand Estonia: Positively Transforming’ sought to reposition Estonia as a future-oriented, high-tech Nordic country and distance it from the ‘Soviet’ stereotypes that were still being projected on to it in Western eyes.
Whether or not, as Paul Jordan debates, ‘Brand Estonia’ really resonated with the Estonian public, Eurovision gave Estonia a springboard for its nation-branding that other broadcasters, and even governments, in central and eastern Europe couldn’t fail to notice. That mattered all the more in the context of the EU accession process, when getting recognised as a member or even a candidate meant showing that (as per a logic which set up western Europe as the supreme benchmark of progress) your country was ‘catching up’ with the West.
Ukrainian marketing agency CFC Consulting certainly had noticed, and according to Jordan – who interviewed both Estonian and Ukrainian Eurovision decision-makers for his doctoral research – the agency was instrumental in persuading the Ukrainian broadcaster NTU to start showing and participating in the competition.
The format of Eurovision, where winning countries’ broadcasters get the right to host, meant cities like Tallinn in 2002 or Riga in 2003 could become the symbolic centre of Europe for a night, answering back to western Europeans’ doubts about how ‘European’ their countries even were. In Riga, Turkey joined the debut winners’ roll of honour with Sertab Erener’s ‘Everyway That I Can’ – which packaged the erotic appeal of ‘harem’ stereotypes and the trendy sound of ‘Oriental R&B’ production into the first ever winning entry to be inspired by Balkan and eastern Mediterranean pop-folk.
To represent Ukraine in Istanbul, NTU (and CFC Consulting) found their perfect ambassador in Ruslana Lyzhychko – who had been developing her own ambitious ethnopop project based on repackaging the folklore of the Hutsul people of western Ukraine since 2002.
The Hutsuls and their supposedly timeless village lives in the Carpathian mountains – in the part of Ukraine that wasn’t occupied by the USSR until 1939 – have been romanticised and arguably objectified for decades as what the ethnomusicologist Maria Sonevytsky calls the so-called ‘“wild folk” of Western Ukraine’. Sonevytsky, whose 2019 book Wild Music: Sound and Sovereignty in Ukraine is essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in Ukrainian cultural politics, starts her look at Ruslana’s ‘Hutsul project’ with Ruslana’s 2002 video ‘Znaiu ya’ (‘I know’).
Through what was then the most expensive music video ever produced in Ukraine, ‘Znaiu ya’ put Ruslana in the position of an explorer discovering the hidden secrets of Hutsul culture and conveying them to her audience, heralding a new stage in her career.
Musically, ‘Znaiu ya’ already exhibits some of the key features Ruslana carried over into her 2004 Eurovision entry ‘Wild dances’, including the loud calls of the Hutsul ‘trembita’ at the beginning, rhythms based on the traditional foot-stamping dances of Hutsul men, and beats accentuated by Ruslana’s tambourine. So did the rest of her 2003 Ukrainian album ‘Dyki tantsi’, which gave her Eurovision project its name.
What represented a small and exoticised part of the nation in a Ukrainian context, however, turned for the purposes of Eurovision into an exoticisation of Ukrainian culture itself. Ruslana’s image for the 2004 contest brought fur and leather costumes, fiery backdrops and ‘tribal’-style motifs together to create an ‘Amazon’ persona inspired by the mythologisation of Scythian warrior women who had lived in other parts of what is now Ukraine.
Many viewers outside Ukraine likely associated the look with Xena: Warrior Princess. And if we’re talking about exoticism and folk music from the Black Sea they’d have been more right to do so than they might have known, since (as another ethnomusicologist, Donna Buchanan, points out) the composer of Xena’s theme song, Joseph LoDuca, had himself been inspired by the polyphonic Bulgarian women’s singing which had become one of the most popular musical phenomena from this region on the 1990s world music scene.
Ruslana won Eurovision 2004 with a record-breaking score of 280 points (in a year when the introduction of a semi-final meant more countries could vote in the final than ever before), bringing Kyiv the chance to follow Tallinn, Riga and Istanbul and rebrand itself in western European eyes.
Four months later, though, Ukraine’s presidential election run-off led to mass demonstrations in Kyiv’s main square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), when authorities declared that the sitting prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, had beaten the opposition coalition’s leader Viktor Yushchenko and opposition supporters believed it was a fraudulent result.
We won’t stand this, no, revolution is on, ’cause lies be the weapon of mass destruction
Protestors occupied the Maidan until the result was overturned, taking Yushchenko’s campaign colour of orange as the symbol of their movement. Entertainers and public figures who supported the ‘Orange Revolution’ constantly visited the Maidan to keep up protestors’ morale, including the then-unknown hip-hop band GreenJolly who had recorded an anthem for the protests, and also Ruslana herself.
NTU’s selection process to choose the host entry for Eurovision 2005, with 45 announced acts across 15 semi-finals, had started in November 2004 before the Orange Revolution had even begun. By the time Ukraine’s Supreme Court had ordered a repeat run-off election and the Electoral Commission had declared Yushchenko the winner in January 2005, more than half of the heats had already taken place.
For the final on 27 February 2005, GreenJolly and three other acts were controversially given wildcards to go straight into the final, with GreenJolly performing their Orange Revolution anthem, ‘Razom nas bahato’.
Controversially, and reportedly at the behest of Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, GreenJolly won the final ahead of the prior favourite Ani Lorak, who was seen as a Yanukovych supporter – ensuring that the narrative of the Orange Revolution would carry directly into the competition. Eurovision’s rules against directly political messages meant that ‘Razom nas bahato’ had to take the lines about Yushchenko out of its chorus before it was allowed to take part.
