A Ukrainian Pop Star's Would-Be Revolution

In Ukraine, an unlikely voice is speaking — and singing — about the need for clean, green, energy.

Ruslana is Ukraine's biggest pop star. Her live shows are spectacles with fire, smoke, dancers and costumes. In the middle of it all, there's Ruslana, tossing her hair, stamping her feet and usually not wearing very much — a small bundle of unbridled energy.

Dreaming Green in Post-Soviet Ukraine

Wild Energy

That's her public image, and that's why she decided to call her new album and live show "Wild Energy." But Yuriy Melnyk, her international publicity manager, says it gradually came to have a bigger meaning. Wild Energy, he says, means "the energy of the sun, the energy of the wind, the energy of water."

"Renewable energy," Ruslana adds. "Energy independence."

The Ukrainian singer says she wants to get people thinking about the environmental cost of fossil fuels, and the dangers of global climate change. But translating that into the language of pop music isn't easy.

"It's very important to show this issue very visually," she says. It has to be presented very well, so that teenagers don't just hear it, but that they really understand it."

Ruslana's depiction of woman dependant on fossil fuels for energy.

Ruslana's depiction of a woman dependent on fossil fuels for energy. Courtesy Ruslana hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Ruslana

Energy Dependent

Ruslana, who rarely uses her last name, Lyzhychko, doesn't sing about carbon footprints and gas prices; she sings about the wild energy of love.

It triumphs over a synthetic world, dependent on synthetic energy. In the video version, that world is represented by a pale, metallic-looking woman who gets her strength from a giant machine. She's transformed, though, into a kind of Wild Energy woman, reminiscent of Xena the warrior princess.

Ruslana's interest in energy was kindled, in part, by Ukraine's current energy situation. It is among the most energy-intensive countries in the world, which means that it consumes large amounts of energy per dollar of economic activity.

Energy consumption typically rises in tandem with income; rich countries like the United States consume more energy, per person, than poor ones. But Ukraine consumes almost as much energy — per person — as Italy, even though the average Italian is four times richer.

Most of Ukraine's energy, especially natural gas, comes from Russia. And every so often, Russia threatens to cut Ukraine off.

In fact, that's a big reason why Ruslana became interested in this issue. There's more to her than steamy videos. She's a Ukrainian nationalist who joined protesters on the streets of Kiev in 2004, in what became known as the Orange Revolution. She even took a seat, briefly, in the Ukrainian parliament.

So she's trying to reduce Ukraine's dependence on natural gas imported from Russia.

"Ukrainians should know that they are not as dependent on the natural gas as they think they are," she says.

Environmentalist Iryna Stavchuk

Iryna Stavchuk works on climate change issues in Ukraine. David Gilkey, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey, NPR

Not Interested

But it's really not easy to get young Ukrainians interested in clean, green, home-grown energy.

"Young people — they don't care about this, I think," says Roman Lebed, a 21-year-old journalist in Kiev.

"They think about their everyday problems," adds his friend, 19-year-old Inna Zheliezna. "Everybody knows about this problem, but only a few are really concerned about it and want to do something about it."

Even Iryna Stavchuk, who works specifically on climate change for one of Ukraine's environmental groups, says she can't really get her generation interested.

"They don't want to listen," she says. "One thing could be it's not interesting. Another thing could be they don't want to be bothered with anything."

They're too busy hanging on as their country continues its wild ride from a Soviet socialist republic into capitalism.

They've seen dramatic changes, and underneath a layer of Slavic melancholy, there's a touch of amazement.

Catching Up

"This life is more competitive," says Irina Kosovar, an economist with a consulting company. "But you have a lot of opportunities. Really, a lot of opportunities."

In the capital city of Kiev, wealth seems almost within reach now. It's seen on television and billboards, and on streets clogged with shiny new cars. A few are tasting it; the rest are scrambling to catch up or just stay on their feet.

Journalist Roman Lebed

Journalist Roman Lebed says his generation isn't interested in the environment. David Gilkey, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey, NPR

In fact, if there's one thing that's the focus of life in the new, capitalist Ukraine today, it's money.

Ruslana is trying to persuade young Ukrainians that coal and gas are just as vital as cash.

"Energy is like currency, like money," she says. "This is how I see it in my project. It's the most valuable currency. And until we realize it, we're going to waste it."

Yet even Ruslana, for all her energy and celebrity, sounds, at times, a little unsure that her cause will catch on.

To be honest, she says, she's a little bit afraid of starting a public relations campaign about climate change or Ukraine's appetite for fossil fuels. She says she needs more allies and sponsors.

She doesn't want to be a lonely voice.

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