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UKraine 2023: How Eurovision in Britain is promoting Ukraine

Ukraine’s victory at Eurovision last year was the first time a country engaged in full-scale war has won the competition. However, such circumstances have ultimately resulted in runners up Britain organising the event this May. How did this come about and how does the UK plan to promote Ukraine during this year’s Eurovision?

May 5, 2023 - Niall Gray - Articles and Commentary

The Beatles Statue by sculptor Andy Edwards, unveiled on the Pier Head in Liverpool 2015. Photo: Niamfrifruli / wikimedia.org

The United Kingdom’s support for a besieged Ukraine remains a key factor in the Russo-Ukrainian War. Eager to provide aid over the past year, Britain has made a name for itself through continued supplies to the troubled nation. This is exemplified by London’s ongoing arms shipments, with the state’s early response to Russia’s invasion giving way to recent announcements regarding pilot training. Such enthusiasm has clearly persisted throughout the UK’s recent domestic troubles, as former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hawkish legacy looks set to continue under his successor Rishi Sunak. Indeed, the current PM has even pressed allies to increase their commitments regarding lethal aid. It seems no wonder then that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy chose to visit the country’s parliament in February this year. Stressing that “London has stood with Kyiv since day one,” the Ukrainian leader called on the state to maintain this deep spirit of bilateral cooperation. This elicited a quick retort from Moscow, with the UK’s continued support a clear concern for the Kremlin elite.

While these military matters continue to make headlines, it should be remembered that next week will see Britain support Ukraine in a whole new way. The 67th edition of the annual Eurovision Song Contest will take place in the English city of Liverpool from May 9th to 13th. Though far from representing a UK musical triumph in Turin one year ago, the competition’s venue is ultimately a stand-in in extraordinary times. Of course, Britain’s song “Space Man” by Sam Ryder claimed an impressive second place, much to the surprise of a national audience long used to “nul points”. However, this offering was ultimately bested by Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra and their song “Stefania”. The folk rap addressed to the lead singer Oleh Psiuk’s mother became a rousing anthem for the war-torn nation, with Europe responding with the greatest popular vote in Eurovision history. This victory naturally posed an unprecedented dilemma for the European Broadcasting Union: can the competition really be held in a country actively at war? Assurances were soon given by Zelenskyy that not just Ukraine but the then front-line city of Mariupol would be able to host the competition this year. Such feeling was echoed by the chairman of Ukraine’s “Suspilne” national broadcaster, Mykola Chernotytskyi, who expressed his desire for “Eurovision to be held in a peaceful Ukraine”. Despite this, as the euphoria faded and the war ground on, the practical issues of hosting anywhere in the country started to become more and more apparent. The EBU was subsequently faced with a few frantic weeks wondering what to do next.

Liverpool calling

In spite of the best efforts of Ukraine’s fledgling organising committee, the European Broadcasting Union soon began to explore alternative arrangements for the first time in over four decades. A total of seven countries came forward to offer facilities for this year’s edition. This included runners up Britain, whose government still proved eager to see a potential show in Ukraine. Indeed, while June saw talks begin behind the scenes between the EBU and the British Broadcasting Corporation, Boris Johnson would continue to support his close friend Zelenskyy’s desire for a proper Ukrainian edition of Eurovision. Speaking on June 18th following a surprise visit to Kyiv, the prime minister declared that “The Ukrainians won the Eurovision Song Contest. I know we had a fantastic entry, I know we came second, and I’d love it to be in this country. But the fact is that they won, and they deserve to have it.” Nevertheless, such enthusiasm could not temper fears regarding the potential risks posed by the ongoing conflict. Resigned to the realities of Russia’s invasion, London soon moved to publicly back BBC efforts to host the competition. Johnson would even promise in July that the UK would “put on a fantastic contest on behalf of our Ukrainian friends”. So, just how does Britain plan to honour such promises this year?

At a fundamental level, it is important to note that the UK has a long tradition of successfully hosting for other nations as part of Eurovision. A member of the “Big Five” group of influential EBU funders, the country has often been viewed as a reliable backup for unwilling and/or cash-strapped winners. For example, while London stepped in to help a French government faced with financial issues in 1963, the country came to the aid of a Monegasque administration that also had to contend with the material constraints of its tiny territory in 1972. Such realities speak to the continued wealth of facilities available for high-profile events like Eurovision, with this year proving no different. For example, both the semi-finals and final will be held at the M&S Bank Arena not far from the city centre. This venue at the city’s docklands was built in 2008 and has a capacity of around 11,000 in line with general Eurovision standards. A traditional Eurovision Village close by will allow fans to see various acts perform before they go live to the continent. In spite of being effectively parachuted in to host, it certainly appears that the city that gave us The Beatles will rise to the challenge.

Both these venues and the city itself will also play host to a number of more informal events, bringing together British and Ukrainian cultures. Such unity at the local level complements the everyday repercussions of Russia’s invasion, with the UK now home to around 150,000 Ukrainian refugees. The start of the month saw the beginning of two weeks of artistic events under the “EuroFestival” banner. This project involves a total of 24 commissions, 19 of which are direct collaborations between British and Ukrainian artists. The events come in all shapes and sizes and have thoroughly transformed the city for Eurovision. For example, a flock of 12 “Soloveiko Songbird” statues have already descended on Liverpool to mark the start of the festival, with each installation sharing songs and stories from Ukraine’s different regions. Honouring the besieged nation’s desire to protect cultural sites, 2,500 sandbags have also been placed in the city centre around the famous Nelson Monument. Such events have set the scene for nine days of Ukrainian acts at the city’s Unity Theatre, with a variety of shows and exhibitions allowing visitors to connect with the full spectrum of emotions caused by Moscow’s invasion. Perhaps the most innovative offering involves a simultaneous rave on May 7th, in which people in Liverpool and Kyiv will dance to the same music sets before Ukraine’s ongoing curfew.

