20 Apr 2014

After the Ukrainian revolution – what next for Femen?

The Ukrainian pressure group scaled church steeples and ambushed President Putin. But that was before the Ukrainian Revolution. Channel 4 News speaks to Femen about what happens next.

For Inna Shevchenko, Ukraine is particularly pertinent. She fled her birthplace in 2012 after cutting down a holy cross in Kiev in a protest that inflamed the former president Victor Yanukovych. Since then Ukraine has undergone violent revolution and creeps dangerously close to a violent standoff with Russia.

Speaking to Channel 4 News from Paris, Ms Shevchenko says the revolution and overthrowing of the president was inevitable. “We were one of the first victims and political refuges of [former president] Yanokovych’s regime. We showed what was coming and what was set to touch everyone in the country at the time.

“When we were arrested, persecuted and beaten up, we were showing that this danger was something every Ukrainian was facing. Our role was to warn people and be those alarms.”

We showed what was coming and what was set to touch everyone in the country at the time Inna Shevchenko

What followed, Ms Shevchenko says, shook the country out of a naive stupor. “People in Ukraine finally understood they cannot be apolitical and ignorant anymore. It was no longer possible to breath. People went out not to support politicians or personalities – they went there for basic human rights.”

“At the beginning Ukrainians had these romantic notions about a peaceful revolution. People did not expect such violence. But we have been living under this threat for years.”

Now, as Ukraine’s future tussles between Europe and Russia, she is unconvinced by efforts to forge a resolution. “Do you really believe Putin can be stopped by solutions like sanctions? Or these strong EU speeches in front of cameras? He is using it and play his own game. [Western] politicians are hesitating to take action.

“We are disappointed by reactions of the EU and US. Those who promised a lot. We hear very beautiful and hopeful speeches. But we only dream those speeches will become real.”

Damaging revelations

Femen, which shot to fame since 2008 after using the bodies of naked women to campaign against poverty, discrimination, dictatorships and religion, has attracted its fair share of controversy. Calls to expand the group’s reach to 11 countries, including the UK, hit a wall last year. And the group has had to distance itself from the outing of Victor Svyatski, a Ukrainian man who it emerged last year handpicked attractive women to drum up better publicity for the group.

Is this the end of the movement? In its historical form, probably Galia Ackerman

“When I left Ukraine in 2012, Victor did try to come back a few more times, but the movement had moved internationally,” Ms Shevchenko says. She insists he is no longer part of the group and urges sceptics to look at what’s coming.

On Monday 21 April the group will hold the first international training meeting of 2014 with new recruits from North America, Canada and, she says, Britain. The plan was announced to great fanfare last year, but failed to gather momentum. “The problem has purely been technical. Acquiring the status of political refugee made it difficult for me to leave to the UK and help set up that branch. But now it’s just a question of time.”

‘Our weapons are bare breasts’

It coincides with the publication of a new book, Femen, by the French journalist Galia Ackerman, that charts the group’s history and growth across Europe.

The road ahead comes with challenges. Looking ahead, Ms Ackerman’s book says: “Is this the end of the movement? In its historical form, probably. The movement is clearly losing speed and internal cohesion. However, no matter what happens to these young Ukrainians and their fans throughout the world, there will be a ‘before Femen’ and an ‘after Femen’ in the feminism of the twenty-first century.”

But Ms Shevchenko disputes this. “We have faced this scepticism for years. ‘After Femen’, doesn’t exist. For those who are trying to spread scepticism, I’d say, relax and observe what we plan to do.”

Their slogan is “our mission is protest, our weapons are bare breasts”. As they convene for their next phase of global protest, Femen will find plenty more to fight for. Not least the future of the country in which they were born.