Two years ago today, Femen—the Ukrainian-born protest movement that has since become one of the world’s most provocative activist groups through its topless demonstrations and campaign for a militant feminism —orchestrated one of its most daring early protests, sneaking into Belarus in an attempt to embarrass the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s final dictator.
In an excerpt from his new Atlantic ebook, Topless Jihadis, an exclusive account of life inside Femen, the magazine’s longtime Russia correspondent Jeffrey Tayler shares the dramatic story of that formative first mission and the ensuing escape.
In the winter of 2011, Inna Shevchenko, the 22-year-old Ukrainian activist who would soon catapult the protest movement Femen—the self-described “shock-troops of feminism” and “the watch-bitches of democracy”—to international notoriety, began hatching a plan.
She and her Femen colleagues in their burgeoning battle against sexism and female oppression, decided to hit a truly hard target: the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s last dictator. “We spent two evenings talking over things in Café Kupidon, which was our office back then. We were pretty inexperienced, but we did know it would be dangerous.”
Getting into Belarus would be the first problem. Inna Shevchenko, Oksana Shachko, and Sasha Nemchinova took an all-night train to Bryansk, in Russia, to avoid the border post between Ukraine and Belarus. (The border between Russia and Belarus is open, with no checkpoints.) Femen had already won a measure of notoriety, and the women didn’t want to be turned back at the frontier, Shevchenko told me.
“We got to Bryansk in the middle of the night and caught a bus to Minsk. We arrived at 4 in the morning, and rented a room in the bus station. We were nervous, and I couldn’t sleep. We woke up and called our contact, but as soon as she heard our voices, she said, ‘Say no more!’ and told us to meet her by the theater.” Shevchenko’s voice drifted, her glance diverted. I pictured the scene: the three young women, embarking on a mission that could cost them their liberty, if not their lives, riding on a cold, dark, creaking train north from Kiev through the snow-blanketed forests, the sky starless and black. Then catching a rickety, Soviet-era bus trundling down an icy, potholed highway toward Minsk, a city festooned with portraits of Lukashenko presiding over drab gray boulevards, spottily lit by streetlamps. A dingy room in the bus station.
“We took a cab to the theater. It was bizarre: the streets were empty and silent. It’s the capital, but it looks like a ghost town. The KGB headquarters was on a quiet, wide street, with no one around,” Shevchenko said. “We quickly undressed, raised our posters, and started shouting our slogans.”
Only one video survived the KGB raid that soon followed. It shows the three women in fake, bushy Lukashenko mustaches, with Shevchenko and Shachko coiffed in floral crowns. Nemchinova’s head was shaved to confer on her the president’s male-pattern baldness, her shoulders bearing Lukashenko-style epaulettes, her back painted with the dictator’s portrait, and a communist red star emblazoned between her pendulous breasts. They chanted only one slogan, “Zhyve Belarus!” (“Long live Belarus!”), their posters inscribed with that and FREEDOM TO POLITICAL PRISONERS! The video that made it out “was shot,” Shevchenko said, “by a journalist who came up, stopped and taped, and walked on.”
Bizarrely, no one arrested the activists.
“We grabbed our coats and got dressed and ran like mad. We turned into the courtyards and ran down alleys,” Shevchenko said.
“Our Belarusian contact kept hurrying us, ‘Hurry up! Hurry up! You’ve got to get to the bus station fast!’ At that moment, we saw a man in a black raincoat and black hat, sitting alone on a bench nearby. He got up and came along and passed us, talking on his phone. For a minute I thought, We’re arrested! But no. We started to relax. It was true, we’d succeeded and we were now going to get away. But then at the bus station we saw a second man in a black coat and hat. He came along and stood by us as we picked up our tickets. But he didn’t do anything. He pretended to be reading a sign next to us.” They left the man in black and hurried out to the bus. As they were about to board, it all began.
“Ten guys in black tracksuits, with walkie-talkie earbuds, surrounded us,” Shevchenko recounted. “Then two of them grabbed me and clamped their hands over my mouth. People around us turned away, pretending not to see anything—they are that afraid of the KGB there. The men dragged us over to a gray van, with no windows, and shoved us inside, with an officer sitting on each side of us so we couldn’t move. There were a total of six cars with our minivan, and we peeled out at high speed.”
The activists demanded to know who these men were, but they refused to respond. One of them grabbed Shevchenko’s mobile phone and started scrolling through her messages. “The men asked us who we were and why we were here. We told them the truth, since they knew anyway. ‘With us you need to be careful,’ one of our captors kept saying,” Shevchenko told me. She asked in vain to be turned over to the police. “They kept telling us, ‘Now, bitches, you’ll find out what it means to come to Belarus and destroy our national unity!’ They pulled my hands behind my back and put plastic handcuffs on me. They made us sit in the van with our heads bent down between our knees. Every time I raised my head, they hit me. Everything swelled in me from the cramped position. I never had to go to the bathroom, but Oksana did, so they took her outside and she squatted down and went, like a dog on a leash. We drove for about five hours, always hunched over.
“It was unbearable,” she remembered. “They kept telling us, ‘Remember your mothers’ faces and how happy they were when they saw you. And now imagine them when they see your dead bodies.’ Otherwise there was total silence. It was eerie. They didn’t talk to each other, not a word. They were professionally trained.”
Finally, late in the afternoon, the vehicle stopped. “I thought, Now they’re going to kill us,” Shevchenko said. “They made us get out. They all had masks on. One guy was waving around a huge knife. They took us into the woods and made us strip topless, and gave us a swastika poster to hold. Now they will kill us for sure, I thought.”
The men took pictures of the women with the Nazi emblem and then threatened to kill them. “Then one said, ‘Take off your pants and panties, and turn around and face away from us. And bend over.’ Now they’ll rape us, I thought. We waited three minutes like that, but they didn’t rape us,” she told me.
