As President Biden picked up the phone to call Vladimir Putin on February 12, 2022, hundreds of Ukrainians gathered in Kyiv to witness towers of fire and incessant shrieking. No, this was not the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but rather, the start of Vidbir—the Ukrainian national competition to determine their selection for the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest. What is Eurovision? More importantly, why did its prospects capture the attention of thousands across Ukraine as their country teeters on the edge of existence? If you are not familiar, it might be worth a few moments of your time to see and hear what words simply cannot describe.
The Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) is the world’s biggest concert, with nearly twice as many viewers as the Super Bowl. Eurovision brings together musicians from European (and not-so-European) countries to stage often-times whimsical and bizarre performances, featuring everything from fire to gravity, from spirits to sugar, from toys to t-taco tamales. It’s the same contest that gave us global superstars including ABBA, Celine Dion, and, more recently, Måneskin. While some nations admittedly do not take Eurovision very seriously anymore, the 66-year-old contest has served an important role in building camaraderie and cultural awareness between former fascist and communist countries and their Western counterparts.
Ukraine, on the other hand, takes Eurovision very, very seriously. Since its entry into the contest in 2003, Ukraine is the only country with an undefeated qualification record and the only Eastern European country to have won the contest twice. Even when their entries fall short of victory, Ukrainian contestants are some of the most commercially successful Eurovision artists each year. Go_A’s banger “Shum” became the first Ukrainian-language song to ever reach the Billboard Global 200 chart earlier this year, and Verka Serduchka’s magnificent “Dancing Lasha Tumbai” earned him a cameo in a 2015 Melissa McCarthy movie.
When other nations have caved to the ebbs and flows of pop music trends, Ukraine has consistently produced uniquely Ukrainian entries with attention to the local language and generations-old folk music tropes. Eurovision proves a unique opportunity for the country to share its language and culture with the world. Yet, Russian aggression may force Ukraine to withdraw from ESC 2022, ridding the country of its most potent soft-power weapon and demonstration of national pride. As Ukraine faces an existential threat at home, securing its ability to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest is the last, best hope for European allies to preserve and celebrate Ukrainian culture and artistry in the event of national subordination.
Before attending Eurovision 2017 in Ukraine, a quarter of Eurovision fans associated Ukraine primarily with war. After visiting Kyiv for ESC, 92 percent wanted to return to Ukraine and 76 percent supported visa-free EU entry for Ukrainians. As such, Eurovision is more than an artistic contest; it’s also a political opportunity. For Ukraine, Eurovision songs can be both an exercise in soft power internationally and a platform for political movements domestically. In 2004, Ukraine won Eurovision for the first time with Ruslana’s “Wild Dances,” a performance based in the traditions of the Hutsul people, a western Ukrainian ethnic group. Ruslana’s domestic success has been linked to the turbulence of the 2005 Orange Revolution against a rigged presidential election after she joined protesters in Maidan square and led a hunger strike. Performer Verka Serduchka acknowledged as much in his 2007 entry, ending the song “Maidan, dance!”
Time and again, Ukraine has utilized Eurovision to bring attention to unsavory histories and marginalized groups. Ukraine’s second Eurovision win came from Jamala in 2016 with her song “1944,” vividly describing Soviet deportation of Crimean Tatars—the song opens: “When strangers are coming, they come to your house, they kill you all and say ‘we’re not guilty.’” Initially, Alina Pash won Vidbir 2022 with “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.” Her song recalls a 1965 film of the same name and sings of cultural pride in the face of severe repression. Before the second chorus, the music drops down as Alina faces the camera and beckons Ukrainians to “remember your ancestors, but write your own history”—precisely what Eurovision has enabled the nation to do over the last twenty years.
While Eurovision has always carried a political significance for Ukrainians’ sense of themselves, more recent entries have also focused on how Ukraine interacts with other ESC members. Unsurprisingly, the drama almost always centers around the nation’s tense relationship with Russia. Verka Serduchka, arguably the greatest Eurovision performer of all time, placed second with his multi-lingual and basically incomprehensible “Dancing Lasha Tumbai” in 2007. Verka falsely claimed that “Lasha Tumbai” translates to “whipped cream” in Mongolian, a likely cover for the anti-Moscow rhyme “Russia Goodbye.” Despite refusing to comment for years on the similarity, Verka announced on February 27, 2022 that he would only sing “Russia Goodbye” going forwards, cementing the song’s role as an anti-Russian anthem.
Ukraine has been careful to strongly project themselves against Russia at Eurovision, as demonstrated by their withdrawal from the contest in 2019 after their selected artist refused to sign a contract prohibiting her from performing in Russia, among other stipulations. The Ukrainian Culture Ministry remarked after the event that only “patriots who are aware of their responsibility” should be able to represent Ukraine at ESC. Similarly, this year’s initial selection, Alina Pash, withdrew after reports that she illegally traveled to Crimea and forged travel documents. Even still, Alina decided herself to withdraw with a message of unity for Ukrainians: “I do not want this virtual war and hate. The most important war right now is the external one.”
Given the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the legal status of Ukraine as a sovereign state will likely remain in question for some time. As such, it is imperative for the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) to prepare for an altered-Ukrainian participation for the foreseeable future. In the event of a Russian attempt to set up a puppet state in Ukraine, a new government may well try to compete in Eurovision with entries that shun Ukrainian tradition and national pride. The EBU must be willing to both work with this potential new European government while somehow maintaining the structures of the old Ukrainian system that produced such authentic selections. In either case, the EBU should begin work immediately to secure a safe future site for Vidbir where Ukrainian refugees and exiles can compete in the years to come. Early indicators suggest the EBU may be open to such dramatic changes: After previously defending Russia’s participation in the event after initial invasion, the organization eventually kicked Russia out of Eurovision 2022.
Though depressing, there are some other necessary human rights actions that ESC members must take. The Russian invasion may cause a refugee crisis dwarfing those of the past two decades, and European governments must act now to determine how many refugees they are able and willing to take. Some high profile artists like Verka Serduchka, Kateryna Pavlenko, and Jamala may need to seek political asylum in neighboring countries. Most dismal of all, we must finally consider a worst case scenario in which former Eurovision stars are caught in crossfire, and the EBU’s preparations are insufficient to save Kalush Orchestra’s participation this year. Such an outcome would be nothing short of a dawning annihilation of Ukrainian culture.As consumers of music, we all have the power to support these artists’ work and celebrate Ukrainian culture, especially as it becomes harder and harder for Ukrainians to do so themselves. Ukraine’s fate lies in Putin’s hands, but the preservation of Ukrainian culture may well lie in our own, to keep Ukraine “літописах, серцях, очах, крові віків на вік”—in chronicles, hearts and eyes, in our blood forever.