Polina Falkovskaya doesn’t think of herself as much of a party person. “I don’t dance. I never go out,” she says.
“For the first time [since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine], we were able to listen to music and not feel guilty,” Falkovskaya, 23, told The Washington Post from Munich, where she and her mother have settled since fleeing their home in Odessa in early March. “We finally relaxed and shed some tears.”
European Council President Charles Michel congratulated Kalush Orchestra on Twitter and expressed hope that next year’s contest can be hosted by Kyiv in a “free and united Ukraine.”
The reaction to Ukraine’s Eurovision win underscored the political undertones of the quirky musical event, from which Russia was excluded after it invaded Ukraine.
Officials in Kyiv portrayed the win as a sign of success to come in Ukraine’s war with Russia, and Kalush Orchestra used the Eurovision stage to call for help for Mariupol and the soldiers holding out there inside the Azovstal steel plant. On Sunday, the band released a music video for “Stefania,” the song that helped secure its first-place Eurovision finish, that was filmed in war-torn areas of Ukraine.
But for many Ukrainians, the contest was also a rare chance to have fun and think about something other than the war.
“When they said that we had won, I shouted at the whole apartment,” Ivanna Khvalyboga told the BBC from Poland.
Khvalyboga, who is one of the more than 6 million Ukrainians who have fled their country since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, said the win brought “incredible happiness for Ukraine and Ukrainian people.”
For Falkovskaya, who watched the finale with her mother and their two Labradors, it was also a chance to connect with family, as her stepfather watched the contest with them over the phone from Odessa.
“The show made us connect in a way,” she said, describing it as “a cool moment to share with my mom.”
That moment was made more significant by the war. “When the war happens to you, you start realizing how much you … miss the little things,” Falkovskaya told The Post. When Ukraine won Eurovision, “I got my little things back, and so I’m quite happy today. Hopefully, it stays for a while now.”
In a Facebook post, Falkovskaya wrote that winning Eurovision “has brought so much motivation and power back to our country. The happiness, the tears of joy, the laughter.”
Ukraine’s government tweeted on its official account: “You have melted our hearts, friends,” adding that the win “matters the world to us during this time.”
On social media, Ukrainians cheered a victory that Kalush Orchestra’s frontman, Oleh Psiuk, called a victory “for all Ukrainians.”
A video of Ukrainian television presenter Timur Miroshnychenko reacting to the band’s win while presenting live from a bomb shelter in Ukraine was viewed more than 400,000 times on Twitter.
Ukrainian service members who watched the Eurovision final from their position near Kyiv clapped and cheered as the win was announced, in photos taken by Reuters photographer Valentyn Ogirenko.
Even though Eurovision is a contest, and one country’s win is by definition 39 other countries’ loss, many world leaders immediately cheered Kalush Orchestra’s victory.
NATO’s deputy general secretary, Mircea Geoana, offered his congratulations, saying that the result showed “the immense public support all over Europe and Australia for the bravery” of the Ukrainian people.
British Foreign Minister Liz Truss described it as a “great result” — even as the fan vote bumped her country’s entry into the second spot in a competition that more typically evokes a strong sense of patriotism among die-hard fans.
“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!” wrote Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Instagram after the results were announced.
Next year, Ukraine is expected to host the competition, an occasion that Zelensky said he believes will not be the last. The president expressed hope that one day Kyiv could “host the participants and guests of Eurovision in Ukrainian Mariupol” — the southern port city shattered by Russian forces.
“I am sure that our victorious chord in the battle against the enemy is not far away,” he added, seeking to link the Eurovision outcome with Ukraine’s prospects against Russian forces.
Kalush Orchestra’s win also drew praise from the relatives of Ukrainian fighters stuck inside the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, after the band’s frontman issued a plea from the Eurovision stage.
“I ask for all of you, please help Ukraine, Mariupol. Help Azovstal right now,” Psiuk said after the band performed at the grand finale. Ukrainian officials have said they are negotiating with Russia to secure the release of wounded fighters inside Azovstal, even as some fighters have said they are prepared to fight to the death if necessary.
While Psiuk has said the song “Stefania” was written before the war for his mother, the music video posted by the band Sunday, which features scenes of destruction filmed near Kyiv, repurposes it into an ode of sorts to Ukrainian forces. It is the latest example of Ukraine’s use of cultural diplomacy amid its conflict with Russia.
The video opens with members of Kalush Orchestra walking through the ruins of bombed-out buildings, as Ukrainian service members carry children to safety through fire and other hazards. The children are reunited with their families in refugee centers and train stations, as the service members — all women — stare into the camera, some of them in tears.
The video ends with a shot of a young girl holding what appears to be a molotov cocktail, followed by a message from the band. “This video was filmed in Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka, Hostomel, cities near Kyiv that suffered the horrors of Russian occupation,” it reads. The video is dedicated to “the brave Ukrainian people,” the “mothers protecting children” and to “those who gave their lives to our freedom,” it says.
The music video illustrates how Ukraine has at times placed music, film and other forms of art at the service of political aims. The members of Kalush Orchestra received special permission to travel to Italy for Eurovision, even though Ukraine has banned most men between 18 and 60 from leaving the country in case they are called to fight.
Ukraine’s parliament posted the video on its Telegram page Sunday with a snippet of the song’s lyrics. “The world needs to see it!” the message said. “It is impossible to hold back tears.”
The Eurovision Song Contest is often political, as dozens of countries compete for points from national juries and audiences. In 2016, after Russia annexed Crimea, Ukrainian singer Jamala won Eurovision with a song about the Soviet deportation of Crimean Tatars during World War II.
Another Ukrainian band, Antytila, recently collaborated with Ed Sheeran on a remix of Sheeran’s single “2step.” The accompanying music video also features scenes of destroyed buildings in Ukraine. Antytila’s lead singer, who volunteered to fight Russia alongside others in the band, sings in military uniform about wanting to be reunited with loved ones after the war.
Ellen Francis and Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.