“‘Dress by the count of three!’ he then shouted. ‘Strip by the count of three, or you will be killed!’ We kept dressing and undressing. They beat us if we couldn’t keep up. Then they came over to us with some sort of bucket and poured something over our faces. It was green paint, some sort of oil, and then they dropped feathers all over us. One guy grabbed me and shoved me to the ground. He held me down and waved his big knife over me. He grabbed my hair and yanked, and cut it off with the knife.”
The women were dragged back to the van and forced inside for a trip that didn’t last long. The men pushed the women out into the frigid dusk. Shevchenko remembers that the driver was an older man—she could tell by his eyes, through his ski mask. He pointed into the forest and said, “Ukraine’s that way. Just keep to the right.”
“We walked into the woods,” Shevchenko said. “When we heard them drive away, we started running.”
The women crashed and stumbled through the snow banks, tripping over downed tree trunks and fallen branches, and discovered they were in a frozen bog. On and on they plodded. Night was falling and they were alone, now deep among the trees.
“We finally came to a river and saw a man on the other side. He shouted to us and asked who we were. But suddenly he just hurried away. We wandered for another hour, but ended up circling right around to where we’d started. It started to snow. We got really scared.” In the gathering dark, they heard the staccato roar of chainsaws. Three men soon walked out of the forest.
“I ran up to them. But I was covered with green paint and feathers. They looked startled, even afraid of us. They told us their village was about 10 kilometers away. Then they disappeared.”
The activists marched on, having almost lost hope of finding the border with Ukraine, ever more fearful in the night. But then a man came bouncing along atop a tractor. Shevchenko pulled out the $100 bill she had stuffed in her sock for emergencies.
“I offered it to him, but he wouldn’t take us anywhere. He couldn’t understand what I wanted! I kept shouting ‘Take us to the village for this money!’ He spoke half-swallowing his words. He was so uneducated, we could hardly understand him. He just refused to help and drove on.”
After a couple of hours of stumbling down the road, they reached the village of Beki. An old man invited them into his cabin, gave them tea and sweaters, and let them take off their wet clothes and dry them on his stove.
“I felt safe for first time,” said Shevchenko, who called Anna Hutsol and told her where they were. “The old man fed us macaroni and fried onions, and he led us to two beds in a side room. I slept in one with Oksana. Oksana kept crying, saying, ‘We have to leave! I’m leaving or they’ll come for us!’ But I said, ‘No, we can’t go out into woods at night. If we do, they can kill us there and no one would know.’ She threatened to go alone.”
Then things took a turn for the worse.
“A huge man, a lumberjack, who was drunk and angry, burst into our room and threw himself on us, groping us and wanting to have sex. We kept pushing him off, and he kept returning, pawing at us. He was trying to rape us. The old man came back in and shouted at him to stop and made him leave,” Shevchenko said.
“Then we heard a woman’s shrill voice. ‘Police! Police! The police are here! Throw these girls out! We’re simple folk, we’re unprotected! Don’t get us involved with whatever you’ve done!’
“An officer walked into the house and calmly asked us what had happened, who had done this to us,” Shevchenko told me. “He was very polite. As he listened to us, his face showed just how shocked he was. ‘The most that happens here is villagers smuggle cows across the border and sell them,’ he said. At that moment, the Ukrainian ambassador and press attaché showed up, or two men saying that that’s who they were. How could we know or trust anybody? ‘It won’t be so easy to get you out without documents,’ the ambassador said. Police asked us if we wanted to open a criminal investigation, and I said yes. But then suddenly the ambassador said, ‘We need to go, and now!’ They shoved us into their car. We drove out to the border with these two men, but who were they?
“Men in black coats stood by the checkpoint,” Shevchenko recalled. “They’re going to arrest us now, I thought. But we walked through with the ambassador, and onto the Ukraine side. By evening, we were back in Kiev.”
Hutsol, who had sent the ambassador—it really was him— had also convened reporters, who met the women on arrival. Most probably, Femen’s fame in the former Soviet Union had saved them from further harm. At a press conference in Minsk a week later, Lukashenko implied that his security services had indeed abducted the women, thereby “taking the bait” and showing they could be provoked. Shevchenko, in any case, learned one thing about herself from the ordeal. “As I waited for death, I felt something changing inside. I realized that I could do nothing except continue with my activism. I knew that if they asked me to beg them for my life, I would not do it. I was not ready to give up my struggle to save my life.”
Shevchenko and I sat in silence. Her eyes were now empty, her voice drained. From that grim December on, she would suppress her emotions, her private concerns, any desire she may have had for a personal life, in favor of Femen. She often told me, “I don’t need a boyfriend. I don’t need human warmth. At this stage of my life, I’m devoting myself to my activism, and that’s that.” The experience rattled her. “I was paranoid. If the door rang, it took me 10 minutes to open it—I just trembled. I was sure I was being followed. Then my parents started calling. Mom cried and cried and even had to be taken to hospital, she got so upset. She shouted, ‘We forbid you to continue with Femen!’ My sister called and said the same thing. She said, ‘Don’t make mom cry!’ I refused. I told them, ‘Let’s live as each of us thinks best, and not try to live just so as not to make the other cry.’”
Russians have so often told me that decades of Stalinist repression left fear in their genes. If so, Shevchenko obviously lacked such genes. I mentioned this, but she snapped back, “Fear in our genes? Nothing sounds stupider to me. Yes, I was born in a country where people say such things. But this is just a way for weak people to explain away their cowardice. When you’re born in such a country, all you want to do is earn your bread and keep your head down. Well, I’d rather be dead than live that way. I’d rather be dead.”