Femen, Ukraine's Topless Warriors

Why the group that inspired Pussy Riot's infamous "punk prayer" could be tough to stop.


Femen activists during a rally in Kiev (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

KIEV, Ukraine -- On the tarmac at Kiev's Borispil Airport, during a sun-drenched afternoon last July, 24-year-old Yana Zhdanova tensed up when she saw Kirill I, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, descending the stairs from his just-landed plane.

"I was pumped up with pure adrenalin," she said, clenching her delicate fists as we sat in Femen's office in downtown Kiev. A former journalist with a university degree and a current strip-club dancer, Zhdanova had received accreditation from the Ukrainian church authorities managing Kirill's visit and so stood with members of the press corps covering the event. "They had cordoned us off behind a rope, and I knew I had to get Kirill quickly, when no one would expect it."

As the patriarch, flanked by black-robed deacons, strode down the red carpet smiling and gesticulating solemnly, Zhdanova ripped off her t-shirt, jumped over the rope, and sprinted towards him, raising her fists and shrieking "Izydi von!" -- an incantation uttered by Russian Orthodox priests during exorcisms to drive the devil from the possessed. (You can watch a Russia Today clip of her fearless charge here.) A split-second before she reached her target, a deacon at the patriarch's side jumped to block her, knocking her into the arms of a bodyguard who seized her and led her away, still shouting, the words "KILL KIRILL" flashing in black paint on her back.

That message notwithstanding, Yana averred that she had no intention of murdering the patriarch. Rather, she explained, "I hoped to knock him to the ground, grab his beard, and ritually de-coronate him. He would have been humiliated." She paused, her brown, saucer-shaped eyes radiating not anger, but calm conviction. "He embodies all the repressiveness of the Russian Orthodox Church toward women. Religion and freedom do not go together. Religion is moral persecution that aims to drive women into slavery."

The Democracy ReportThus spoke the perpetrator of one of the most daring acts carried out by one of the most daring -- and unorthodox -- protest groups around, Ukraine-based Femen. Founded in Kiev in 2008 to protest the country's burgeoning sex industry ("Ukraine is not a brothel!" was the slogan of their first -- and still clothed -- demonstration, which aimed to dissuade foreigners from visiting prostitutes in the capital), Femen has since evolved into a vanguard of militant activists who have dubbed themselves the storozhevyye suki demokratii (the "watch-bitches of democracy") and "modern-day Amazons," some of whom demonstrate topless to, says their website "defend with their chests sexual and civic equality throughout the world." The organization has expanded from a handful of university students hailing from eastern Ukraine to 150,000 members worldwide, with four permanent staff members in Kiev. By and large they are an educated group; 60 percent have college degrees. Of the three hundred or so participants in Ukraine, only a few strip for the cause. Femen has pronounced traditional feminism dead, anointed itself the standard-bearer for "a new wave of third-millennium feminism," and pledged to combat "patriarchal society in all its manifestations -- dictatorship, the church, and the sex industry." Its tactics: "sextremism" and "sex-diversion" -- which terms basically mean using bare breasts during protest actions to attract media coverage.

Attacking the patriarch well accorded with Femen's goals. Apart from espousing conservative positions on women and the family, Kirill is suspected of collaborating with the KGB during the Soviet decades, and openly allies himself with Russia's authoritarian president, Vladimir Putin. But this wasn't the first time Femen targeted the church. After tainted elections to the Russian State Duma in December 2011, three topless activists coiffed in floral garlands (one of the group's trademark symbols) demonstrated in front of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, flagellating themselves and chanting "May God Drive Away the Tsar!" Their act prefigured Pussy Riot's "punk prayer," which opens with a plea to the Virgin Mary to "drive away Putin," and took place inside the same cathedral.

"Dictator Putin imprisons from without, but Patriarch Kirill imprisons from within, masked as a godly man, with a high rank, speaking God's words," said Zhdanova. "Who can argue with God?" With a disdainful smirk she added, "Kirill was in training as a KGB spy. But they used to send only the third-rate [KGB] students to be priests."

How does Zhdanova square working as a stripper with protesting for Femen, which she called "the most important thing in [her] life?" She has never felt shy about disrobing, she said, and implied the question was irrelevant. "For money it's okay to strip, but not for an idea? Doing my job, I see the hypocrisy in men's mentality. Some of my club's clients learn I'm with Femen and criticize me for showing my breasts during the day, but pay me to do so at night. " What counts, she said, is that she's fighting for what she believes in: that women in Ukraine (in the largely chauvinistic society of which senior positions in the public and private sectors tend to go to men) should enjoy equal rights. She had thought of joining mass protests, but decided against it: "they didn't seem so effective. I wanted something much more radical." With Femen she clearly found what she was looking for. Hence the assault on Kirill, which would let her "hit the most sensitive part of people's beliefs and drive a stake into the heart of them."

