Ukraine's Eurovision Victory Not the First Time Politics Has Been on StageRoundup
tags: Russia, Ukraine, music, European Union, popular culture, television, Eurovision
Tess Megginson is a PhD student studying central and eastern European history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Almost every year since 1956, people from across Europe and beyond have gathered under one roof for an event that promises a celebration of European unity and culture. It’s the event that gave us ABBA after their 1974 winning song, “Waterloo,” and Céline Dion’s 1988 victory with “Ne partez pas sans moi.” These victories catapulted both to stardom.
On May 14, the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest Final took place in Italy. Twenty-five countries participated, spanning the globe from Iceland to Australia. At the end of the four-hour contest, Ukraine was crowned the winner — an especially poignant victory as the war-torn country continues to defend itself against Russia’s invasion.
Going into the final, many assumed Ukraine’s song “Stefania,” performed by the Kalush Orchestra, would win the contest. The song and the costumes were rooted in Ukrainian folklore. The performance was energetic, featuring creative staging and emotional lyrics in Ukrainian.
Observers also anticipated votes of solidarity for Ukraine from its fellow European countries. They understood that even though the contest prides itself on being “apolitical,” Eurovision has always been steeped in politics — from the voting to the performances. Performances have often reflected political thinking and reacted to the climate on the continent, while also offering up the opportunity for countries facing threats to their sovereignty — like Ukraine — to display resolve.
Eurovision began in Switzerland in 1956, with only seven Western European countries participating and 10 airing the contest live on television. The contest’s purpose was to promote postwar cooperation between European states and encourage cross-border television broadcasts. In the ensuing years, the contest expanded, with other Western European countries beginning to participate, as well as countries such as Turkey, Israel and Yugoslavia.
During the Cold War, countries in the Soviet Bloc were not allowed to participate. To join the contest, countries needed — and still need — to be part of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). This was not an option for most Eastern European countries, as the EBU was a public service media organization, which made it incompatible with media structures in most Eastern European countries under Soviet influence.
But after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as changes swept rapidly across Eastern Europe, the contest moved quickly to include the newly independent countries, with most joining by 1994. Organizers staged the 1990 Eurovision Song Contest in Zagreb — the first competition to take place in Eastern Europe. While political messages and performances are discouraged and sometimes banned at the contest, many songs contained themes of European unity and references to the revolutions of the previous autumn. The winner was Italy’s “Insieme: 1992” containing the English hook “unite, unite Europe.”