Cultural diplomacy, LGBTQ+ rights, and Ukraine in the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest


TVORCHI performing “Heart of Steel” at the National Eurovision Final in December 2022. The song references what the Ukrainians have been experiencing amid Russia's full-scale invasion — screenshot from YouTube.

The band TVORCHI only shared one post to their Facebook page on Saturday night before they began performing in the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest finals. The Ukrainian contestants shared an image with the word “Ternopil,” the name of the city where the band got its start, written in white text on a black background. On the evening of the Eurovision Grand Final performance, the city in western Ukraine was being brutally shelled by Russian forces. One user commented under the photo, “No matter what place you earn, in our hearts, you are always number one.”

As a winner of Eurovision 2022, normally, Ukraine would host the 2023 competition; however, because of Russia's full-scale war on Ukraine, the contest was moved to Liverpool, UK, the runner-up of the 2022 competition. In Ukraine, the Eurovision selection took place in a subway station in central Kyiv, which was closed to passengers since the first days of the Russian invasion in February 2022 and converted into a bomb shelter until late 2022. During that period, it was used as a venue for shows, competitions, and press conferences. 

In Liverpool, the organizers tried to pay homage to the rightful hosts by incorporating Ukrainian symbolism, a Ukrainian co-host, costumes by Ukrainian designers, a cohort of Ukrainian performers from the previous Eurovision competitions at the opening ceremony, tribute performances in support of Ukraine, and even Kate Middleton, the Princess of Wales, playing an excerpt from the Ukrainian Kalush Orchestra song, the Eurovision 2022 winner.

It also had more Ukrainian guests than any other Eurovision event because Ukrainians who fled the war are now scattered all over the world, including the UK. So, for Ukrainians, this year's European song contest was in many respects revealing, even eye-opening. 

Kateryna Horodnicha, a Ukrainian journalist living now in the UK, visited the Eurovision Contest in person for the first time. In a post on her Facebook page, she shared:

I've never seen this much glitter and sequins in each square meter as I have in line at the entrance to the Arena where the final [Eurovision] was held. … And although I am against any generalizations, after diving in [to Eurovision] I have two conclusions. One is well-known, the other is a real discovery.

1. This is a real LGBTQ+ celebration. This is why it's funny to see/hear/read homophobes who are sincerely surprised by the involvement of the sexual minorities in commenting, expertise, etc. Come on, this is the main driving force of the process.

2. I didn't immediately understand.  In Ukraine, racial issues are not prioritized because there is little non-European representation there. But Eurovision is really a song contest for white people. I have not met ONE Afro-fan. Although Liverpool is not a mono-white society at all. 

War, sex, human rights

Ukraine has been accused of discriminating against both LGBTQ+ people and Black people. But amid the full-scale war, more and more people have been calling to officially recognize same-sex couples. LGBTQ+ people are also fighting for the Ukrainian state amid Russia's invasion, and legal recognition could give them added protections, say, if one person is wounded or killed.

However, the movement for marriage equality has powerful opponents, including many Christian churches in Ukraine where about 85 percent of Ukrainians self-identify as Christian, according to a 2022 study by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. It is also considered dangerous to be perceived as queer on the streets, and pride marches in Ukrainian cities have always been heavily guarded by the police because the participants have frequently been attacked. At the same time, unlike in Russia, there is no anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in Ukraine, and prominent LGBTQ+ activists are visible in Ukrainian media and civil society

There is also a small community of Black people in Ukraine, either children of mixed couples or international students, as the country offers more affordable university education than many EU countries. However, at the beginning of the war, there were widespread claims about foreign students being discriminated against by Ukrainian officials while trying to flee the country. 

Jimoh Augustus Kehinde, 25, better known as Jeffrey, one of TVORCHI's band members, is one such student. But he decided to stay in Ukraine. He came to Ternopil, Ukraine, from Nigeria in 2013 to study pharmaceutics. In 2018, Andrew (Andriy Hutsuliak), 27, another TVORCHI member, approached him on the street to practice his English. It appeared, after all, that they were studying at the same university. They became friends, created a band in 2017, and participated in the national Eurovision selections twice, in 2020 and 2022, even though they didn't think they could win

But as much as it is about music and politics, Eurovision is also about diplomacy, and Jeffrey's presence in the Ukrainian band has potential diplomatic benefits for Ukraine. It seems that the TVORCHI members are aware of this. In March 2023, they took a trip to Nairobi, Kenya, organized by USAID “to influence the level of anti-Ukrainian propaganda there,” as they explained. “We united and became an army of the cultural front,” they added. “We managed to garner millions of dollars, conduct awareness-raising, meet leaders of partner states, tell the truth, ask for help, and say words of gratitude.” At the Eurovision 2023 opening, they wore jackets with the names and weights of children born prematurely after the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion because of the stress their mothers experienced to raise funds for Ukrainian hospitals 

The winners

At Eurovision 2023, TVORCHI took sixth place, and despite their sympathetic story, viewers had other favorites, even in Ukraine. TVORCHI also haven't yet managed to beat the success of the Kalush Orchestra in other respects, like in creating iconic symbols such as Kalush's pink Panama hat, which was still worn in Eurovision 2023, a year after their winning performance. In Ivano-Frankivsk, the center of the region where the town of Kalush is situated, the train Ivano-Frankivsk–Kyiv was renamed to the Stefania Express for a year in honor of the Kalush Orchestra's winning Eurovision song “Stefania.” The song has also been playing at railway stations in Ivano-Frankivsk, Kalush, and Kyiv when the train arrived. 

Kalush Orchestra's Eurovision victory was the third for Ukraine in 20 years. In 2017, Jamala, a Crimean Tatar, became the second most recent winner, with the song “1944” about the deportation of Crimean Tatars by the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin near the end of World War II: 

The very first victory, in 2004, belonged to Ruslana for her rendition of “Wild Dances” (“Дикі танці”) referencing the folk culture in Ukrainian Carpathian mountains: 

Most other Ukrainian Eurovision performances have been largely forgotten as they were rarely among the top tracks, even in their own country. For TVORCHI, however, given their positive reception and community work, their best days may still lie ahead. 

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