Earlier in the day, I had dropped by Femen's headquarters to talk to Anna Hutsol, Femen's founder and director. (Femen clearly has a sense of humor: their office's steel entrance way door sports a pair of blue and yellow metallic breasts, nipples erect.) Aged 28, with cropped, carrot-orange hair and a pacific demeanor, Hutsol hardly resembles an "Amazon," modern-day or ancient. Her lucid, low-key manner of speaking and her frequent references to the works of French proto-feminist Simone de Beauvoir dispel the notion, so frequently voiced by both men and women in Ukraine (and Russia), that there is something flighty, unserious, or tawdry about Femen. Hutsol in any case took such criticism in stride. "Our society isn't used to protests and strikes, and doesn't understand these acts are a way to pressure the authorities. Yet we must protest. No one in power will give us anything otherwise."

Traditionalist gender relations and discrimination against women have served as the key targets of Femen's ire. "As a society we haven't been able to eradicate our Arab mentality towards women," she told me, referring to the widespread belief in Ukraine that women should marry, raise children, and stay away from politics. "We're against patriarchal society, where men try to control a woman's sexuality so that they can be sure who the father of their child is." She added, though, that Ukrainian women were themselves were to an extent culpable. "They just don't understand. They go to a club, show off their tits, and some guy buys them a cocktail, and it's great. No, we say. They don't have to orient their lives around finding a man."

Combating "patriarchal society" means also working to undermine Ukraine's overwhelmingly male political order. In fact, it was the country's virulent, divisive 2010 presidential election campaign pitting candidates Yulia Tymoshenko (now imprisoned on what appear to be politically motivated charges) against pro-Russian, recidivist former convict Viktor Yanukovych that first prompted, she said, Femen to "strip and go hard." The decision to strip was a tough one for the activists, motivated by one thing: "No one paid attention to us before we demonstrated topless." She and her cohorts showed up at the polling station where Yanukovych planned to vote, took off their tops, and chanted "Ukraine Has Been Raped Enough!"

"The police sent five patrol cars to deal with us," says Hutsol.  "The officers demanded to know who we were and what we were after." They were arrested but quickly released, but they had achieved their objective: national attention they had failed to gain when dressed. Always controversial, Femen would not be ignored again. Sometimes, though, approbation has come from unexpected quarters. When the group staged a protest against government plans to raise the pension age, said Anna, "little old ladies came out and really supported us, and some even said, take off your panties too!"

But it was Femen's demonstration in favor of Pussy Riot that brought them worldwide media exposure. On August 17 of this year, the day a Moscow court sentenced three band members to two years in prison for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred," Femen activist Inna Shevchenko stripped and, in front of the cameras, used a chainsaw to demolish a cross erected in central Kiev. Yanukovych, who had earlier dismissed Femen as a "flashy feminist commercial project," and who also, like Putin, regularly ingratiates himself with conservative elements in his society, called the act "a very alarming signal and a dangerous manifestation," and demanded law enforcement authorities give the "harshest response to this act of barbarism." Hutsol was called in for questioning, and a criminal case (for "hooliganism") has been opened against Femen. Ukrainian Cossacks then harassed the group, plastering Femen's door with a sign reading "A Woman's Path Goes Only From the Front Door to the Stove." Helping stir up negative sentiment against Femen, she says, were media accounts (which she calls untrue) that Shevchenko had destroyed a cross commemorating victims of Stalinist repression. "In fact we cut down a cross erected by Greek Catholic Ukrainians where they intended to build a church."

From prison a Pussy Riot member came out against Femen's desecration of the cross. Hutsol reacted with compassion to the disavowal, telling me that she understood pressure the band was under behind bars. In any case, Femen's new-found fame has sparked all sorts of rumors about their integrity, mostly centering around allegations that they are paid handsomely by unseen donors eager to undermine Ukraine's national identity.

"Tymoshencko and Yanukovych did pay people to protest, so many people think all demonstrators get money. We've heard that everyone from the patriarch to the State Department to Putin is paying us. There are so many rumors in the press but no one answers for them." An American businessman gave them modest, initial financial aid but has since distanced himself from the group. Funding now comes from donations collected through the group's web site and from Femenshop, their on-line emporium of t-shirts and other paraphernalia bearing their logo.

So what's next for Femen? Hutsol says Femen considered starting a political party but decided against it. Street protests remain their forte. Her November 2011 arrest by Vatican police on Saint Peter's Square during the Pope's Sunday address thwarted her plans to protest against the Catholic Church's stance on women, but only whetted her appetite for expansion abroad. (Another group member did manage to disrobe there that day and wave a placard reading FREEDOM FOR WOMEN.) Last fall Femen opened an affiliate in Paris -- and in a Muslim neighborhood, no less -- where they are training European activists and planning demonstrations across the continent; they also have members in Brazil, another country known for its sex tourism. Russia, for the time being, is out as a battleground; authorities recently detained Hutsol on a visit to Saint Petersburg, declared her persona non grata, and deported her.

"We want," Hutsol says, "to be the shock troops of a new feminism -- and the sinful past of future female politicians."

How much Femen's method of protest will catch on in countries with more equitable relations between the sexes is a matter of debate. I asked Hutsol if the general harshness and poverty characterizing life in Ukraine predisposed her to developing the shock tactics her group deploys. "Life here hardens you," she responded. "If I'd been born in Paris, I might have just ended up reading Simone de Beauvoir and not creating Femen."

Just what de Beauvoir would have thought of topless demonstrations is anyone's guess.