How Ukraine Went From New Kids On The Eurovision Block To One Of Its Strongest Competitors
A selection of Ukraine's biggest ever success stories at the Eurovision Song Contest
In all the excitement around the UK hosting this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, it’s important to remember that the night is actually all about Ukraine.
While Sam Ryder may have nabbed the silver medal for Britain at the 2022 contest, it was Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra who were the real runaway success story of the night – marking the country’s third Eurovision victory in the space of just two decades.
Because of the ongoing Russian invasion, Eurovision organisers made the decision that the country could not host in 2023, but the night will still serve as a celebration of Ukrainian music and culture.
In fact, while Ukraine’s own Eurovision journey is not a particularly long one, they’ve still proved in a relatively short space of time that they’re a force to be reckoned with at the song contest.
Here’s how the story of how they did it...
2003: Oleksandr Ponomariov – Hasta La Vista
The same year that Ukraine is co-hosting Eurovision in Liverpool is also the 20th anniversary of their first time competing, when Oleksandr Ponomariov performed Hasta La Vista.
It was a strong start for the country, with Oleksandr serving up a memorable music box gimmick and eventually finishing in 14th place in Ukraine’s first ever Eurovision.
Admittedly, 14th place isn’t exactly a straight-to-the-top situation, but it was still a top 20 finish, which some countries can go years at a time without managing...
2004: Ruslana – Wild Dances
It was with their second attempt at Eurovision glory that Ukraine really knocked it out of the park. With their sophomore outing, they shot to the top of the leaderboard thanks to Ruslana and her irresistible Wild Dances.
The track has gone on to become one of the most popular Eurovision winners of the 21st century, and set the standard for Ukraine at the competition. With Wild Dances’ mix of traditional and elements, paired with powerful vocals from Ruslana herself, the track is also a good example of what Ukraine would go on to become synonymous with on the Eurovision stage.
2005: GreenJolly – Razom Nas Bahato
At Kyiv’s first ever time hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, Ukraine was represented by the hip-hop duo GreenJolly.
Their song Razom Nas Bahato had already become an unofficial protest anthem in Ukraine when it was released in 2005, with many explicit political references having to be removed from the song, per Eurovision rules, when it became the surprise choice to represent the country at the competition.
Finishing in 20th place, Razom Nas Bahato might not have been Ukraine’s biggest success story when it came to the scoreboard, but it’s still proof of the versatility the country has shown over the years at Eurovision – not to mention the fact Ukraine was embracing aspects of hip-hop music in the competition long before Kalush Orchestra rapped their way to the top.
2006: Tina Karol – Show Me Your Love
In all honesty, we don’t have much to say about this one other than... what a bop.
Seriously, though, Tina Karol’s mix of high-energy pop and more traditional musical elements make it another shining example of what Ukraine has long been doing so well at Eurovision – and just when you think it’s over, she starts the party straight back up again.
This one finished at a respectable seventh place on the leaderboard back in 2006, the year that Finnish rockers Lordi were crowned winners.
2007: Verka Serduchka – Dancing Lasha Tumbai
Come on, though. You can’t have a conversation about Ukraine at Eurovision without mentioning the legendary Verka Serduchka.
The glitter-clad drag icon may not have made it to the top of the leaderboard (that honour would go to Serbia’s Marija Šerifović in 2007), but she certainly won fans’ hearts, and has become one of the most iconic Eurovision figures of all time, being welcomed back to the contest on numerous occasions.
As a song, Dancing Lasha Tumbai is obviously a whole lot of fun – but it also came under some controversy at the time when it was suggested the track’s title was chosen because of its resemblance to the phrase “Russia Goodbye”.
Indeed, Verka has been performing it as such in more recent history (leading the crowds in a sing-a-long of “I want to see, Russia Goodbye”), as has fellow Ukrainian Eurovision star Mélovin, while covering the track in his live shows.
2008: Ani Lorak – Shady Lady
This, folks, is what we call a Eurovision banger.
A year after Verka Serduchka finished as runner up, Ani Lorak served up elaborate visuals, an instantly-memorable chorus and a hefty dose of glamour and camp with the absolute anthem that is Shady Lady.
Ani went on to bringing Ukraine its second Eurovision silver medal in a row when she finished in second place.
2009: Svetlana Loboda – Be My Valentine! (Anti-Crisis Girl)
Another – frankly – absolute racket on the Eurovision stage from Ukraine – and we mean that in the best way possible.
Loboda delivered enormous set-pieces, buff Roman soldiers in metallic outfits and yet another epic chorus when she competed in 2009, and landed in 12th place on the overall leaderboard.
While at the contest, she also caused a stir when she appeared at the opening ceremony in bandages and fake bruises, in what it later transpired was part of an awareness campaign against domestic violence.