The clips from the Orange Revolution that NTU inserted into GreenJolly’s pre-performance postcard, and the drummer’s orange shirt on stage, went a long way to making the connection clear.
More significant in Eurovision’s history than GreenJolly in the long run is probably how Ukraine and Kyiv approached hosting the contest, turning it into a touristic spectacle even more than had been the case with Tallinn, Riga and Istanbul. Throughout the week leading up to Eurovision, outdoor stages on the Maidan showcased Ukrainian musicians, and the government encouraged Western tourism by lifting visa requirements for EU visitors. The EU visitor visa regime was never reinstated after the contest, giving Ukraine an ongoing advantage over Russia in competing for tourists and their currency.
When Helena Paparizou won the Kyiv contest, her trophy was awarded by none other than Yushchenko himself, an unprecedented role for a head of state in a Eurovision final.
For almost a decade until the invasion of Crimea and Donbas forced Ukraine’s public broadcaster to miss the 2015 contest, Ukraine’s entries gave the country a trademark style at Eurovision that could be counted on to soar through the semi-finals and usually finished comfortably in the grand final’s top ten.
Show me your love, show me how much you care, talk to my heart, whisper my name
Most Ukrainian entries over the next few years followed a similar pattern, crafted to appeal to the public ‘televote’ that awarded 100% of the points in Eurovision until 2009: uptempo songs with a slight ethnopop flavour, built around female singers with assertive and sexually confident personas who were often already well-known in Russia and other neighbouring countries as well as Ukraine, and equipped with a new and unique staging concept every year.
Tina Karol’s ‘Show me your love’ in 2006 thus came with a crew of leaping ‘Cossack’ dancers who skipped rope during the instrumental break; Ani Lorak, three years after her disappointment in 2005, performed the fan-favourite ‘Shady lady’ in 2008 atop a set of giant light boxes; Svetlana Loboda brought shirtless gladiators, stiltwalkers, her own drum kit, and a set of three interlinked ladder/gyroscopes called the ‘Hell Machine’ to perform ‘Be my Valentine (Anti-crisis girl)’ on stage in Moscow in 2009.
Whether that crisis was the European financial crisis, the crisis following the Russian-Georgian war, or part of a Thunderdome far future was left to viewers’ imagination, and by the time gladiators were pulling Loboda’s drum kit across stage while she beat out a drum solo surrounded by Ukrainian flags, hardly anyone would have been asking anyway.
The celebrity culture that made Karol, Lorak and Loboda into entertainment personalities was often not to the taste of Ukrainian feminists, especially those who campaigned against the objectification of women, pornography and sex work. A co-founder of the controversial activist group FEMEN, who became internationally notorious in the early 2010s for their topless protests, told the feminists Olha Plakhotnik and Mariya Mayerchyk in 2010 that the media’s relentless sexualisation of female pop stars had even helped to inspire FEMEN’s own tactics:
I worked in show business for a year, and all this time I was curious why […] the work of civic organizations and civic movements is virtually unknown. […] But every one knows that, say, Tina Karol ripped her dress. And everyone is excited to look at that. The news of, I don’t know, say, Ani Lorak losing her panties is exciting. And every one is terribly excited about it.
In 2007, however, NTU had turned to a different corner of Ukrainian popular culture for its Eurovision entry, and delivered not just Ukraine’s second iconic representative but an act whose image has been taken up in Eurovision fan culture to symbolise the kitsch spirit of the 21st-century contest itself: Verka Serduchka, the creation of comedian Andriy Danylko, who like Ruslana had had a well-developed creative product at home before being chosen to translate it into Eurovision abroad.
‘Dancing lasha tumbai’, with its disco-ball uniforms, accordion riffs and semi-nonsense lyrics, is for many viewers the excess that defines Eurovision, and came second in Eurovision 2007 behind Marija Šerifović’s ‘Molitva’. As a cross-gender performance, Verka’s persona was also received by many viewers as one more in the line of Eurovision’s drag queens. In Ukrainian, and Russian, media culture, however, Verka had much more culturally specific meanings.
Verka, as portrayed by Danylko since the late 1990s, is a boisterous sleeper-train conductor swept along by the many transformations of postsocialist Ukraine, and speaking the mixture of Ukrainian and Russian known as Surzhyk, like many Ukrainians from her social background. As Sasha Raspopina writes, ‘anyone could name a “Serduchka” from their own lives’, not just in Ukraine but anywhere else which had been under Soviet rule.
At least until she came to Eurovision, Galina Miazhevich argues, Verka had less to do with Western practices of drag and more to do with the Soviet and post-Soviet form of subversive irony known as steb or stiob – though the very fact that Verka was a cross-gender character still led one Ukrainian parliamentary deputy to criticise her selection using anti-intersex terms.
Once at Eurovision, however, Verka and Danylko both found out she could also be seen through the lens of drag, and her post-contest album, Dancing Europe, closed out with a semi-remix of her entry titled ‘Evro Vision Queen’.
On top of all that, the song’s nonsense title and Verka’s naïve persona gave the entry just enough cover for Verka to repeatedly sing lyrics that sound very, very like the words ‘Russia, goodbye’.
Rather than argue about whether ‘lasha tumbai’ really was the Mongolian word for ‘whipped cream’ (supposedly no such phrase exists), the EBU of 2007 let it through.
I want to see ‘Russia, goodbye!’
Verka notwithstanding, Ukrainian Eurovision entries after 2007 didn’t go on to say ‘Russia, goodbye!’ at once – just as Russia continued to be an important TV and live performance market for many Ukrainian stars. Ani Lorak’s ‘Shady lady’ was composed by the serial Russian Eurovision entrepreneur Philipp Kirkorov, who represented Russia himself in 1995 and has moved on to produce six Russian and Moldovan entries since 2014.
