Kalush Orchestra: The Eurovision entry singing to save Ukraine in 2022

For Oleh Psiuk and his group Kalush Orchestra, the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest has become much more than just a music competition

'For Ukraine, Eurovision always mattered': Oleh Psiuk and Kalush Orchestra

Sitting in a Turin hotel room wearing his trademark pink bucket hat – a hat that I suspect is about to become a lot more famous – Oleh Psiuk knows what it would mean for Ukraine to win the Eurovision Song Contest this Saturday. Psiuk fronts this year’s Ukrainian entry, the hip hop-meets-folk group Kalush Orchestra. They’re already the bookies’ firm favourites to take the prize in Italy, and the 27-year-old is well aware of just how symbolic a victory would be back home.

“It would mean that every Ukrainian would have won. Because Ukraine has to win – in all senses,” he says via a translator. Eurovision has always been popular in Ukraine: they won in 2004 and 2016, meaning that – as per Eurovision convention – the finals have been in Kyiv twice in recent years. 

But the current war with Russia means the significance of a win would be magnified this year. “For Ukraine, Eurovision always mattered. Now, even those who weren’t fans of the contest are joining us as well,” Psiuk says. “They are really rooting for us.”

Kalush Orchestra found out they’d be representing their country on February 22, just two days before Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded. Kalush had initially come second in the national selection process. However, the winner, a musician called Alina Pash, was withdrawn due to a visit she’d made to Russia-controlled Crimea in 2015 and Kalush were bumped up..

Their song is called Stefania. It mixes rap with traditional Ukrainian music. It’s a lively, energetic track, adeptly combining modern and ancient traditions. While Psiuk’s beloved Eminem is in evidence in his delivery and stage presence, the song also features an earworm hook played on a telenka, a long wooden flute-like instrument without finger holes.

Psiuk penned the song about his mother, who’s called Stephanie, before the invasion. Its lyrics are about maternal love, protection and a sense of belonging. “Mother, sing me the lullaby… You can’t take willpower from me as I got it from her…” goes the translation. “I’ll always find my way home / Even if all roads are destroyed.”

Unsurprisingly, the song has now taken on new meaning. For “mother” now read “motherland”. Social media platform TikTok features the song on scores of videos and messages of defiance from Ukrainians. Did Psiuk ever imagine it would have such resonance? 

“No, not really, because I wrote this song before this war started,” he says. “I devoted it to my mum. But then a lot of people started seeing this as being about Ukraine and Ukraine being about my mum, because everyone can relate now to what I’m singing about.”

'We will be prosperous, we will be happy': Kalush Orchestra on stage

I ask Psiuk how his family is. He hails from the town of Kalush in the province of Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast in the west of the country. His answer illustrates what a bittersweet experience this must be for him. “The family’s in the west of Ukraine [where there is currently no fighting] but it’s really difficult to say at this point whether they are safe because it is really not safe anywhere in Ukraine. The air raid alerts go off three to four times a day, every day.” 

In order to take part, Psiuk had to withdraw from a voluntary organisation he established to give refugees access to safe accommodation, medicine and transport. One member of the Orchestra has remained in Ukraine to fight in the Kyiv defence force. “No one thought this would happen. And this is not the best news. For anyone,” he says. 

Russia has been banned from this year’s contest. However, some have argued that the point of Eurovision is to unite nations and that music and politics should be kept separate.

Does Psiuk think in any way that Russia should be competing? He says not, arguing that the ban ­– along with other sanctions – will help show ordinary Russians (among whom Eurovision is extremely popular) what the wider world thinks about the invasion.

“Russia has been banned from many contests,” he says. “This is the right thing to do because of the Russians who say that they do not yet have a full understanding of what’s happening. This will make them think about it and they’ll see that the world is turning away from them for a reason.”

Ruslana, who won the 2004 contest for Ukraine Credit: AFP

Of course, if Ukraine wins, then Kyiv will be expected to host the final next spring. Does Psiuk think this will happen? “Absolutely. We believe that it’ll be a new Ukraine. We will be prosperous, we will be happy.” And will Russia compete next year? “I don’t know.”

To Britons, this may all sound rather over the top. We have something of a snobby attitude towards the contest, viewing it as little more than cheesy Saturday-night entertainment. But for other countries, it is genuinely important and the scoring is regarded as a powerful way to express your feelings towards other nations – see, for example, the way Greece and Cyprus almost always give each other maximum points.

And, in fact, despite Eurovision’s reputation for lighthearted fluff, the entries themselves do sometimes have a political theme, not least the song 1944, about Stalin’s deportation of Crimean Tatars in the 1940s, which was written following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and carried the day for Ukraine in 2016.

Britain’s dismissive attitude towards Eurovision might also explain why we haven’t won for 25 years and why, since that win (Katrina and the Waves in 1997), we have come last five times, the most recent being last year when James Newman got the dreaded “nul points” for his song Embers. 

Ukraine's 2016 Eurovision winner Jamala Credit: Getty

Psiuk is aware of our dire record, but believes our entry this year – Space Man by Sam Ryder – will do better. “I have met Sam and he [is] one of my favourites,” the rapper says, a touch diplomatically?

Ryder is, however, highly unlikely to beat Psiuk and his pink hat. It promises to be an emotional night and the whole of Kalush Orchestra are excited about the high profile it will give to Ukrainian music. Still, it’s hard not to think of more important things than music when you watch them.

I tell Psiuk that the overriding feeling that most people have when they watch the daily horrors in Ukraine is helplessness. What, I ask, can we do to help?

“Anyone can help. Everyone can,” he replies. “You can go online. You can tag people – the decision-makers – and you can post about your take on this war.

“If you have the possibility of taking part in a rally, [then do]. The world should be vocal about what is happening.”

Eurovision might help to galvanise this movement. And you thought it was just an excuse for a drunken sweepstake.


The Eurovision Song Contest final is on BBC One on Saturday at 8pm