I Am A Ukrainian In The UK – Being At Eurovision Was A Irreconcilable Mix Of Joy And Pain

·6-min read
Maria Romanenko at Eurovision 2023
Maria Romanenko at Eurovision 2023

Maria Romanenko at Eurovision 2023

Eurovision. A week-long extravaganza of music and culture held on behalf of Ukraine. As soon as I found out it would be in Liverpool – an hour away from where I live – I knew I needed to get involved as much as possible. 

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I’m a journalist from Kyiv, Ukraine, where we love Eurovision. In 2005, the Song Contest was held in my city for the first time, and I watched it with my dad from inside our Palace of Sports. Twelve years later, I was already working as a journalist when it was held in Kyiv again, this time at the International Exhibition Centre. I was sent to cover it for the Kyiv Post, and watching the live semi-final and experiencing everything up close was unforgettable – feeling, seeing, and hearing my city Kyiv buzz with tourists and journalists speaking foreign languages was incredible. 

Now, in 2023, the city is constantly under air raid sirens and attempted drone attacks, following Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

I made the long and arduous journey from Kyiv to Manchester in the first days of Russia’s full-scale invasion with my partner, who was born and bred in Greater Manchester. I consider myself lucky: I speak English at a native level due to having studied here before, I have the psychological support of my partner and the knowledge of the country. My partner and I experienced a lot of luck and kindness on our way out of Ukraine, so in the run-up to Eurovision 2023, it felt only right to give back.

Knowing that Liverpool would soon fill up with thousands of Ukrainians coming to watch the shows and engage in Eurovision activities around the city, I approached KR Spanish and English Tours Liverpool to deliver a walking tour concept similar to ones I have been running for Ukrainians in Manchester since May 2022. Thankfully, they agreed.

I began preparing for the Contest as early as March, organising the walking tours, and studying the Eurovillage, Eurofestival, and Eurolearn programmes, and in that time, I saw Liverpool turn into the best possible place for such an event.

Walking around the city was incredible. It is twinned with Odesa, so there already was a Ukrainian connection, and Liverpudlians and Ukrainians also know how to show strength in times of adversity.

Maria says Ukrainians came to watch the shows and engage in Eurovision activities around the city
Maria says Ukrainians came to watch the shows and engage in Eurovision activities around the city

Maria says Ukrainians came to watch the shows and engage in Eurovision activities around the city

Liverpool had to rebuild itself after World War  destruction, and the population spent three decades fighting for justice over the Hillsborough disaster. Ukraine is currently in the process of rebuilding itself, and Ukrainians are fighting for freedom and justice every day. I made sure to highlight those connections to the 250 Ukrainians I showed around Liverpool – including the team of the 2016 Eurovision winner from Ukraine, Jamala.

In the Eurovillage, the official fan zone, was the Discover Ukraine section, where I had a cheburek – a deep-friend, lamb-filled pastry from Crimea. Bars and restaurants around Liverpool also introduced syrnyky and an alcoholic Ukrainian Kompot Spritz drink.

Many photography, art, and theatre exhibitions were hosted around the city, and I did my very best to catch some of them – including the archeological opera Chornobyldorf, Yurii Radionov and Shorena Shoniia’s play Maria, Alevtina Kakhidze’s strange mix of Ukrainian and Liverpudlian culture in the Dialogues art exhibition, and Katya Buchatska’s Izyum to Liverpool evacuation video piece.

I also visited Strawberry Field – the site immortalised in a Beatles song, including its 22-feet-tall Peace Monument dedicated to Ukraine.

A Ukraine flag signed by Mariupol children
A Ukraine flag signed by Mariupol children

A Ukraine flag signed by Mariupol children

During this time, I experienced a chain of acts of kindness, thanking me for volunteering and making other Ukrainians feel welcome in Liverpool. The first came through a Liverpudlian man, who, since October 2022, has been organising a transfer of a dozen Ukrainian and Polish volunteers to Liverpool for the Eurovision period.

He managed to get the group tickets to two rehearsals: the first semi-final and the grand final. He had one place vacant in the group and offered it to me – an offer I, a Eurovision fan, couldn’t refuse. But a couple of days later, I managed to grab a Ukrainian concession ticket for the second semi-final, and I ended up with a full house in terms of all the shows.

Maria overlooking the Eurovillage
Maria overlooking the Eurovillage

Maria overlooking the Eurovillage

Watching Eurovision from the arena and fan zone with fellow Ukrainians, and seeing them experience an event of this scale held in the UK on behalf of Ukraine, was great. We watched the grand final from the Eurovillage and I already knew most of the songs well by that time, so sang and danced along happily.

Then the news came.

Ternopil was bombed twice. My hometown Kyiv was being targeted too. It is always more shocking to hear about places being bombed where it rarely or never happens. Ternopil was only targeted once by Russia in early 2022. This was even more shocking because Ukraine’s Eurovision act Tvorchi are from Ternopil and the attack happened only 10 minutes before they were due on stage.

They still nailed their performance – an act of Ukrainian defiance we are now used to seeing – but the mood in our crowd was no longer the same. One of the Ukrainians in our group, who comes from Ternopil, was visibly shaken as she couldn’t get hold of her mother. As British and European Eurovision superfans continued to cheer and dance, we gathered around her to comfort her and help her reach her mother. Luckily, she was safe.

“Do those Brits and Europeans know about Ternopil?” I wondered as I watched them continue to party away in a city that was hosting the event on behalf of Ukraine. It seemed not. Or maybe the news didn’t hit them the same way it hit our group.

I am always the first to talk about the importance of keeping cultural events going in Ukraine but, at that point, I no longer wanted to practice what I preached. Getting excited over Eurovision when a friend in my group didn’t know if her mum was alive felt wildly inappropriate...

I watched the announcement that Sweden had won Eurovision 2023 from the press centre, where I rushed after the last performance to carry on with my journalistic commitments. Well, at least, Eurovision would remain in yellow-and-blue, I thought.

Ukraine might not be hosting next year – although winner Loreen believes that it should be given the right to after not being able to do in 2022 – but I hope by the time the Song Contest rolls around again, my country is safe.