(How involved he’ll be in future contests is another matter, though, especially with future Russian participation in question: Lithuania and Ukraine banned him from entering their countries in 2021, and Estonia in 2022, making an increasing number of potential host countries where he wouldn’t even be able to appear.)
In 2008 Lorak was Ukraine’s second Eurovision runner-up in a row in Belgrade, but Dima Bilan won the contest, meaning Moscow would host Eurovision in 2009.
Russia’s attack on Georgia in August 2008, between the two contests, turned even more of a political lens on to the 2009 contest than there would already have been given the fact that Eurovision had become well established as a space for simultaneously celebrating LGBTQ+ and national pride, whereas since 2006 every attempt to hold Pride in the Russian capital had been banned by Moscow’s mayor.
Georgia’s broadcaster, which had only started competing in Eurovision in 2007, at first declared it would withdraw from the Moscow contest, then changed its mind after winning Junior Eurovision in November 2007. Treading the same linguistic tightrope as Verka’s ‘Lasha tumbai’, Stephane and 3G’s ‘We don’t wanna put in’ left listeners in no doubt as to the fate it desired for the Russian leader; ordered to change the lyrics by the EBU, Georgian television withdrew instead.
Loboda’s Ukrainian flags planted in the Moscow stage, in contrast, were well within the rules: who can object to a national flag when Eurovision itself makes them integral to the contest’s visual identity? From 2022’s viewpoint, they might seem to assert much more resistance to neoimperial Russian ambitions against Ukrainian sovereignty than they necessarily did in 2009, yet all the ingredients necessary to make that interpretation were already present then.
Russia’s own entrant in 2009, meanwhile, was from Ukraine herself: Anastasia Prikhodko was born in Kyiv but had taken part in a series of the Russian talent show Fabrika zvyozd in 2007, as Ukrainian contestants used quite often to do. She had already been eliminated from the 2009 Ukrainian final, in circumstances that led to her suing the organisers, before entering the Russian selection process instead. Her entry ‘Mamo’ (‘Oh, mother’), with lyrics in both Russian and Ukrainian, became the Russian host entry.
A dark ballad about a young woman confessing her mother had been right to warn her against running away with an untrustworthy man, ‘Mamo’ has had its own retrospective interpretations projected on to it since Putin’s launch of a full-scale invasion aimed at bringing Ukraine back under Moscow’s control: could it even have been Mother Russia she was meant to be singing to? Prikhodko herself, however, remained in Ukraine, made two more attempts to represent Ukraine at Eurovision, and joined the Euromaidan protests in 2013-14; after Putin’s invasion of Crimea and Donbas in 2014 she gave up singing in Russian, and has been trying to build a political career with Yulia Tymoshenko’s party since 2018.
Ukraine’s entries in 2010 and 2011 continued with female soloists, though without the eroticism of the Karol/Lorak/Loboda years. Alyosha’s ‘Sweet people’ in 2010 was pitched as a warning against letting the world slide into environmental catastrophe, with a video filmed at Pripyat in the Chornobyl exclusion zone in Polesia – the first time a Ukrainian entry had alluded to the disaster that had fuelled many negative Western stereotypes of their country.
As much as it might have seemed to take Loboda’s ‘anti-crisis’ theme a step further, ‘Sweet people’ was only a last-minute, third-chance choice to represent Ukraine: NTU had first planned for a different artist, Vasyl Lazarovych, to sing Ukraine’s entry, then had to organise two different national finals in the space of a month, only for Alyosha’s original winning song to turn out to have been released before Eurovision’s eligibility deadline.
Mika Newton’s ‘Angel’, in 2011, nearly faced reselection as well after vote-rigging allegations, but the re-run was cancelled after the other two artists who would have been featured, Zlata Ognevich and Jamala, both decided not to take part. Newton’s staging featured a live performance by the Ukrainian sand painter Kseniya Simonova, whose appearances in Ukraine’s Got Talent had racked up a remarkable figure for the time of 2 million views.
For 2012, Ukrainian television knew that the country was about to be hosting a mega-event on an even greater scale than Eurovision 2005 – the men’s football European Championships, which Ukraine in co-operation with Poland had successfully bid for in 2005-7 (not that long after Kyiv had hosted Eurovision for the first time).
Welcome, girl and boy, take my hand, let’s enjoy
Ukraine’s preparations for Euro 2012 included major upgrades for the stadia in Kyiv and Kharkiv, two new stadia in Donetsk and Lviv, and new international airport terminals serving all four host cities to accommodate the tens of thousands of foreign fans who would be travelling unprecedented distances in a European football tournament to follow their teams.
(During the first phase of the war in Donbas in 2014-15, Donetsk’s airport became the site of a 242-day stand by Ukrainian troops who became mythologised in Ukraine as the ‘cyborgs of Donetsk’; Ukraine’s other airports are now all closed to passenger traffic and have been targets of Russian missile attacks.)
Gaitana’s uptempo entry ‘Be my guest’ doubled as a song of welcome for visiting football fans later in the summer, creating the same kind of sport/Eurovision crossover as the French entry in 2010, which France Télevisions also used as a theme for its coverage of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Kyiv-born and with a Congolese father, Gaitana also stood out in Ukraine as Ukrainian showbusiness’s most prominent Afro-Ukrainian. The central structure, or central myth, of Eurovision as a competition between representatives of national musical cultures means that contestants don’t just perform their songs but take on the symbolic role of representing their nations. Players and fans of colour before Euro 2012 had already been expressing concerns about racism in Poland and Ukraine, and Gaitana herself had faced opposition from a member of the far-right Svoboda party, who attacked her song as sending ‘a vision of Ukraine as a country located somewhere in remote Africa’.
