Fort Russ, Jan 26th 2017
Translated by Tatzhit Mihailovich
From the translator:
This interview with a former FEMEN activist Yana Zhdanova was just published by apostrophe.ua
The translation I provide is somewhat abridged, and primarily focuses on three subjects:
– Double standards applied to “democratic activists” abroad and in the West
– What was FEMEN about
– How feminism destroyed FEMEN
The original also discusses French politics and FEMEN political projects, but I don’t think Yana’s views on the subject are particularly interesting or illuminating.
Interview by Arthur Gor (abridged):
In 2014, Yana Zhdanova was arrested for her topless staking of the wax figure of Putin at the Museum Grévin in Paris, which she called “the Poodoo doll performance”. In an interview with “Apostrophe” she tells us why her judicial saga is not over yet, three years later […] and why FEMEN ceased to exist.
(Journalist) = Yana, just now a French court has dropped the exhibitionism charges against you for that performance with the Putin doll. Do think of you won, finally?
(Yana) – Nothing is over yet. I won an appeal, yes […] but the prosecutor is going to counter-appeal my victory in a higher court. […] Either this is his personal initiative, or it’s connected to the rise of right-wing forces in France, as this is partly a political case connected with Putin’s wax figure – so that may be another reason they don’t want to drop it so easily. For now I won, and the law is on my side, but the prosecutor wants to charge me in another court.
= So FEMEN is under pressure in France as well?
– Yes, things are getting less free here too. When you live in Europe, you realize that there’s not much more freedom here than in Ukraine. Well, of course, it’s more free than Ukraine, but only in some ways. [The main thing is that] in France, the legal system works. Here you can hope for some kind of a fair trial. If you’re prosecuted, but you have a good case, a good lawyer, and the law is on your side, you have nothing to fear. In Ukraine, you know how it is, so there is a big difference.
= What about the response to your performances in Europe and in Ukraine? You can now compare how society reacted to Femen in France and here.
– No significant difference, really. […] Well, when we did things in Ukraine, and the French saw news about our performances, they were clapping, supporting us, saying that we are in the right, that we protest against the dictatorships in Russia and Ukraine, calling us freedom fighters … But when we arrived France and began to do the same things here, the French suddenly got pissed off, started saying, “what are you doing? We don’t want that stuff, that’s [amoral and illegal].”
For example, we were criticized [and faced criminal prosecution] for our performance in the Notre Dame de Paris. When Pussy Riot did a similar thing in the central temple of Moscow, the French strongly supported them and were outraged when the girls were [found guilty], but later when we did it in France, people started shouting that we were desecrating their church.
Or the reaction to us chopping down a cross in Kiev. Europeans were very supportive of this action, saying that it was an act of democracy, manifestation of extreme atheism, that it was so cool – but when in the Vatican I stole a baby Jesus from the cradle, they again said that I was [out of line], desecrating a holy place, and all that. So, this is blatant hypocrisy: if we do our thing somewhere else, the Europeans support it, because they are “for democracy and freedom of speech and expression,” but if we protest in Europe, they say “what right do you have to come here and desecrate our churches?”.
And the right-wingers flatly say: “Why do come here, go back to Ukraine”.
= Did you get direct threats?
– Of course. We had a “FEMEN house” in Paris. For two years, it was our office, training center, and place of residence. Someone wrote on the gate: “we are going to kill you dirty whores.” We got hate mail. Even the police came and asked if we are alright. There are plenty of idiots in every country. There was plenty of aggression against us in Ukraine, and here it happens too.
= Yana, by the way, FEMEN has virtually disappeared in Ukraine. There are no new high-profile “actions”. Why is that? Has your movement decided to focus on Europe?
– FEMEN no longer exists. It died in 2015. Everyone went their separate ways. The old team is gone.
= Why? Maybe not in Ukraine, but there are some FEMEN protests around the world. Are those not part of your organization?
