Person of the year: Ruslana
Ukrainian pop icon Ruslana epitomizes
Euro Maidan protest movement
Volume 7, issue 10 December 2013
As the year draws to a close, Ukraine’s pro-EU Euro Maidan protest movement appears to be slowly running out of steam. Nevertheless, the protests, which have been widely acknowledged as the biggest to have rocked the country since the 2004 Orange Revolution, have served to remind domestic and international audiences that the vast majority of Ukrainians regard themselves as Europeans and see their future firmly within the European family of nations.
If any one single individual deserves the credit for the remarkable staying power of the country’s Euro Maidan protest movement, it is Ukrainian pop princess Ruslana Lyzhychko, the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest winner who has been a leading light on Kyiv’s Independence Square since day one of the protests.
Inspiring the Euro Maidan masses
In a movement that has conspicuously lacked convincing political leadership, Ruslana has played an inspirational role throughout the weeks of mass street protests, leading nightly patriotic sing-alongs from the Maidan stage and generally inspiring protesters with her indefatigable enthusiasm for the cause and refusal to give up on her European dream. The singer is widely credited with helping to galvanize protesters during the first few days of the Euro Maidan movement, and also played a key role in defending Independence Square during the riot police raids of 11 December, bolstering resistance from the protest stage throughout what was a long night of repeated attacks by state security forces.
Petite singer mans the barricades
Ruslana has also won plaudits for her willingness to share the frontline experience of fellow protesters, exchanging the luxuries of her usual celebrity existence for a simple sleeping berth in the Trade Union building occupied by Euro Maidan protesters and maintaining an exhausting nightly vigil on Independence Square itself. This apparent disregard for physical hardship has proved particularly inspirational because the singer is famously petite in stature, making her an unlikely figure to be standing shoulder to shoulder with the bruisers manning the Independence Square barricades. At times the pop icon has seemed to be on the verge of losing her voice, having sung herself hoarse with her nightly exertions, but she has repeatedly refused to tone down her participation in the protest movement, despite the obvious strain which it has placed on her less-than-robust frame.
El Mundo: Ukraine’s Joan of Arc
Ruslana’s prominent role in the Euro Maidan protests has seen her profiled throughout the international media, where the singer’s considerable pre-protest fame has served to garner further attention and column inches for Ukraine’s EU ambitions. The German press dubbed her Kyiv’s ‘Queen of the night’, while Spain’s influential El Mundo newspaper compared her to Joan of Arc and Reuters labeled her ‘the unlikely figurehead of the protest movement’. In the absence of strong political leadership, Ruslana’s ubiquitous presence among the protesters has helped give the Euro Maidan movement a sense of identity to the outside world.
Icon of the Orange Revolution
This is not the singer’s first foray into the world of Ukrainian people power politics. During the 2004 Orange Revolution she was one of the key celebrity supporters of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. At the time, Ruslana enjoyed unprecedented fame across Europe as the hugely popular winner of that year’s Eurovision Song Contest - a victory which had made her arguably the most famous Ukrainian in the world. Many analysts argued at the time that Ruslana’s Eurovision win inadvertently played an important role in laying the groundwork for the Orange Revolution itself, giving the Ukrainian people a sense of confidence in their European identity at a time when political forces in the country seemed determined to steer Ukraine towards a future of Russian-style authoritarian isolationism. Such factors are impossible to quantify, but there is no question that the singer’s subsequent enthusiastic support was a major boon for the Orange protest movement.
This high-profile role as a celebrity backer of the Orange Revolution led to a further political role for Ruslana, who was one of a number of celebrities to enter Ukraine’s parliament in spring 2006 as the country’s political classes basked in the glamorous afterglow of the 2004 uprising. Ruslana’s parliamentary career proved to be short-lived, coming to an end the following year when she chose to step down ahead of the latest round of national elections. Her time as an MP was largely forgettable and is now widely regarded as one of the many follies in a period of modern Ukrainian history characterized by an infatuation with the country’s fledgling democracy, leading to all manner of gimmicks and excesses. This undistinguished period as an MP might have served to put many celebrities off dabbling in politics for life, but the events of recent weeks have demonstrated Ruslana’s continued readiness to take a political stand for the issues she believes in.
Symbol of European Ukraine
Despite widespread admiration for her leading role in the Euro Maidan protest movement, few Ukrainians have so far suggested that Ruslana herself could be a candidate to fill the void as leader of the country’s political opposition. Instead, for the millions who have taken part in the country’s Euro Maidan protests, she remains essentially a cheerleader and an icon, representing Ukraine’s European identity and epitomizing the country’s refusal to give up on its dream of a European future.
Ruslana’s heroics on Independence Square may not have achieved her stated goal of securing Ukraine’s EU integration, but she has managed to mobilize a new generation of Ukrainians, while reminding the international community of the Ukrainian people’s overwhelming desire to be part of Europe. For these achievements she deserves to be recognized as Ukraine’s ‘Person of the Year’ for 2013.