Within Ukraine, Gaitana’s star image has arguably involved a certain amount of self-exoticism around the African elements of her heritage (Adriana Helbig in Hip Hop Ukraine: Music, Race, and African Migration, for instance, comments that Gaitana’s videos in the late 2000s projected a ‘hypersexualised’, ‘alluring and mysterious’ persona, leveraging associations between sexuality and Blackness and remediating Soviet-era notions of Africa as a faraway, exotic land).
On the Eurovision stage, however, her floral ‘vinok’ or wreath – traditionally worn by marriageable girls – framed Gaitana as equally as authentic a carrier of Ukrainian tradition and national womanhood as any white Ukrainian woman.
In its first ten years at Eurovision, then, Ukraine had already been energetically using the contest as a platform to define and communicate certain narratives of Ukrainian national identity – as hospitable, welcoming, creative, ‘wild’, but with a knowing ability to package that ‘wildness’ for Western tastes that proved Ukrainian creativity was at ‘European’ standards.
To many of the Ukrainian students and other members of the public Jordan interviewed in 2007-8, Ukraine’s early entries were quite clearly representing the culture of western Ukraine and sometimes appeared as an elite-driven, rather than popular, narrative of the nation. Debates within Ukraine about both Verka and Gaitana, in particular, continued to illustrate the ‘ambiguity and complexity’ of defining Ukrainianness itself.
Somewhat on a principle of ‘turn and turn about’, Ukraine’s national final in 2013 was won by Zlata Ognevich, one of Mika Newton’s unsuccessful contenders in 2011. Here too the delegation hired a Ukrainian known for something else to join the stage performance: Igor Vovkovinskiy, who carried the 1.65-m Ognevich on stage dressed as a medieval giant, then held the record as the tallest living person from both Ukraine and the USA (though sadly died in August 2021, aged 38).
Ognevich’s ‘Gravity’ was hardly the only Eurovision entry around that time to nod to fantasy medievalism, two years into Game of Thrones’s reign as a transnational cultural phenomenon, and it’s probably not fanciful to hear hints of Disney and Idina Menzel in there (Menzel having made her name with Wicked’s showstopper ‘Defying gravity’) even though Frozen was still six months away.
In 2013-14, Ukraine was about to go through even greater upheaval than the Orange Revolution – though, unlike in 2004-5, it would take several years to see its effects on the Eurovision stage.
Tick tock, can you hear me go tick tock?
For all the hopes of change that Ukrainians had invested in Yushchenko on the Maidan in 2004, in the long run public disaffection with politics after the Orange Revolution remained the order of the day. A rivalry had broken out between Yushchenko and his Orange Revolution ally Tymoshenko; ruling coalitions had repeatedly failed to form stable governments, causing new parliamentary elections; and in 2010 Viktor Yanukovych, Yushchenko’s opponent in 2004, defeated Tymoshenko in the presidential elections.
Believing in closer relations with Russia, Yanukovych changed his mind about signing an association agreement with the EU in November 2013: the activists who gathered on the Maidan to protest the decision, and the artists – including Ruslana again – who flocked to the Maidan to support them, were mobilising against Yanukovych for a second time.
(Ruslana was then the only Ukrainian Eurovision entrant to have served as a parliamentary deputy, representing Yushchenko’s faction in 2006-07; since the second fall of Yanukovych, Prikhodko represented Tymoshenko’s party in 2018-19 and Ognevich represented the Radical Party of Oleh Liashko in 2014-15.)
Between November 2013 and February 2014, the ‘Euromaidan’ protests escalated into what Ukrainians know as the Revolution of Dignity, as Yanukovych used increasingly authoritarian tactics against protestors and activists formed self-defence groups in response – a pattern of popular mobilisation which primed the Ukrainian public to react so quickly to Russian invasion in 2022, but also gave Ukrainian far-right movements an unsettling place in the revolution’s history, since their members had been among the first to be ready to fight.
On 21 February, after three days of activists marching on parliament under police sniper fire, Yanukovych signed a deal with the opposition calling for a unity government, and fled Kyiv the next day. A new government could be expected to distance itself from Russia again and move closer to the EU. Putin’s Russia considered the revolution to have been a coup d’etat, and Russian security services stirred up pro-Russian demonstrations in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk. The first pro-Russian demonstrations in Crimea took place on 23 February, the same day as the closing of the Sochi Winter Olympics, and on 27 February Russian special forces seized the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol so that the annexation could begin.
On 6-7 April, Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk started the process of declaring themselves independent republics. Fierce fighting in Donbas between Ukrainian forces and the separatist militias, which had covert Russian backing, broke out and lasted until the ‘Minsk II’ ceasefire in February 2015, though hostilities along the line of separation never ended, and more than 2 million people had fled the separatist-held areas.
None of this background was reflected in Ukraine’s 2014 Eurovision entry, which had been selected through a national final in December 2013. Unlike in 2005, no serious attempts were made to change it after the revolution – not only would time have been much tighter (Yanukovych was ousted in the last week of February, and Eurovision entries would have to be confirmed by mid-March), but the emergency in Crimea and Donbas was already breaking out.
Instead, Mariya Yaremchuk’s ‘Tick tock’ went down in Eurovision history as the performance which gave Måns Zelmerlow and Petra Mede’s ‘Love love peace peace’, then the 2020 Netflix movie, their man in a hamster wheel.
