Ukraine won the 66th Eurovision song contest, which was held on Saturday night in Turin, Italy. Riding a groundswell of support from the European public voting by telephone, Stefania of Kalush Orchestra finished in first place after strong performances from the UK, Spain and Sweden in early voting.

“Please help Ukraine, Mariupol. Help Azovstal right now,” shouted lead singer Oleh Psiuk from the front of the stage after the band had performed. In a video speech released before the event, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that he believed the Kalush Orchestra would win. “Europe, vote for Kalush Orchestra. Let’s support our compatriots! Let’s support Ukraine!” he said.

The winning song, which mixes rap with elements of Ukrainian folk music, was originally written in honor of the group’s mothers. The group later rededicated it to all the matriarchs of Ukraine, as lines like “I will always find my way home, even if all roads are destroyed” found new resonance. The six men who make up the group had to receive special permits to leave Ukraine and travel to Italy during the war.

Stefania of Kalush Orchestra

Sam Ryder’s UK entry Space Man led in the midpoint, having won the jury vote from across Europe with 283 points. But after the public vote points were added, he finished in second place.

Prior to the event, Ryder had said he wasn’t worried about where it would end up, saying, “This is something that celebrates inclusion, expression, love, peace, joy and togetherness. So thinking about the marker, for me, takes a little bit of the shine and the magic out of the room altogether.”

One of the most notable performances of the night was Subwoolfer from Norway with Give That Wolf A Banana. The anonymous duo, known only under their pseudonyms Jim and Keith, performed in yellow wolf masks with the chorus pleading “Before the wolf eats my grandma/give that wolf a banana.”

Members of the band Subwoolfer performed for Norway. Photograph: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

Gothic rock band The Rasmus, known internationally for their 2003 hit In the shadows, sang for Finland, while Australian Sheldon Riley wore the heaviest costume of the night, weighing in at over 40kg.

Serbia’s song In Corpore San featured a veiled critique of Serbia’s healthcare system, with artist Konstrikta washing her hands on stage as she asked “What’s the secret to Meghan Markle’s healthy hair?”

Konstrakta from Serbia singing In Corpore Sano.
Konstrakta from Serbia singing In Corpore Sano. Photograph: Luca Bruno/AP

Russia did not compete, having been excluded by the organizer, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), because of the invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24.

Ewan Spence of the Eurovision Insight Podcast told The Guardian from Turin that “throughout the week, the singers, the broadcasters, the community were proud to support Kalush Orchestra and Ukraine. This will always stand as a Eurovision win; but it means much more. It is the greatest gesture of love towards the people of Ukraine from all corners of all countries in Europe and beyond.”

Ukraine first appeared in the Eurovision song contest in 2003 and had won it twice, with Ruslana’s Wild Dances in 2004 and Jamala’s song 1944 in 2016. The latter caused controversy as the song’s theme was the deportation of the Crimean Tatars. in the 1940s by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union for alleged collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. It was sung in English and Crimean Tatar, and was produced two years after the Russian Federation annexed Crimea following the 2014 invasion.

There was also the usual controversy at this year’s contest. North Macedonia’s national broadcaster threatened to pull out after her act, Andrea, was accused of disrespecting the national flag by apparently throwing it to the ground. She apologized explaining that she had been trying to pass it on to a member of her team who was too far away to catch it.

The organizers censored the song Eat Your Salad by Citi Zēni from Latvia. The pro-going green protest song included the line: “Instead of meat, I eat vegetables and pussy.” With the EBU insisting that the word “cunt” be removed, the Eurovision audience had grown accustomed to shouting it loud and clear. The song failed to qualify for Tuesday’s semi-final, averting an awkward pre-turnaround moment for broadcasters across the continent.

There were also complications on stage. A high-tech element called a “kinetic sun” was supposed to rotate, allowing acts to use a giant LED screen or wall of lights. The mechanism to change it turned out not to be fast enough, leaving some acts struggling just days before the contest to readjust the way they presented their songs.

Ukraine’s victory still gives the UK and the BBC a glimmer of hope in staging the event again for the first time since 1998. Traditionally, the show’s winner hosts it the following year, but given the current situation in Ukraine, the EBU may be cautious about planning an event a year from now in kyiv. The 2023 host will likely be chosen from one of the so-called “big five” countries that contribute the most to the Eurovision coffers and are guaranteed direct entry to the final: France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK.

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