– Random stuff is happening. Everyone is doing their own thing, from time to time. In Spain, in France, even in Ukraine there are still a couple girls under the leadership of Anna Gutsul. They occasionally do something, even. But that’s not it […] Our system, our original idea, the time when we worked seven days a week to make things happen – that’s gone. …. For example, I do not even know who is now running our website, our Facebook page. They write some long articles there, that are not related to our work. The only thing that connects them with FEMEN is this common style of protesting topless and writing slogans on their chest. But those people no longer understand what they are doing. They think that if a girl simply undresses and writes a slogan on the chest, then it’s automatically sexy and FEMEN-style. But I – as a FEMEN activist, one of the most active participants and founders of sextremizm – [think what they do it wrong and pointless]. I don’t want to make a public scandal about it, but I’m not happy.
= So the European FEMEN protests no longer have anything to do with the authentic Ukrainian movement?
– You can, of course, refer to it as “FEMEN” activities, but […] the group that created the FEMEN style of protest was only five or six girls, all Ukrainian. […] These girls have left and are not part of FEMEN anymore. Who uses the name now, what do they do and why – I have no idea. Now FEMEN is no longer an organization, but a style of protest. A style that we created back when our organization existed, now simply borrowed by others. The style where people use their body in art, in a political struggle as a way to express their political position.
= So, if FEMEN fell apart, why did it happen?
– Squabbling over money and power (laughs). The girls who initially participated in the protests were real activists. No one was working to promote their own brand, their own face. Then, self-proclaimed “leaders” appeared, and that was the beginning of an end for the organization. Some girls simply allowed themselves to claim that they are the leaders within FEMEN, and then – that they are leading the entire organization. Despite the fact that we always stated that we are not a classic feminist organization, that we are something new with more freedom and pluralism, we met our end just like a classic women’s feminist organization. Everybody squabbled, could not share power and influence, people began to argue – “I’m the best”, “no, I’m better, I’m the leader” – etc. etc.
= Will you, personally, use other forms of protest against the system?
– I have always been interested in women’s issues, and that will continue, I just do not want to be associated with people who now call themselves FEMEN. I would never in my life join the organization as it is now, or work with them in any way. It has completely changed… it’s monstrous. I hope to use my experience to produce another, more versatile product.
– Why do you think that today’s FEMEN is “monstrous”? Are there ideological differences?
= Even simpler, visual ones. We have never concealed that we are sexists when it comes to protesting. We are not opposed to the use of different women’s bodies in protest, but only when the topic calls for it. We still selected girls, to some degree. The girls who participated in protests, people could bear to look at them. We used female sexuality. Attractiveness for the opposite sex. If you ask any man, he will tell you what looks good and what does not. And when people begin to say [sextremism] is simply about naked female bodies – this is not the same thing. You can be dressed, but be much sexier than someone else naked. It may sound harsh, and not in line with classic feminism, but our FEMEN’s idea was about fighting the system using female sexuality, especially because women have little else to use. [As women], sexuality is our major capital, and we tried to use it as a political tool. It was something new and interesting, and that was probably the main driver of our success and fame. We had an idea and an attractive wrapper. Like it or not, people still pay attention to the shiny wrapper first, and then get to the core.
And now, those girls crossed FEMEN with classic feminism, and we’ve got a… hybrid. It may have it’s place, but it is not FEMEN. In some ways, it’s actually the opposite of what FEMEN was.
– What do you think about returning to Ukraine?
= Someday, maybe … If I figure out how can I get back, and how can I help Ukraine over there, then I’ll go. But right now, it seems to me that I can help Ukraine a lot better from France.
= Do you talk with relatives from Makeevka? What do feel when they tell you about life in [separatist] republics?
– Of course I talk with my family, childhood friends. We write to each other. But what I feel can only be understood by other people who have relatives in the occupied territories. When you talk on Skype with mom, and hear rockets flying by, and you can’t do anything about it – that’s terrible. Even if you do 25 more protests, set fire to an embassy, etc – it will not change anything. Rockets will keep flying.