The escalation of the war in Donbas left NTU unable to commit to participating in Eurovision 2015 (leaving the Vienna contest ‘building bridges’ all the way to Australia while leaving out Ukraine) – so Ukrainian television’s first opportunity to communicate a national narrative in these new conditions would be 2016, when NTU launched a partnership with the commercial network STB. The outcome was another landmark in Ukraine’s Eurovision history.
Where is your heart? Humanity rise
With hindsight, the talent that both Jamala and her stage director Konstantin Tomilchenko poured into channeling the personal and collective emotions of ‘1944’, and our knowledge of what’s happened in Ukraine since then, might make it seem as if Ukraine would always have been the preordained winner of Eurovision 2016.
The pre-contest discourse, however, was much more about whether as contentious, divisive and politicised a song as ‘1944’ was widely seen to be could appeal to juries and audience members across the whole of Europe. Direct political messages are, of course, banned in Eurovision, as NTU had found with GreenJolly’s lyrics in 2005; Eurovision’s reference group had however concluded that ‘1944’ did not break the rules, presumably because it was not directly commenting on the politics of the day.
From academic perspectives on history and memory, of course, few things are more political than commemorating the past, above all when that past has immediate resonances with a conflict which is still going on: indeed, conveying a narrative of a conflict in the present by framing it as a continuation of a conflict that happened in the past is one of the most foundational discursive moves to look out for in studying historical memory.
As expansive as one might like the definition of ‘political’ to be in many other contexts, the fact that the reference group applied a much narrower definition worked in Jamala’s favour – and is probably important for creative freedom at the contest in a wider sense.
When necessary, Jamala could parry allegations that the song was political by explaining that it was about what her own Crimean Tatar great-grandparents had suffered in 1944 when her people were deported from Crimea. Any viewer knowing that Stalin had ordered those deportations and that Putin has looked to Stalinism as an era of lost Russian greatness, however, could already fill in the gaps with the present; while the song’s evocation of the traumas of ‘1944’, and Jamala’s skill in communicating vocal anguish, could also speak more widely to viewers across the rest of Europe whose own family histories had been scarred by the Second World War.
By the time of the contest, Jamala, whose grandparents were still living in occupied Crimea, could openly tell journalists that ‘of course [the song] is about 2014 as well’.
The song’s opening lines, graphic by Eurovision standards (‘When strangers are coming, they come to your house / they kill you all and say “We’re not guilty”’) deftly explained how Ukrainian public diplomacy would want European viewers to see through Russian disinformation about responsibility for violence in Crimea and Donbas. The chorus in Crimean Tatar incorporated allusions to a Crimean Tatar folk song understood as a protest against Stalin’s deportations (‘Ey, güzel Qırım’), and her virtuoso ‘melismatic wail’ over the sound of a duduk worked, as Sonevytsky explains it, to ‘include the Eurovision audience as co-participants in the experience of grieving, of experiencing anguish over loss’.
‘1944’ might well not have been organisers’ ideal winner in 2016: ‘Love love peace peace’, that contest’s legendary interval act, even joked that winning the competition with a song about war, like Abba’s ‘Waterloo’, ‘is not something we recommend’.
Yet in showing that a song with such complex emotions and politics could win, it arguably helped to make a step forward for the health of creative diversity at Eurovision – even if Kyiv hosting Eurovision 2017 meant that contentious public diplomacy between Ukraine and Russia was going to be at the centre of the contest’s politics for another year.
Time to find truth, time against the lies
Eurovision 2017 took place in a Ukraine which, since 2014, had seen sweeping government interventions against Russian-language media and remaining traces of Soviet public memory. A law in June 2016 introduced a quota for Ukrainian-language music and programming on Ukrainian broadcasters – similar to a move France made in 1994 to protect French culture from Anglophone competition, but particularly likely to affect Russian cultural products, in a context where Ukrainians experience Putin’s denials of Ukrainian nationhood as a continuation of 19th-century Russian imperial repression of Ukrainian linguistic and cultural expression.
(Since then, a further law in 2019 has defined Ukrainian as the only state language, and introduced further requirements on education and media in languages other than Ukrainian which operate most stringently for content in Russian.)
Becoming the first, and still only, city in central and eastern Europe to ever host Eurovision twice meant that Kyiv and Ukraine would not just be showing themselves off to ‘Europe’ again but illustrating how much had changed there since 2005 – while using the diplomatic platform of hosting the contest to counter Russian disinformation narratives about Ukraine.
O.Torvald, a rock band from Poltava, won Ukraine’s national final in February 2017 with the song ‘Time’ – a second Ukrainian host entry by an all-male group (in a year also featuring an unusually all-male presenter team), in contrast to the iconic female performances which had defined most of Ukraine’s Eurovision history to date.
O.Torvald’s national final performance featured the band playing in what appeared to be the aftermath of an explosion, with red ticking clocks seemingly implanted in their chests counting down a three-minute time limit and the frontman Yevhen Halych spreading his arms during the breaks as if waiting to be shot. When the song and countdown ended, the band members stood stunned as whatever was impending failed to happen, and the countdown at the back of the stage started ticking back up in green.
‘Time’ wouldn’t be the last occasion that Ukrainian Eurovision entries toyed with apocalyptic themes, but the rawness of the national final performance was significantly toned down for the contest itself: with a more abstractly dystopian vibe, the band performed in outfits that looked a little like futuristic chainmail in front of a giant, hologram-style head.
