As Liverpool hosted the Eurovision Song Contest 2023 in May, reminders of last year's winner, Ukraine, were never far from the spotlight.
Ukrainian folk-rap group Kalush Orchestra claimed the 2022 trophy with their song "Stefania," inspired by the lead singer's mother. Under normal circumstances, Ukraine's victory would have meant the country hosting the 67th Eurovision Song Contest this year.
But Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, allowed Britain, which placed second in last year's competition with Sam Ryder's "Space Man," to host it in the Beatles' hometown of Liverpool instead.
The resulting contest, in which Sweden's Loreen triumphed with her song "Tattoo" on May 13, showcased an unprecedented joint-hosting partnership between Britain and Ukraine, embodying this year's slogan, "United By Music."
Created in 1956, Eurovision is the world's longest-running annual TV music competition and has featured over 1,500 original songs from 52 countries. The winner is determined by voting via telephone combined with a professional jury that awards points to performers.
After almost 70 years, the show has broadened beyond its Western European origins to include countries like Australia, Azerbaijan and Israel. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and subsequently Yugoslavia in the 1990s, newly independent nations in Eastern Europe have also joined.
Among them, Ukraine has won three times since it first entered in 2003, with Ruslana's 2004 "Wild Dances," Jamala's "1944" in 2016, and Kalush Orchestra's "Stefania." All made guest appearances at this year's final.
William Lee Adams founded Wiwibloggs, the world's most-followed independent Eurovision news site and YouTube channel. His new memoir nods to Ukraine's first win with the title "Wild Dances: My Queer and Curious Journey to Eurovision."
Speaking to Kyodo News, Adams said Ukraine has always viewed Eurovision as a means to integrate and engage with the West and to "look away from Russia towards a freer future."
Although the contest is ostensibly apolitical, Adams says Ukraine's Eurovision record shows the linkages between its cultural and political elites. Their first winner, Ruslana, became a politician and figurehead of the Maidan Uprising (2013-2014), receiving a Woman of Courage award from former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama.
"I think in recent years, Ukraine has moved into a defensive position at Eurovision -- as we all know now, Moscow sees Ukraine as part of its empire. But through Eurovision, Ukraine has said 'no': it may be part of our history, but it's not our future," Adams said.
While Ukraine uses Eurovision to express its strong national identity, Adams says Russia has tried to soften its image abroad through the contest, with Russian contestants having performed multiple songs about love and peace since the country first entered the competition in 1994.
Though Russia is now barred from participating, Eurovision 2023's Ukrainian artistic director German Nenov says the expression of Ukraine's unique and diverse heritage can help to spread awareness of the country's plight.
Nenov, a music video creator and longtime Eurovision fan from the southern port city of Odesa, says his team's mission in Liverpool was to show "the versatility and originality of modern Ukraine" in the face of war, even to those indifferent to politics.
Through his two semi-final intervals and grand final opening acts, Nenov explored the themes of war and unity, Ukraine's rich musical history and the country's present and future -- the latter represented by Kalush Orchestra performing "Stefania" for the final.
One interval act titled "Music Unites Generations" featured the popular Christmas song "Carol of the Bells" ("Shchedryk") and featured wheat, which Nenov says represented more than simply Ukrainian agriculture.
"The ears of wheat do not symbolize bread literally, but the young sprouts of Ukrainian musical talents growing for many years -- sprouts of Ukrainian culture (Russia) tried to destroy for so long!" Nenov said.
Away from the Eurovision stage, Ukraine is present in Liverpool's streets through art installations and visible expressions of solidarity, such as the city's statues being covered in protective sandbags like those in Kyiv.
This gesture impressed Inna Onopriyenko, a Ukrainian refugee who won one of the 3,000 Eurovision tickets assigned to displaced Ukrainians.
Onopriyenko, 40, was born in Crimea but built a successful life in Kyiv after moving there in 2006 to work as a construction project manager.
After a traumatic few weeks in the Ukrainian capital following Russia's invasion, she escaped to the Romanian border and stayed in Germany before moving to Leeds last October.
Now, Onopriyenko volunteers as a translator for her fellow Ukrainians at the Leeds Refugee Forum and makes camouflage nets for the country's troops.
Despite not being a Eurovision fan before, Onopriyenko felt she could not miss the contest in Liverpool -- especially since she has listened to more Ukrainian music (and past Eurovision entries) since being away from home.
"I like Jamala's song '1944.' She is a Crimean Tatar, and her song was about Tatars being forced to leave Crimea (during WWII), which is the same as now...we are forced to leave our houses," she said. "And this year's act, Tvorchi, sing about not being scared. Which is what we tell ourselves."
Formed in 2018, the electronic duo Tvorchi met at a university in Ternopil, where Andrii Hutsuliak, 27, approached Nigerian student Jeffery Kenny, 25, to practice English.
Their song, "Heart of Steel," was selected for Eurovision by the Ukrainian public -- but just before their grand final performance, Ternopil came under Russian fire.
Despite this, "Heart of Steel," inspired by soldiers defending Mariupol while it was under siege, placed sixth overall in the contest, sending a defiant message through a song about "strength, confidence and bravery."
While Tvorchi hopes their song will empower those back home, they aim to make a difference by partnering with charity United24 for the "Saving Children's Hearts" campaign, which funds incubators for premature babies born due to the stress placed on expecting Ukrainian mothers.
"We want our example to inspire people around the planet to be like Ukrainians, to be united, to be strong, and move forward," Hutsuliak said.
"We hope our song can inspire you to be more courageous and be a better version of yourself," Kenny said. "So, just have a heart of steel and put a smile on your face."