For 11 weeks, Ukrainians braved war, destruction and loss. But on Saturday, they could celebrate victory: The country’s catchy, hip-hop-infused song “Stefania” is favored to win the Eurovision Song Contest, the cultural phenomenon that helped launch Abba and Celine Dion and is watched every year by 200 million people.
“Stefania”, an anthem song by the Kalush Orchestra of Ukraine, was originally written to honor the group’s leader Oleh Psiuk’s mother. But since the war it has been reinterpreted as a tribute to Ukraine as a homeland. The song includes lyrics that roughly translate to “You can’t take my will from me, like I got it from her” and “I’ll always find my way back, even if the roads are destroyed”.
The hugely popular Eurovision Song Contest, a show of over-the-top kitsch, whose past winners include a monster Finnish heavy metal band who like to blast steaming slices of meat on stage, has taken on a particularly political overtone this year.
In February, organizers of the event banned Russia from participating in the competition, a showcase intended to promote European unity and cultural exchange, fearing that Russia’s inclusion could damage its reputation.
This decision underlined Russia’s growing estrangement from the international community, including in the field of culture. Russia began participating in the world’s largest singing competition in 1994 and has competed more than 20 times. His participation was something of a cultural touchstone for the country’s rebound and engagement with the world after Russian President Vladimir V. Putin came to power following the political and economic chaos of the 1990s.
In 2008, when Dima Bilan, a Russian pop star, won Eurovision with the song “Believe”, Mr Putin was quick to weigh in with congratulations, thanking him for further improving Russia’s image.
It is not the first time that politics has intruded on the contest, which was established in 1956. In 2005, Ukraine’s entry song was rewritten after it was deemed too political because it celebrated the orange revolution. When Dana International, an Israeli transgender woman, won in 1998 with her hit song “Diva,” the rabbis accused her of flouting the values of the Jewish state.
Several bookmakers have said that Ukraine are the clear favorites to win the competition this year. Winners are determined based on votes from national juries and home viewers.
Ukraine’s entry “Stefania” comes from a band that mixes traditional Ukrainian folk music with rap and hip-hop. The Kalush Orchestra lifted the semi-final audience in Turin, Italy on Tuesday with a spirited performance that propelled them through to Saturday’s grand final.
The band traveled for Eurovision with special permission to circumvent a martial law preventing most Ukrainian men from leaving the country, according to Ukraine’s public broadcasting company Suspilne.
The war necessitated further adjustments. The show’s Ukrainian commentator, Timur Miroshnychenko, broadcast from an air raid shelter.
A photo posted by Suspilne showed the veteran presenter at a desk in a bunker-like room, surrounded by computers, wires, a camera and weathered walls that revealed brick slabs below. We didn’t know what city he was in.
The bunker had been prepared to avoid disruption from air raid sirens, Mr Miroshnychenko told BBC Radio 5 Live. He said Ukrainians love the contest and “try to catch any peaceful moment” they can.
“Nothing is going to interrupt the broadcast of Eurovision,” he said.