Last year VICE reported on unsettling and ironic allegations that the militant feminist group Femen was run by a man named Victor Svyatski. Australian filmmaker Kitty Green broke the story of Victor’s role when she spent 14 months with the activists, living, eating and getting arrested with them. Being a woman, a dissident, or a journalist in former-Soviet nations is difficult at the best of times. Green was all three, but despite intimidation, numerous arrests, and an abduction by the Belarusian KGB, she remains determined to get the Femen story out.
The resulting documentary, Ukraine is Not a Brothel, casts Victor as Femen’s Rasputin. Inna Shevchenko, a Femen activist, previously told VICE that Victor did not start Femen, but footage in the film shows him issuing instructions to Inna ahead of one protest: dictating what slogans should be painted on their boobs and what the girls should shout. In another sequence, Victor impatiently directs Anna Hutsol (Femen’s official founder) as she stumbles through a declaration of Femen’s manifesto.
Green was banned from filming Victor, but did so anyway in secret as he berated and abused them, until she finally confronted him. “These girls are weak,” Victor say as the cameras roll. “They don’t have the strength of character… even the desire to be strong. No. Instead they show submissiveness, spinelessness, lack of punctuality.” Green challenges him: “You are a patriarch in a movement against patriarchy” but makes little impression. Victor obviously subscribes to the view that when it comes to feminism, it’s too important a job to be left up to women.
VICE: You lived with Femen for 14 months. What did you do day-to-day?
Kitty Green: They protest probably every three days and then between that, you’re preparing for protests and doing photo shoots… Victor’s a hard taskmaster and technically I was working for him.
The mother of Femen member Sasha said she thought Victor was schizophrenic. Is he?
He’s definitely not normal. I don’t know if it’s schizophrenia. I don’t think it is actually. I think it’s just—he’s really intelligent and really scary and unpredictable, and has a short temper. I’d almost call him bipolar, like he’s happy at one monument and just so angry the next… He spent three years in a prison in the Soviet Union and everyone blames the prison for why he is the way he is. We don’t know…
How did Femen react when you told them you were going to expose Victor in the film?
It was pretty awful, actually. I went to Victor first, and he started screaming at me, and saying I was going to ruin the movement. But I was convinced that if the girls could move forward without him, the movement would be fine.
The girls were harder to convince. They though I was in it for money—they didn’t realise there’s no money in documentaries—a lot of them were quite upset and felt betrayed. But when we talked it through I think they all understood. It’s still uncomfortable for them to talk about it to be honest, to this day.
What is your relationship with Femen like now?
It is more like family. We lived together for a year. Femen came to the premiere of the film at Venice Film Festival. I had Inna and Sasha with me in Bologna last week for a film festival. They support the film even though it is difficult subject matter for them. They understand that it is their history and a story that other young women can learn from.
Kitty and the FEMEN crew attending a Venice Film Festival event
Victor calls himself “the father of New Feminism.” What do you think of his defence that he is a patriarch against the patriarchy, as Marx was bourgeois against the bourgeoisie?
In terms of Femen, it wouldn’t have come about without that guy and his insane ego and his insane ideas and his dreams to take over the world… Femen was born out of a deeply patriarchal culture. Their methods have evolved since the movement left Ukraine… For Femen they needed that influence and they’ve since broken free.
Do you feel like that redeems Victor or he’s really not redeemable?
No, I think he did a good thing for those girls. They would all be working as strippers or topless models or just be married with children by now if they hadn’t have met him and he hadn’t have influenced them in some kind of way.
On the other hand, he’s a horrible human being. I’ve seen him abuse them physically and verbally, so I think it’s tough to weigh up the good and the bad, but I think their lives are a lot better for having been in his presence, in some ways.
Without putting Victor in your film, would Femen have cut ties with him?
I could sense that the girls were ready to move forward with the organisation without Victor's influence. They were eager to be free of him. And by asking these questions in my interviews with them, they were forced to analyse their own movement and their own dreams and goals for Femen, and I guess that inevitably helped them take that next step, yes.
You got arrested quite a few times. Did you ever feel in danger, or was it “oh, we got arrested again today.”
Yeah, it was always “oh, we got arrested again today.” Then we went to Belarus and that’s when the shit hit the fan. Like, it really was a bad experience. Everyone was saying in Belarus they can kill you, journalists disappear, you don’t know where people go. There was kind of henchmen taking me in blacked out vans from one place to another location. I was always told “never go to the second location in a blacked out van.”
In that situation, did you get to the point where you thought, “I’ll never see anyone again?”
I really thought that could be it, “Oh fuck, they’re going to take me into a field and just kill me.”
I went along knowing it was dangerous. The girls wrote on my stomach, in paint, the number of the Australian embassy in Moscow. Just in case— “they’re going to take your phone, and you’ll need to have the number.” So I had it written across me.
Do you think this form of protesting is effective or does it put too much interest on the girls themselves?
If you Google Germaine Greer you get so many hits [732,000], if you Google Femen you get millions more [5,560,000]. So there’s something to be said for that. Not everyone’s going to agree with the methods but they are effective in terms of getting people talking about issues that would otherwise be ignored.
One of my favourite bits in the films is when Inna’s Dad says, “if your child had no legs you’d love it. My child has no brain.” What did your parents think when you said, “I’m going to go live with Femen?”
Yeah, I mean, I didn’t really ask permission… Dad was kind of proud, he’s like an old school Marxist, he was kind of happy with the situation. And my mother prefers not to talk about it.
What’s next for you?
I really can’t talk about it… I could get arrested.
Ukraine is Not a Brothel will screen at various Australian and New Zealand film festivals, dates to be announced.
Follow Reece on Twitter: @reecejones2