From UKraine to the world

Whilst such events allow people to connect at the local level, the semi-finals and final look set to share Ukrainian culture with a huge audience across Europe and the world. Attracting a viewership of around 161 million last year through various means, Eurovision offers an unprecedented platform for the promotion of national cultures through music. This is especially pertinent in light of the Russian invasion’s clear cultural aspects, with Putin’s historical revisionism challenging the very idea of Ukrainian identity and statehood. The UK’s choice of the slogan “United by Music” subsequently appears to be a direct challenge to such divisive rhetoric. This is clearly reflected in the bilateral nature of the presenters, as popular local stars such as Alesha Dixon, Hannah Waddingham and Graham Norton will be joined by the likes of singer and songwriter Julia Sanina. Prior Eurovision experience will also be brought by the television presenter Timur Miroshnychenko, who will regularly appear throughout the show whilst also contributing from the Suspilne commentary box. Eurovision hosts are often remembered more for their bad jokes than sophisticated cultural diplomacy. However, the presence of popular Ukrainian figures such as Sanina and Miroshnychenko speaks to the lengths to which the UK hopes to share the limelight. Such a line up not only provides a stage for Ukrainian national talent but also encourages the nation to view this year’s competition as truly their own. 

These presenters will preside over a show whose very foundations will reflect the competition’s unique bilateral nature. Indeed, the stage itself, created by the designer Julio Himede, is set to include “cultural aspects and similarities between Ukraine, the UK and specifically Liverpool. From music, dance and art to architecture and poetry.” This will involve more than just the colours of both nations’ respective flags, with the stage’s curved profile evoking a warm embrace between people and even countries. At the same time, the competition’s famous “postcards” are set to be a truly collaborative effort. Originally devised to fill out airtime when Eurovision was largely confined to Western Europe, these intervals have evolved to include conscious efforts to promote the host nation’s wider connections with the continent. As a result, an unprecedented 111 similar scenes from Britain, Ukraine and the performing countries will be merged seamlessly this year. Expect more than famous landmarks such as Britain’s Stonehenge and Ukraine’s Maidan, however, with natural environments also set to encourage togetherness at an everyday level. As the BBC’s lead commissioner for Eurovision Rachel Ashdown has stated, “viewers will be surprised to see what else unites us too.”

Of course, all of this would not be complete without music. While all 37 national entries will receive an unprecedented chance to promote their work across Europe, the competition also represents a wider opportunity for local musicians. It goes without saying that for this edition the local is truly international, with British and Ukrainian stars set to perform during various intervals of the semi-finals and final. For example, British talent in the form of Rita Ora will be joined by Julia Sanina, who will take a break from hosting preparations to open the first semi-final with her band The Hardkiss. Interestingly, the group’s chosen song “Mayak” almost represented Ukraine in 2016 after coming second in the national finals. This mix of talent is further exemplified by Liverpudlian star Rebecca Ferguson’s planned duet with Ukrainian artist Alyosha, which will surely prove a tough act to follow for the final. Certainly, it appears that the closing event will rise to this challenge in the only true way possible. The final is set to be opened by Kalush Orchestra’s winning entry from last year, complementing a whole host of former Eurovision entries from the country. Even casual Eurovision fans will have no problem picking out familiar faces from this line up, with the likes of Verka Serduchka and Tina Karol mixing their own songs with classic British tracks. The ever-popular Sam Ryder will also make a return alongside former participants from across Europe. As a result, it seems that this year’s Eurovision will be a truly shared performance, reflecting the best in the competition’s values.

In conclusion, it seems that there is good reason for even more excitement than usual regarding this year’s Eurovision. While tickets have sold out almost immediately, the competition promises a performance unprecedented in its nature. Liverpool has stepped in eagerly to host in uncertain times, with the city embracing its role as the temporary heart of European culture at every level. However, such preparation has been done with a distinctly Ukrainian flavour, ensuring a national agency that goes beyond discussions of continued fighting in the country. This solidarity exemplifies the importance of the ongoing cultural front, with Moscow’s invasion posing a threat to the Ukrainian nation’s very existence. Due to this, it is important to remember that Ukraine’s involvement in this year’s competition reflects a situation that is both extraordinary but also thoroughly normal. Even though the UK has clearly gone to great lengths to promote the country, Kyiv’s entry in the form of pop duo Tvorchi and their song “Heart of Steel” will still line up with every other contestant as equals. This performance represents a high-profile example of the nation’s longing to return to a normality closely intertwined with peace. While Ukraine’s newest representatives admit that the invasion “is always at the back of their minds”, it is clear that Liverpool will carry on the hope that Eurovision will once again be held in a peaceful Ukraine.

Niall Gray is the copy editor and proofreader of New Eastern Europe. He is also an AHRC-funded History PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde.

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