But a country is nothing without its people, and if you were to take all the people out of Europe, you wouldn’t have any European countries left to compete in Eurovision.
By extension of that theory, if what makes up Europe is the people, then if you move many of those people elsewhere, does that elsewhere not kind of become Europe?
I was one of these people, who got taken out of Europe. My parents brought us here from the Ukraine and a just-collapsed Soviet Union, in search of a brighter future for all of us. I was 12 years old when we arrived in Australia, and never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that when I grew up, I would return to Ukraine to make a documentary series about it.
When you’re a kid, life is all about doing whatever you can to fit in. For an immigrant kid, doubly so. There’s a lot to worry about – you have to learn a new language, a new culture, take on a whole new set of values. You become committed to getting rid of your ‘otherness’ and assimilate as best you can. The majority of your mental resources go into feeling at home in your new place, and soon, the place where you came from begins to feel irrelevant.
It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I started to take an interest in my roots. One of the ways this manifested was a newfound appreciation for Eurovision. Seeing Europe come together, in a display of unity, rivalry and ridiculousness, was a wonderful experience and I loved it.
Ukraine was in the competition, but never seemed to do very well, and then, in 2004 – boom. Ukraine wins! And it doesn’t just scrape by, it wins convincingly with a standout, fiery performance that fuses traditional instruments, folk influences and the Ukrainian language!
And just like that, overnight, Ukraine – my Ukraine! – was in the world news for winning Eurovision! It was no longer an unfamiliar word, only associated with an unfortunate nuclear history, but something with an anchor, something to be proud of.
In retrospect, that win was a turning point for me. While previously my coming from ‘elsewhere’ was a negative, now I began to embrace it.
My attitude changed so much that I decided to make Back in the Soviet Bloc, a 7-part series that documented my return to the former Soviet nations. Things truly came full circle when I interviewed Ruslana, the winner of Eurovision 2004. She was intelligent, humble and a delight to speak to.
In a perfect world, I would say that Ukraine is now best known for its culture and its talented performers. Unfortunately, its Eurovision halo didn’t linger for long (even despite winning Eurovision again in 2016!), with the country now making global headlines for civil unrest and political conflict.
But at least knowing a country for its art and culture offers a different perspective. When all we see and read in the news is about politics, it’s easy to forget about the people. Wouldn’t the world be a more tolerant and accepting place if instead of knowing a country for its struggles and difficulties, we also knew it for its art and beauty?
Australia is a country of immigrants, many of them from Europe. By becoming part of Eurovision, we are acknowledging that Europe is part of our national DNA. And by making our participation official, we are bringing it into mainstream Australian society.
Through watching Eurovision, Australian audiences will inadvertently become acquainted with other cultures. Kids will grow up knowing at least a little bit about ‘obscure’ countries – like Ukraine was once upon a time. And maybe next time they meet someone from that country, that person will no longer be a foreigner from a country they’ve only heard about on the news. They’ll be from that country that was amazing on Eurovision!
Back in the Soviet Bloc airs on Saturdays at 5:40pm on SBS VICELAND starting 9 February and on Fridays at 3:30pm on SBS starting 15 February.