WASHINGTON—Standing before a crowd of reporters at the National Press Club Wednesday, Ukrainian pop sensation turned protest leader Ruslana delivered a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin, first in English, then in Ukrainian, then in Russian:
“There are a lot of people like me, strong enough to keep peace,” Ruslana said. “Don’t touch Ukraine, President Putin. Don’t give us a lot of pain.”
It’s been a busy week for the Ruslana Lyzhychko, known by everyone simply as Ruslana. She flew into D.C. from Stockholm on Monday. Secretary of State John Kerry presented Ruslana with the International Women of Courage Award on Tuesday.
She met Wednesday with Vice President Joe Biden before coming to the National Press Club for her speech.
The mononymous Ruslana rose to fame after winning the 2004 Eurovision song contest with her smash hit “Wild Dances.” After that, she became involved in her country’s Orange Revolution, held a seat in the Ukrainian parliament, and has been heavily involved in the EuroMaidan protests that rocked Kiev.
Ruslana was named one of the top 10 most influential women of 2013 by the Forbes magazine—another “most” title to add to her long list. Ruslana has been named the most influential public person in Ukraine, the most popular person in Belgium, and the sexiest girl in Greece. She’s also UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador for Ukraine.
Dubbed “Kiev’s queen of the night,” Ruslana often held the stage throughout the cold winter nights in the city’s Independence Square, singing to infuse protesters, in her own words, “with freedom-loving energy.”
“I too was getting threats,” Ruslana told the National Press Club on Wednesday. “I was threatened to be killed if I didn’t leave protest square, and there were enough good people in the country who were able to give me shelter and keep me in hiding for two days.”
The idea of government goons feeling intimidated enough to threaten the petite songstress would be amusing in other circumstances. With her long, brown hair, beaming smile, and high, full cheeks, she does not exude menace. At the Press Club, Ruslana wore a flashy white jacket and matching bejeweled boots, rather than a drab power suit common to more polished political operators.
Although she is traveling now after four months in Kiev, she said her heart is still in the Maidan.
“I don’t like politics,” Ruslana said. “It’s not my task. I’m an activist and peace protester, but I’ve seen a lot of bad things. I don’t think I can make music because Ukraine is in danger.”
Ruslana spent the majority of her speech railing against Putin’s propaganda machine, which has spun Ukraine’s opposition movement as U.S.-inspired, fascistic, and anti-Russian.
“Mr. Putin has said that the Maidan has been inspired by the West,” Ruslana said. “The Maidan was not inspired, Mr. Putin, by the U.S., unless you mean George Washington.”
Ruslana urged reporters go to Ukraine, report the news first-hand, and avoid biased Russian reports. “There were a lot of rallies in Russia in support of Maidan, but no one showed that to you.”
Ruslana freely gives out her cell phone number, and she said she receives constant text updates from a large circle of informers in Ukraine.
Ruslana also said all countries must “unite to block Putin’s aggression” and urged them to support sanctions against Russia.
At the end of the Q&A session, the Press Club president asked Ruslana if she might treat the audience to a rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem, which she sang to crowds every night during the EuroMaidan protests.
Ruslana did not need encouragement. She was already dragging a Ukranian flag over to the podium before the president finished the question.
Ruslana began belting out the national anthem in a deep alto. “Souls and bodies we’ll lay down, all for our freedom.”
It was not the Maidan, but it did not appear to make much of a difference to Ruslana. She held a clenched fist over her heart during the song and raised it into the air at the final crescendo. “Glory to Ukraine!” she shouted.
After the song, well-wishers and fans lined up to press business cards and cocktail napkins with their contact info into her hands, and to ask for pictures.
“What was your meeting with Joe Biden like?” I asked her after everyone else had dispersed.
Ruslana grabbed my cheeks, made customary kissing motions, and leaned in close as she talked to me in Ukrainian. It was one of those moments that transcended language barriers. I didn’t need a translator to tell me Ruslana was doing a Joe Biden impression.
“We talked like father and daughter, like family, you know?” she said, lapsing back into English. She said their meeting was brief but “very inspiring” and “fruitful.”
Ruslana headed to Capitol Hill Thursday. She was tentatively scheduled to meet with Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D., Ct.) and several members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.