Protest Music

12.11.13

Meet Ruslana Lyzhychko, the Soul of Ukraine’s Revolution

On an extraordinary night, Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin forces were turned back by a band of protesters led by a tiny pop star.

The crackdown on Maidan, Kiev’s main square, began after 3 a.m. when most of the protesters had gone to sleep. Thousands of Ukrainian interior ministry units quietly approached from all sides, preparing to cross the barricades of the “Eurolutionaries” The tents had occupied downtown Kiev for almost three weeks. Their only defense was a woman’s voice on the loudspeaker, stubbornly chanting: “Maidan ye! (Maidan exists) This is a peaceful protest!” The few hundred people left in the square repeated the woman’s words, as if it might protect them from tens of thousands of gleaming shields and rubber clubs prepared to strike.

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© Stringer . / Reuters

The bitter cold had drained the protesters’ energy; it was unclear how they had even survived the freezing wind for so long. Ahead was a painful night of tough confrontations and the threat of violence. “Ruslana, spivai! (sing!)” somebody yelled from  the crowd around the stage in the middle of the square. The orator, a petite woman in a black jacket and tight jeans, which were tucked into short Ugg boots, grabbed the microphone tighter and sang the Ukrainian national anthem: “Souls and bodies we'll lay down, all for our freedom.” He voice seemed to warm the air a little.

The pop star Ruslana Lyzhychko has become the revolutionary leader of Ukraine’s pro-E.U. protest movement. Her voice seems to take over most neutral hearts and make the laziest bodies move. Her hit Wild Dances won the Eurovision song contest in 2004, but bright costumes and tours to Chicago and New York were forgotten this winter. On Wednesday, just like each of the 11 previous nights, Ruslana arrived at the protest with an ambitious goal: she wanted justice and freedom for her country.  In an interview with the Daily Beast she said she hated politics and described her role in the opposition simply as “charging Maidan with freedom-loving energy.”

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© Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters

But she was nervous. A few hours before the clashes with police, Ruslana arrived at the opposition’s headquarters on the second floor of the Trade Union building on Independence Square to meet the press and prepare for one more night of resistance. She looked exhausted, and her hair was a mess. Two make-up artists worked simultaneously on her face and Amy Winehouse-style hair, as she was discussing the strategy for the night ahead with ten opposition activists who were squatting in a circle around her. If she were to make a song about Ukraine, she would put “Rise up!” as the key line for it, she said. 

Back in the square,  the wind swayed giant portraits of another woman hung by a Christmas tree. It was the voice of this woman, Yulia Tymoshenko, that had warmed the hearts of protesters in Maidan during the Orange Revolution in 2004. Today, the former prime minister is in jail, sentenced to seven years in a cell. Was a jail term possible for Ruslana one day? “Special battalions looked for me in my car during the attempt to cleanse Maidan on Tuesday night but I was on stage singing – it was music that saved me,” Ruslana said.

She was an “emotional, impulsive and unpredictable woman of enormous winner’s ambitions,” her advisor Karina Yasinovat said in an interview. Earlier this week she promised protesters to set herself on fire if president Yanukovych and his government did not hear the opposition demands for Ukraine’s integration with Europe. “I am not afraid of your clubs, I am not afraid of your gas attacks! I am just a singer, singing songs for peace in Ukraine!” she yelled into the microphone, standing shoulder to shoulder with other political, religious and public leaders.

Video screenshot

Explore the Ukrainian protests with this stunning photo in a recent episode of 'Darkroom.'

By 4 a.m. the square filled up with more protesters. Men wore orange helmets. The moment came for the three-week conflict between pro-Russian authorities and the pro-E.U. opposition to boil over. Leaders of the opposition called all women and children to come on stage and all men to join the “life walls”, the resistance along the perimeter of Maidan. Some new arrivals ran to join thousands of activists standing shoulder to shoulder, pressing against hundreds of interior ministry shields pushing them away from the southern entrance to the square. From the hill side the scene looked almost surreal: a massive wave of orange helmets representing integration in Europe struggled to withstand even a stronger wave of black helmets issued by the pro-Kremlin government.

Two young men were wrapping themselves in E.U. flags, as they ran to the square. A couple of pensioners Vitaliy Ilyin and his wife Svetlana could not sleep, when they heard about the crackdown on Maidan. “This is the new Ukraine, that we support,” said Ilyin leaning on his cane. “And this is the old Ukraine threatening to turn us into a dictatorship in the style of Belarus." Meanwhile, Ruslana returned to the microphone – her life’s longest, almost 10-hour long performance went on. It was “a pure miracle” that saved the square, she said. She felt ready to play “the role of soul” for Maidan’s protest, “if needed, I will sing every night in Maidan until next presidential election in 2015.”