It was 10 AM in Times Square. Billboards’ lights were shining on the streets below, and cars were honking incessently, as always. But with the exception of a few NYPD officers and meandering tourists, a gaggle of reporters were the only people standing around in the cold on a patch of concrete studded with tables and chairs at Seventh Avenue and West 46th Street.
We were waiting for Femen, everybody's favorite international radical-feminist activist organization. Founded in Ukraine in 2008 to destroy the patriarchy, religion, and sex work, they've become notorious for their protest methods, which mostly involve getting naked and making themselves as much of a nuisance as possible. Let it never be said that they don't know how to attract the media.
“They invited everybody,” a cameraman next to me said.
Inna Shevchenko, the most prominent member of FEMEN, has had a long road to prominence. She fled Ukraine in August 2012. One morning, after attending an anti-religion protest, authorities opened a criminal case against her for being a “hooligan.” The secret police followed her for three days, and convinced they would arrest her, she organized an escape plan with her fellow activists. She left by jumping out of her first-story apartment window and climbing into another activist’s car, then riding a train into Poland and making her way to France, where she was granted political asylum.
From her Paris squat, she has used the internet to expand Femen to nine branches in several different countries. Recently, thanks to her refugee passport, she began traveling the world.
“It’s hard to travel if you’re a young, unmarried girl from Ukraine,” she said. “Everyone thinks you’re a prostitute!” This week, she’s in America to attend a South by Southwest screening of a documentary about Femen, and she sees the trip as an opportunity to bring her movement to the states.
“You never lose the chance for a protest,” she said. “Femen in the US will have a lot of work, because I think American society is paradoxical. At some points it’s very open-minded, it’s very free—but at the same time, it’s very conservative, and conservatism is always [against] women.”
Naturally, she staged the first American Femen action—a protest against Russia's occupation of Crimea—in Times Square, the symbolic center of the American media empire. Inna has been called many things, but no one's ever called her subtle.
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“FUCK PUTIN!” the five topless Femen activists screamed as they ran about holding signs with different slogans (“FUCK PUTIN’S OCCUPATION” and “US EU STOP TALKING START ACTING”) and “FUCK PUTIN” painted on their chest in English and Russian. At one point, Inna fell to the ground and ripped a Russian flag. The reporters photographed the activists, and the tourists photographed journalists. After a few minutes, the demonstration came to a halt, and Inna glided toward the reporters. (She has a striking, imperial beauty and doesn’t walk anywhere—she floats.) As Inna spoke, the other activists stood behind her with solemn faces.
“Why are you topless?” a reporter asked.
“This is a tactic that is working,” Inna said.
(In case you're wondering, though many Femen protests end with the women getting arrested for public nudity or some such charge, it's legal to be topless in New York City.)
After five minutes of sound bites, Inna brought the press conference to an end. The Femen activists raced back to Inna's hostel to change back into their normal clothes. They threw on jackets as they walked and started discussing their next steps. Inna asked if they had posted photos on social media yet.
Inna hostel was a small, grubby place on Eighth Avenue around the corner from the Church of Scientology; it's one of the last blocks in Midtown that feels authentically grimy. The hostel's middle-aged manager, in the tradition of sleazy front-desk dudes everywhere, eye-fucked the Femen women as they walked past and told me I was “lucky” to be accompanied by such beautiful women. Twenty minutes later, Inna came back out wearing a thin red coat and holding a few small shopping bags. (She didn't bring a winter coat or a suitcase to America.) She handed the manager her room key to check out.
“Are you leaving?” he asked.
“I love you!” he shouted.
Inna laughed. The patriarchy was in full effect.
After saying goodbye to three of the activists, Inna walked with Neda Topaloski, a Montreal-based Femen activist to Starbucks. Neda joined the organization last October and had previously only spoken to Inna online.
As they drank coffee, Inna took a call from Femen activists who were on a train from Crimea to Kiev, Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s forces had gassed the activists’ eyes and beat them as they tried to protest in Crimea, and the Ukrainian police had forced the activists to go to Kiev for their safety. The girls said they were temporarily blind but safe. “Tell us you love us,” they told her.
“I love you,” she said. “Just don’t make mistakes.”
Neda supports Femen’s dangerous protests against Putin in Crimea. “When’s the last time you heard someone went into an independent territory to occupy it with military?” she said. “It’s rare, and it’s exceptional.”
Inna had similar views. “I think [Russia’s military action] isn’t surprising from Putin. He wants to become a tsar. He wants to have an empire," she said. “He’s not the guy who wants to care about money, like a small politician like [Viktor] Yanukovych, who wants to put all the gold in his apartment. Putin isn’t that kind of politician anymore. He’s not about money. He’s about power. To bring Crimea back to Russia is a very good paragraph in the history of Russia with the name of Putin [on it], and I’m sure this is something he wants to achieve.”
She added that the West lacks a proper understanding of the situation in Eastern Europe. “Everyone was wondering why Ukrainians were so disappointed with [jailed opposition politician and former Ukrainian prime minister] Yulia Tymoshenko’s release. Why don’t they greet her as a hero? Because people know she signed agreements with Putin about gas,” she said. “I’m in support of her release from jail. She has to stay free of prison, but she doesn't have to become president. She showed herself as a politician, and she didn’t show herself as a good politician.”
But Femen didn’t carry signs about Tymoshenko or Yanukovych at their protest in Times Square—they critiqued Putin, the US, and the EU. Inna believes it will take international action to save Ukraine from Putin.
“This morning when you read tweets that the US made a step, that the US took visa sanctions, do you believe you can start a war on a guy like Putin?” she asked sarcastically. “You either fight Putin or die because of him.”