Compared to ‘1944’, or even O.Torvald’s original performance, reading politics into the version of ‘Time’ staged at Eurovision would have taken much more active interpretive work. The main political narratives of Kyiv’s hosting Eurovision were instead offstage. Questions over whether LGBTQ+ visitors would be welcome and safe in the Ukrainian capital were being intensively fielded by Kyiv’s mayor Vitali Klitschko, the British Embassy and British Council, and activists from Kyiv Pride, who were only just beginning to win municipal support for the marches they had been organising since 2013.
The slogan of Eurovision 2017, ‘Celebrate diversity’, could but did not have to allude to LGBTQ+ diversity as well as the diversity of national and ethnic cultures, and the same strategic ambiguity attended the city authorities’ decision to temporarily rename Kyiv’s late-Soviet-era People’s Friendship Arch the ‘Arch of Diversity’ and paint it in rainbow colours; this decoration would last through Eurovision and Kyiv Pride. (Far-right activists temporarily halted the paint job during Eurovision week.) The arch itself had been scheduled for dismantling since May 2016 under Ukraine’s new decommunisation laws, and in April 2022 Klitschko did order the sculpture of two friendly Ukrainian and Russian workers beneath the arch to be removed.
Post-2014 Ukraine’s policy of cultural separation from Russia, made in the context of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and eastern Donbas and its ongoing strategy of ‘hybrid war’, directly affected the 2017 contest when security services announced that the Russian representative Yulia Samoilova would not be allowed to enter Ukraine.
Dozens of Russian entertainers since 2014 who had taken stances in support of Putin or the annexation of Crimea had already been added to a ‘list of persons posing a threat to the national security of Ukraine’ compiled by the Ukrainian security service (SBU) and culture ministry, and Russians were also ineligible to enter Ukraine if they had made what Ukrainian law considered to be illegal visits to Crimea (travelling there directly from Russia, without crossing a Ukrainian border post).
Samoilova, who had been runner-up on Russian X Factor in 2013 and appeared in the opening ceremony of the Sochi Paralympics, was not an established enough star to have come to Ukrainian security services’ attention, but had performed in Crimea in 2015. The day after she was selected for Eurovision, the SBU announced that she could be banned from entry to Ukraine, causing a month-long stand-off that ended in Russia withdrawing from the 2017 contest.
The circumstances of the tussle over Samoilova, who has spinal muscular atrophy and performs from her wheelchair, left room for suspicion that those responsible for selecting her had exploited her disability for extra sympathy. Russia selected her again for Eurovision 2018, where her song became the only Russian entry to date not to qualify from the semi-finals – at the time leaving only Ukraine and Australia with a 100% qualification record.
Ukraine’s own 2018 entry, ‘Under the ladder’, might have caused technical headaches but at least not political ones: Mélovin began the song by bursting out of a hydraulic coffin ten feet above the stage, and ended it sitting at another of the gimmicks celebrated in ‘Love love peace peace’, a burning fake piano. (Retrospectively, Mélovin now figures as Ukraine’s first LGBTQ representative, having come out as bi while performing at a Kyiv music festival in 2021.)
The programme of cultural sanctions against Russia came back to bite Ukraine’s Eurovision participation in 2019, when Maruv won the national final but was forced to pull out because she was not prepared to sign a contract with UA:PBC agreeing not to perform in Russia for some months after the contest. In 2017-18, as Tatiana Zhurzhenko notes, the Ukrainian parliament had debated several proposals to directly ban or sanction Ukrainian artists touring in Russia, sparking wider discussion about whether such so-called ‘unpatriotic behaviour’ should be left to the music industry to regulate or governed by the law.
UA:PBC had made its stance on the matter unequivocal, and so had Jamala – who had put Maruv on the spot during the final by role-playing a Eurovision press conference and asking Maruv the ‘very uncomfortable question’ of whether or not she believed that Crimea was Ukraine.
As a result, Ukraine never found out whether Maruv would have kept up the country’s 100% qualification record – though the hypersexualised style of ‘Siren song (Bang!)’ might have gone somewhat out of fashion since Eurovision’s all-televote years.
Siyu, siyu, siyu, siyu zelenesenki
Before Covid-19 wrote 2020 into Eurovision history as the only year when the contest has ever had to be cancelled in almost seven decades, Rotterdam 2020 was already going to open a new chapter in Ukraine’s own Eurovision history – as the first time a Ukrainian entry had ever been performed solely in Ukrainian.
Jamala’s lines in Crimean Tatar and Verka’s phrases in German and Surzhyk aside, every Ukrainian entry since 2006 had been wholly in English; Ruslana had sung predominantly in English with some words of Ukrainian, and even GreenJolly had mixed Ukrainian and English together.
‘Solovey’, by the electronic folk band Go_A, both updated Ukraine’s reputation for repackaging folklore as expertly-crafted Eurovision spectacle into the 2020s, and helped to express a creative spirit that Zhurzhenko has described as a ‘cultural revolution’ in Ukraine since Euromaidan.
This creative revival was characterised, Zhurzhenko writes, by ‘the active role in the long-due reforms claimed by a new generation of artists, cultural managers and activists, the redefinition of the very notion of Ukrainian culture (such as reclaiming the Ukrainian contribution to what is usually labelled Russian avantgarde and Soviet modernism), the growing understanding of Ukraine as a multicultural polity and, finally, the new appreciation of Ukrainian culture as an instrument of soft power’ – just as Jamala had proven in 2016.
Founded in 2012 by keyboardist/percussionist Taras Shevchenko (who shares his name with Ukraine’s national poet), Go_A’s four-piece membership also includes guitarist Ivan Hryhoriak, folkloric multi-instrumentalist Ihor Didenchuk, and the hypnotic vocals and stage presence of Kateryna Pavlenko, who learned traditional ‘white voice’ singing from her grandmother during her childhood in Polesia and trained in folklore at Kyiv National University of Culture and Arts.
