The country continues to confound expectations
The war in Ukraine has confounded many expectations (including my own), with Russia’s unexpectedly faltering military campaign on the one hand, and Ukraine’s unexpectedly sophisticated and dogged defence on the other. But one prediction seems safe to make: Ukraine will very likely win tomorrow night’s Eurovision final in Turin, with their representatives Kalush Orchestra already the favourites by a large margin.
As this excellent recent article notes, while Eurovision is always a political event — in which the points awarded between countries more often resembles the alliance-building preceding the 1910s Balkan Wars than a talent contest — Ukraine’s entries tend to be more entwined with the country’s turbulent recent history than most. Ukraine’s winning entry in 2016 after all, following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, was a mournful ballad, 1944, about Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars.
Even this year’s chosen contestant, Alina Pash, was forced to withdraw after being discovered to have secretly visited Russian-controlled Crimea, a huge taboo in a country for which Crimea’s status represents a gaping political sore. The runners-up, the Kalush Orchestra are themselves caught inside Ukraine’s ongoing woes: their frontman Oleh Psiuk runs a volunteer aid organisation, and another of their members has chosen to stay behind and fight as part of the country’s Territorial Defence forces.
But this year’s entry, Stefania, a mix of rapping and traditional folk melodies, is worthy of analysis itself, purely as a symbol of modern Ukrainian nationhood. A country undergoing a painful and bloody process of nation-building, Ukraine’s vibrant folk culture, drawn from its peasant roots, is more present in ordinary life than is the case with many other modern European countries.
Traditional embroidered shirts and blouses are more commonly worn for special occasions now than would have been the case thirty years ago; Ukraine’s rich and vivid tradition of folk singing, like the nationalist song Red Viburnum in the Meadow, sung here by the rapper-turned-Territorial-Defence fighter Andriy Khlyvnyuk and here by Ukrainian refugees in Lithuania, has gone viral both within the country and abroad, as a symbol of the country’s fight for national self-determination.
Perhaps the best example is the dance track Good Evening, We are From Ukraine, currently racking up more than 8.5 million YouTube views, from the previously obscure group Probass Hardi. A blend of western Ukrainian folk melodies and shepherd flutes with stirring electronic beats, the song has gone viral as the ironic soundtrack to countless Tiktok videos of Ukrainian fighters incinerating Russian tanks.
As I noticed in Ukraine last month, the song is now omnipresent: taxis play it, billboards are set up in public squares blasting it out, the popular Governor of Mykolaiv uses it as his personal anthem — and the Ukrainian government and Ministry of Defence even use it in official propaganda videos.
Like Probass Hardi’s similar nationalist anthem The Cossacks are Going, whose combined folk singing and hypnotic dance beats function as a paean to the Ukrainian armed forces, this precise mix of folk tradition and tech modernity is a highly appealing cultural product: to Ukrainians fighting for their country, but also to international audiences.
As with last year’s dreamlike entry by the band Shum, for this year’s Eurovision the Ukrainians have once again decided to go with a song that simultaneously speaks of both pride in their native folk culture and a confident ease with technological modernity. As the Russians have learned to their cost, that’s a powerful combination.