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.