How the transfixing production of ‘Solovey’ would be translated on to a Eurovision stage was one of the most anticipated questions of the 2020 Eurovision season – until the contest was cancelled and Go_A’s participation was rolled over to 2021.
Eurovision 2021’s standing as an instant classic in the contest’s history owes much, of course, to the collective emotions of being able to come together once again and share in the rituals of the Eurovision year – but also, perhaps, to the fact that the many acts from 2020 reconfirmed for 2021 had had months longer than usual to prepare their songs.
Go_A were no exception, and worked on three different options before settling on ‘Shum’, a song they had released online in January 2021. Trimmed to fit into Eurovision’s three-minute time limit and differentiate itself more from the traditional folk song about awakening the spring which had inspired it, the Eurovision version of ‘Shum’ premiered in March with a video reimagining the spring ritual as a post-apocalyptic rave, filmed in forests near the vicinity of Chornobyl.
Second only to Måneskin in the public vote at Eurovision 2021, and indeed in the contest’s year-end global streaming stats, ‘Shum’ captivated its audience from Kateryna’s first note through to its ever-accelerating finale – while, as with Ruslana and Xena, any resemblance one might have perceived to the style of The Matrix very much worked in its favour too.
Even in strictly musical terms, following up on the phenomenon of ‘Shum’ in 2022 might have seemed a nigh-impossible task – though that didn’t deter Didenchuk, who re-entered Ukraine’s national selection in 2022 as the flute-player of his other band, Oleh Psiuh’s folk/rap project Kalush Orchestra.
Remember your ancestors, but write your own history
Since ‘1944’ and its response to the Russian annexation of Crimea, at the very latest, Eurovision has represented an explicit, not just implicit, site of Ukrainian public diplomacy, on top of the role it has had as a platform for communicating narratives of Ukrainian national identity ever since 2003-4.
(With that public diplomacy function in mind, in fact, Jamala’s infamous question to Maruv – as coercive as it seemed on the night – might not have been an unrealistic reflection of the role that Ukrainian TV would have expected a national representative to play in the Eurovision press circus.)
After weeks when Russian forces had been massing at the Ukrainian border, Ukraine and its allies were already on high alert for an imminent invasion when the national final took place on 12 February. Knowledge of what might be to come gave the competition a sombre extra layer of meaning: as well as competing for the right to represent Ukraine at Eurovision, would they also be auditioning for no less than the role of begging allies to save their very nation if the worst warnings came true?
Kalush Orchestra and their tribute to Psiuh’s mother Stefania came second on the night behind Alina Pash, another 1990s-born musician who experiments with fusions of rap and Ukrainian folklore. Pash’s song ‘Tini zabutykh predkiv’ combined strategies that both Jamala and Ruslana had used in winning entries: Jamala’s emotional intensity of describing her own family history in the context of national tragedy, and Ruslana’s ability to present herself as a mediator of Carpathian and Hutsul folklore for a modern age.
The song shared its title, translating to ‘Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors’, with the famous film directed by Sergei Parajanov in 1964-5 which re-romanticised the Hutsuls of western Ukraine – and which influenced Ruslana’s Hutsul project to such an extent that the trembita calls introducing ‘Wild dances’ follow very closely the calls over the title sequence of Parajanov’s film.
As a historical narrative, it referenced a free Ukrainian people dating back to pre-Christian times, the early Slavic form of popular assembly known as the ‘viche’, and the role of the hetmans and Cossacks in defending their land – thus directly resisting the imperialist narrative of Ukrainians as a people without history that Putin’s propaganda had been carrying abroad, and arguing that the Ukrainian people had a claim to the land dating back centuries further than the claims of any Russian-centred state.
Its English-language rap section vocalised Pash’s creative identity and patriotic duty to her people as aligned with the work of Dumas, Dante, Picasso, Shakespeare and the Brothers Grimm – suggesting Ukraine belonged equally at the centre of European high culture, and touching off the national cultural reference points of almost as many countries as Zelenskyy has managed to address in his own televised addresses to the leaders and parliaments of the liberal West. Her performance ended by projecting a map of Ukraine in its internationally recognised borders, including the whole of Crimea, plus Donbas.
‘Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors’ practically foretold itself playing out as the winning reprise of Eurovision 2022, in other words – until it started being reported that Pash had committed one of the cardinal sins of post-2014 Ukraine’s ‘cultural revolution’ by illegally visiting Crimea herself in 2015.
Vidbir’s rules, on paper, should have prevented the national selection being derailed by a second Crimea scandal in three years, since all artists were expected to confirm that they had not performed in Russia or crossed through it to visit Crimea since 2014. As the authenticity of documents her team had shown UA:PBC about her visit started being questioned, Pash pulled out of Eurovision of her own accord.
Ten days later, Ukraine’s representatives for 2022 were finally confirmed as Kalush Orchestra – who had been vocal since the final about irregularities they believed had taken place in the jury vote, which had narrowly awarded Pash victory in the first place.
Two days after that, the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began – and Mama Stefania, like so many suffering mothers and grandmothers in the wartime media of this and other conflicts (not least the Yugoslav wars), has come to symbolise the suffering of the Ukrainian nation as a collective.
Psiuh’s promise to his mother that ‘I’ll always find my way home, even if all roads are destroyed’, means something else altogether when millions of Ukrainians are separated from their loved ones by ruined roads and bridges or by battle lines: as Psiuh told the Associated Press from Turin, ‘After it all started with the war and the hostilities, it took on additional meaning, and many people started seeing it as their mother, Ukraine’.