2011: Mika Newton – Angel
Mika Newton changed things up a bit for Ukraine when she competed in 2011, swapping out the usual booming production and huge sets for this more subdued ballad.
Angel is perhaps best remembered for the sand art being done in the background of Mika’s performance, which clearly won over Eurovision voters as she ended up finishing in fourth place overall, giving Ukraine yet another top-five placement.
2012: Gaitana – Be My Guest
Undeterred by the outright racism she was subjected to by certain far-right voices in her home country when she was selected as the country’s 10th Eurovision representative, Gaitana competed with her anthem for inclusivity, Be My Guest, in 2012.
In the end, both Ukraine and Cyrpus received 65 points that year, with the former beating the latter to 15th place on the leaderboard as they acquired points from the most number of countries.
2013: Zlata Ognevich – Gravity
If the name Zlata Ognevich doesn’t ring a bell, then the sight of her being carried onto the Eurovision stage by a Viking very well might.
Despite the visual gimmick, Zlata’s tune Gravity was actually an impassioned power ballad, in a noticeable change to the uptempo bops and over-the-top productions Ukraine had produced in the years prior.
It went down well with Eurovision voters too, finishing in third place overall.
2014: Mariya Yaremchuk – Tick-Tock
Clearly sensing they were onto something with Zlata’s entrance a year earlier, Ukraine once again went with another striking visual in 2014, gifting Eurovision fans with Mariya Yaremchuk’s infamous “hamster wheel”, which became instantly iconic.
Tick Tock may not have been as well-received as its Ukrainian predecessor, but it still finished in a respectable sixth place on the night.
2016: Jamala – 1944
And now we get into some real Eurovision history.
Ukraine didn’t compete in the contest in 2015, due to financial issues the country was facing due to its conflict with Russia. However, it returned a year later with an absolutely stunning entrant from Jamala, who provided one of the strongest winning entries of the 21st century with a powerful song about a different conflict altogether.
The title of Jamala’s song, 1944, references the year of the forced deportation of Crimean Tatar people during the reign of Joseph Stalin. The song’s chorus also features lyrics in Crimean, marking the first time the language was ever heard on the Eurovision stage.
Jamala’s song gained a new life in 2022, when she performed 1944 at various events, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
2020 and 2021: Go_A – Solovey and Shum
In 2020, “folktronica” group Go_A won the Ukrainian national selection to represent the country at that year’s Eurovision. Unfortunately, we all know what happened next... there was a bit of a hitch in the way of a global pandemic that meant the band never got to perform their tune Solovey on the Rotterdam stage.
The following year, it was decided that Go_A would stay on as Ukraine’s Eurovision entrants, with the band taking elements of Solovey (which was, incidentally, the first song in the contest’s history to be performed entirely in Ukrainian, even if it never actually got performed at Eurovision) and building on them to create a new song, Shum.
What can we even say about Shum? Blending a traditional style of Ukrainian singing and folk music with more futuristic sounds, the track starts off slow before developing into a fast-paced electronic rave so gradually you barely even notice it happening.
It’s an absolute triumph of a Eurovision song that went on to develop a new life outside of the contest, cracking the Billboard Global 200 (the first ever song in Ukrainian to ever do so), peaking at number 59 in the UK charts (not bad at all when you consider our own entry places just 12 places higher that year) and even later landing Go_A a slot on the Glastonbury stage.
For anyone who still wrongly thinks Eurovision is all about tired Europop and washed-up pub singers, Shum is evidence that it’s very much a medium for pushing musical boundaries and showing what different countries have to offer culturally.
2022: Kalush Orchestra – Stefania
Against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kalush Orchestra went into Eurovision as firm favourites to win the competition. Viewers at home voted overwhelmingly to show their solidarity with Ukraine, and Kalush Orchestra beat their closest competitor Sam Ryder by a whopping 165 points, giving their home country its third win.
We should point out, though, that on any other year of the contest, Stefania would still have been a more than deserving Eurovision winner.
Not only did Kalush Orchestra deliver on the strong visuals that Eurovision fans love (the pink bucket hat alone is iconic enough, let’s be honest), the song itself is the perfect combination of traditional Ukrainian instrumentation with a more modern, hip-hop-infused sound.
2023: Tvorchi – Heart Of Steel
And so we arrive at the present day, with Ukraine once again putting their best foot forward when it comes to the Eurovision Song Contest.
Off the back of Kalush Orchestra’s 2022 victory, they were among the first countries to choose their act for this year, with a national selection show aired live from an underground bunker amid the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
Tvuchi were chosen as the Ukrainian public’s favourite with their song Heart Of Steel, an anthem about endurance and strength in the face of adversity.
“Time to unite against evil, for the sake of peace,” producer Andrii Hutsuliak has said.
Find out how Tvuchi and all of this year’s Eurovision acts get on in this year’s final airing on Saturday 13 May at 8pm on BBC One.