An activist of the Ukrainian feminist group Femen raises a chainsaw after cutting down a cross, erected to the memory of victims of the political repression in Kiev on August 17, 2012. The protest was in support of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, who captured global attention by defying the Russian authorities and ridiculing President Vladimir Putin in a church and who have been charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.
Since its formation in 2008, the Ukrainian feminist movement Femen has been a source of much controversy with their topless protests against the discrimination of women in what they call Ukraine's patriarchal post-Soviet society.
In a 2011 interview with Radio Liberty, the movement’s mastermind, Anna Hutsol, explained that “it is not enough to just go out and demonstrate and set up tents. You need to carry out some kind of action so as to get maximum play from the situation and to attract maximum attention."
According to her logic: "Topless protests are probably the strongest and most effective form of peaceful and nonviolent protests to attract attention. You can throw a grenade, go on hunger strike, blow something up or shoot someone. Or you can go out topless."
Maybe there was some merit in that argument originally.
femen was first organized to draw attention to the sex trade and its resulting human trafficking, which is so prevalent in Ukraine and came up with the slogan “Ukraine is not a brothel.”
Going topless did make some sense in terms of attracting attention to that particular issue. As well, stripping to the waist in their February protest in Moscow against Russia’s state monopoly Gazprom’s “anti-Ukraine gas terror” in charging exorbitant prices in order to force Ukraine under Vladimir Putin’s jackboot, was effective. On a day the temperature was -22 degrees Celsius, with a wind-chill factor of – 31, that certainly showed dedication to their cause.
But as Canadian communications guru Marshall MacLuhan once put it, “the medium is the message” and, in Femen’s case, the medium has completely overpowered the message. In an attempt to find some official statement on what Femen stands for, we did several Google searches and came up with dozens of salacious ”photo news” reports containing hundreds of pictures of attractive young women baring their breasts with the most minimal coverage of the issues they were protesting. Their own website was still under construction (as of August 30) and contained only a picture of yet another nubile young nymph with her naked breasts patriotically painted blue and yellow and the most profound slogan underneath – “We Came. We Stripped. We Conquered.” Had Julius Caesar been aware of such an ingenious strategy, he would have inevitably replaced his centurions with a phalanx of Vestal Virgins.
Far more disturbing, however, are the shock tactics they have begun to utilize most recently. July 26 a half naked member of Femen rushed to Moscow Patriarch Kirill upon his arrival at Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport with her back emblazoned with the slogan: “Kill Kirill.” While there is a legitimate reason to protest Patriarch Kirill’s visit to Ukraine as it was intended to promote Russia’s imperial interests, advocating killing anyone strips you of your civil protest status and makes you nothing less than an advocate for terrorism. Could that have been the intention?
But, the lowest point to which Femen has sunk was on Aug. 17 when Inna Shevchenko desecrated a Christian cross memorial in Kyiv dedicated to the millions of victims who perished in the Holodomor and under the USSR anti-religious campaign, especially those who suffered in the Soviet persecution of Ukrainian Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, by chopping it down with a chainsaw.
Ostensibly this was an act of solidarity with the Russian women’s punk rock band Pussy Riot who has been sentenced after performing what they called a "punk prayer" at a landmark Moscow church in protest against Vladimir Putin's decision to return to the Kremlin as president for a third term.
While we may question Pussy Riot’s tactics, there certainly are grounds to question the election that returned Putin to the presidency and there is a valid reason to question the entire process which has allowed Putin to install a neo-fascistic regime in Russia, which Ukrainian dictator Victor Yanukovych emulates so closely.
But why desecrate a monument to the victims of Stalin’s reign of terror in the process? It makes absolutely no sense.
Ironically, Femen stated its purpose in cutting down the cross was to show solidarity with the victims of the “Kremlin priests’ regime”, undoubtedly a reference to the collusion between the Moscow Patriarchate and Putin’s dictatorship.
But the only thing they accomplished in cutting down the cross dedicated to victims of Stalinism was to denigrate the memory of the victims of Stalin’s terror and the religious faithful who were martyred for their refusal to bow down to the Kremlin-controlled Moscow Patriarchate during the Soviet era.
In doing so, they succeeded only in giving a huge boost to Vladimir Putin and his Stalin revisionism movement designed to bring back the “glory” of the USSR and put the world’s greatest mass murderer back on the pedestal, while imposing a 21st century variant of his ideology on the “Near Abroad”.
Perhaps they made an error, not realizing that the cross they cut down was not one that represented the imperialist Moscow Patriarchate, but the victims of Stalinism.
If so they haven’t made any statement apologizing, or even acknowledging this fact.
But, even so, ignorance is no excuse.
Why desecrate crosses? The one group best known for performing such acts is the White Supremacist Ku-Klux-Klan (burning crosses was their specialty). Is that who Femen wants to be associated with?
If Femen has a problem with the "misogynist policies" of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, they can express their views in a critical, but thoughtful manner. They claim the right to speak out against churches in a free society. Fair enough. But in a free society they cannot deny that same right – in this case, the right to worship — to those billions who choose to do so. Desecration of religious symbols, be they Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist, or any other faith — is a denial of the right of faithful people to worship, to express themselves and it is a denial of their basic freedoms. If non-believers expect believers to respect their rights, then they, in turn must also respect the rights of believers.
In the one website we found which actually contained some substance as to Femen’s goals and philosophies among the bare-breasted barrage of photos our Google search showed up, we found such statements as:
“We unite young women basing on the principles of social awareness and activism, intellectual and cultural development.
“We recognise the European values of freedom, equality and comprehensive development of a person irrespective of the gender.
“To build up the image of Ukraine, the country with great opportunities for women.”
Did they build up the image of Ukraine by desecrating a monument to victim of the Holodomor? Did they recognize the European values of freedom? Did they unite young women on the basis of social awareness?
No, they set back the image of Ukraine, set back the women’s equality movement in Ukraine and defiled the memory of the victims of Stalinism. And the person who has benefited most from Femen’s actions is none other than Vladimir Putin himself. Could Femen actually be another of those devious KGB fronts set up to discredit the opposition that Putin is so well-known for creating?
Marco Levytsky is the editor and publisher of Ukrainian News, a bi-weekly newspaper distributed across Canada.