‘Stefania’ itself, meanwhile, is already soundtracking more than 150,000 TikTok videos, many of them showing the new daily life of Ukrainian social media users who have joined the military or relaying the ubiquitous videos of Ukrainian tractors towing away abandoned Russian tanks. When Ukrainian scholars reflect on the culture of everyday life in wartime (as Croatian scholars found themselves having to do three decades ago), Kalush Orchestra’s song would already have been part of the story even if the band had never gone to Turin.
Even if all roads are destroyed
By giving the band members permission to leave Ukraine to promote their entry internationally and to perform in the contest live (which almost all of them took up – only the net-wearing hypeman, Johnny Strange, stayed behind in Ukraine’s territorial defence, to be replaced for Turin by Salto Nazad’s Sasha Tab), the Ukrainian state has acknowledged how important Eurovision has been as a platform for articulating Ukrainian diplomatic narratives and 21st-century interpretations of Ukraine’s national cultural identity, not just in 2022 but ever since Ukraine started taking part.
As envoys of an independent nation facing down a larger and stronger invading military power which denies their existence as a sovereign people, Kalush Orchestra are in a similar position to Muhamed Fazlagić-Fazla and his band members during the siege of Sarajevo, who were allowed to risk the hazardous journey out of their city to represent Bosnia-Herzegovina at Eurovision 1993 even though Fazla had military duties to fulfil.
For Ukraine in 2022, like Bosnia in 1993, the platform that competing in Eurovision affords a nation at war is more significant than the part any one musician could play in military ranks – and, unlike in 1993 (when Bosnia only received votes from the Italian, Turkish, Belgian, Maltese, French and Irish juries, and came 16th), the votes of a transnational public which has mobilised in remarkable solidarity with Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion will account for 50% of the points.
Having only declared independence from Yugoslavia at the beginning of March 1992, however, Bosnia-Herzegovina never had the chance to function as a peacetime state before its war began (and even though Yugoslavia had been competing in Eurovision since 1961, TV Sarajevo had been far less successful in steering representatives through the national selection process than the TV studios in Ljubljana, Belgrade or Zagreb). Ukraine’s independence is three decades old, and artists in their late 20s like Psiuh do not even have living memory of a time when Ukraine was under Moscow’s rule.
With a critical eye towards how national identities are constructed and represented, Ukraine’s record in Eurovision offers much to unpick. Although Russian is an everyday language for many Ukrainians (up to and including Zelenskyy), Ukrainian entries have never featured more than the odd Russian word.
The cultural centre of gravity for Ukrainian entries has often tacked towards the nation’s west as if it represents the whole of the country, while arguably writing out the histories of non-Ukrainians in western Ukraine (including Jews, Poles, Armenians and Roma, Sonetvysky notes in Wild Music) who have also been objectified and oppressed.
The wide-ranging extent of Ukraine’s post-2014 laws on national language and ‘decommunisation’ are open to critique – though the level of aggression against Ukraine from Putin’s Russia has influenced some Russian-speakers to switch more towards Ukrainian in daily life, all the more so since the full-scale invasion began.
As far as Eurovision is concerned, meanwhile, Ukrainian entries have used the contest for political ends, and have tested the limits of its rules against political messaging again and again – though the EBU has never disqualified any Ukrainian entry on political grounds. Ukraine’s national selections have often seemed to privilege perceptions of suitability for Eurovision above the appearance of a transparent selection, and 2022 was scarcely the first time that participants distrusted the result. Indeed, without speaking Ukrainian I don’t have the in-depth knowledge of the patronage networks within Ukrainian entertainment and media circles that would put the relationships between performers and producers in more context.
As of the beginning of May 2022, Ukraine has still qualified from every semi-final it has appeared in – yet beneath that headline record, Ukraine didn’t even get to perform an entry in 2015 or 2019, for reasons far beyond the broadcaster’s control the first time but well within them in 2019.
Nevertheless, without the creativity of Ukrainian musicians and designers, each responding to the politics of 21st-century Ukraine in their own way, Ukrainian Eurovision delegations would never have had the wherewithal to pursue public diplomacy objectives through the contest so effectively. While broadcasters select their entries with certain strategic objectives in mind, it’s primarily the music and performance of Ukrainian contestants which have defined what Eurovision viewers come to expect from Ukraine, and Ukraine’s most iconic Eurovision entries have been those where the entrants themselves brought most creative vision of their own.
In an unmissable address to the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies’ annual conference in April 2022, Olesya Khromeychuk, director of the Ukrainian Institute in London and a historian of gender and nationalism in 20th- and 21st-century Ukraine, asked her audience of scholars of eastern Europe: where is Ukraine on the international academic community’s ‘mental maps’?
As ‘the largest state in Europe,’ Khromeychuk points out, Ukraine has taken its rightful place since 1991 on geographical maps, even with its cities misspelled or an unnecessary definite article inserted before its name. And yet, on Western scholars’ mental maps, Ukraine has largely remained colonially subsumed by versions of Russian culture which imperialistically appropriated it, or torn between Russia and NATO as simply a pawn in a greater geopolitical game.
The worlds of sport, fashion and technology have all offered counter-narratives to that erasure – yet out of all the forms of international exchange and co-operation Ukraine has participated in since becoming independent, participating in Eurovision is where Ukraine has staked its place most forcefully and inextricably on an international public’s mental maps. 21st-century Ukrainian cultural politics might not have been quite the same without Eurovision – but 21st-century Eurovision would certainly not have been the same without Ukraine.