TURIN, Italy (AP) — Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra, fresh off its Eurovision victory, released a new music video Sunday of its winning hit “Stefania” that features scenes of war-ravaged Ukraine and women in combat gear, as the annual song contest took on ever more political tones given Russia's war.
“This is how we see Ukrainian mothers today,” Kalush frontman Oleh Psiuk said of the video, which had already racked up millions of views within hours of its release. “We were trying to deliver the message of what Ukraine looks like today.”
The video was released hours after Kalush Orchestra brought Ukraine its third Eurovision win, pulling ahead of Britain in the grand finale thanks to a surge of popular votes from some of the estimated 200 million viewers from 40 participating countries. The win buoyed Ukrainian spirits and represented a strong affirmation of Ukrainian culture, which Psiuk said was “under attack” by Russia's invasion.
Band members posed for photos and signed autographs outside their three-star Turin hotel Sunday, packing their own luggage into taxis en route to an interview with Italian host broadcaster RAI before heading home. They must return to Ukraine on Monday after being given special permission to leave the country to attend the competition; most Ukrainian men between age 18 and 60 are barred from leaving in case they are needed to fight.
That stark reality made for a bittersweet moment Sunday in Turin, as Kalush vocalist Sasha Tab had to say goodbye to his wife Yuliia and two children, who fled Ukraine a month ago and are living with a host Italian family in nearby Alba. She and the children were at the band’s hotel and she wept as Tab held his daughter in his arms before getting into the cab.
Russia was banned from the Eurovision Song Contest this year after its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, a move organizers said was meant to keep politics out of the contest that promotes diversity and friendship among nations.
But politics nevertheless entered into the fray, with Psiuk ending his winning performance Sunday night with a plea from the stage: “I ask all of you, please help Ukraine, Mariupol. Help Azovstal right now!” he said, referring to the besieged steel plant in the strategic port city.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hailed the victory, saying he hoped Ukraine would be able to host the contest next year and predicting the “victorious chord in the battle with the enemy is not far off.”
“Stefania” was penned by lead singer Psiuk as a tribute to his mother, but since Russia’s invasion it has become an anthem to the motherland, with lyrics that pledge: “I’ll always find my way home, even if all roads are destroyed.”
The new music video features women soldiers carrying children out of bombed-out buildings, greeting children in shelters and leaving them behind as they board trains. The video credits said it was shot in towns that have seen some of the worst destruction of the war, including Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka and Hostomel.
The video was clearly made before the band left Ukraine as it features band members and — presumably — actors performing in the rubble.
“Dedicated to the brave Ukrainian people, to the mothers protecting their children, to all those who gave their lives for our freedom,” it said.
Ukrainians cheered the victory Sunday as a much-needed boost, and the national rail operator announced that the train that passes through Kalush, the birthplace of Psiuk, will be renamed the “Stefania Express.”
“Every little victory is important for every Ukrainian, for our Ukraine, for each one of us," Kyiv resident Svitlana Nekruten said.
Albert Sokolov, an evacuee from Mariupol, said he had no doubt Ukraine would emerge victorious.
“I listened to this song in Mariupol when we were being bombed so I was sure that they would win,” he said Sunday in Kyiv.
Russians said the vote was ultimately political, but also showed that Kalush Orchestra and Ukraine had support.
“Eurovision is always about politicized choices; some situations call for a certain choice," Moscow resident Olga Shlyakhova said. "Of course, I think most people support Ukrainians. They can’t think differently, because they understand it’s a tragedy. That’s why they chose (the winners) with their hearts.”
Anastasiya Perfiryeva, another Moscow resident, noted the popular vote that was so decisive in the victory.
“It was ordinary people who voted. They supported (the winners). Well done. I think that in any case the team was strong, and the support from outside is always pleasant.”
Kalush Orchestra includes folklore experts and mixes traditional folk melodies and contemporary hip hop in a strong defense of Ukrainian culture that has taken on added meaning as Russia has sought falsely to assert that Ukraine’s culture is not unique.
Psiuk, in his trademark pink bucket hat, said the band isn't trying to be “cool” with its unusual blend of old and new, but that clearly it hit a chord and found broad popular support that pushed Ukraine to victory.
“We are not trying to be like an American hip-hop band,” he said. “We are trying to present our culture, slightly mixed.”
Nicole Winfield reported from Rome. Luca Bruno contributed to this report from Turin.