Femen members practising their protest techniques in their Paris HQ.
The topless feminist activists of Femen have had a rough few months. Since we made a film about them earlier this year, three activists were jailed in Tunisia, their Paris headquarters were burned down and three core members were kidnapped and beaten up in Kiev. To top it off, Ukraine Is Not a Brothel – a new film by Australian filmmaker Kitty Green – reveals that a self-proclaimed patriarch, Victor Svyatski, is the mastermind behind this Ukrainian feminist movement fighting to crush the patriarchy. Which is clearly a little paradoxical.
When I call leading Femen member Inna Shevchenko, who is currently in Venice to talk about the film, she seems surprisingly unconcerned about the impact it will have upon the group's future. “I'm not worried because the film is talking about our past. In the end, Victor was destroyed – he was kicked out of the movement more than a year ago. The future of Femen – and what I have built together with the activists all over the world who have joined us during this last year – is all based on our own ideas and wishes to fight patriarchy and oppression.”
Inna was aware that this inconvenient truth would eventually be exposed; “We allowed Kitty to shoot the film, so I knew it would show the history of the movement and how Victor took the role of leader.” However, she denies that Victor founded the movement; “Femen was created and organised by a union of women. It was a woman who came up with the idea of topless activism,” she told me.
Victor Svyatski, the former patriarchal leader of Femen.
So how did Victor take the role of leader? And why would he, when he calls himself a patriarch, want to be the leader of a feminist movement attempting to crush the patriarchy? According to Inna, his personal ambition was not political or feminist, but simply to be in a position of leadership.
“When I joined Femen, he was already there," Inna continued, "and if you wanted to be part of the movement, you had to accept that that’s how it was. We wanted to fight it, but we didn’t know how to undo him. This is the curse of our movement; that we were born in a patriarchal society where men think women are subordinate, and because he is a man – this is how it happens in all families, and in society – he thought he could lead us by being menacing. Since the beginning, I saw it as a huge problem, but I didn’t want to break up the movement. When I left for France, sawing down the cross [Inna and others cut down a cross in Kiev in protest against the prosecution of Pussy Riot] was one of the reasons, but it was also to realise this secret plan of building the real Femen without him. Maybe I wouldn’t have had this wish if I didn’t have so much hate and anger against him.”
When asked what Victor brought to the group, Inna explains that he was trying to dictate how they should behave and what they should do during the demonstrations. “I can’t deny that we sometimes took his advice, but other suggestions we just ignored. He was an enabler because he brought us much more anger. He identified our enemy for us: his face. Our enemy is global patriarchy, but he showed us – in a practical model – what a patriarch was. And now we are here at the festival to talk about that.”
Inna is tasked not only with convincing the press, but also all the newer recruits, like the Femen activists we filmed in Paris, who have probably never even met the guy. Pauline Hillier – one of the French Femen who spent a month in a Tunisian jail after a topless protest to raise awareness about ex-Femen member Amina’s trial – only recently found out about Svyatski’s involvement.
“Of course I was shocked," she told me. "We were only told about the content of the film and this revelation about Victor a few days ago.” Pauline assures me that the international branches have never spoken to Victor Svyatski about any decisions or actions: “As far as we knew, he was just an activist within Femen and we were not at all in contact with him, so at first it was incredibly hard and emotional for us to find out that male oppression could infiltrate the strongest and most radical of the feminist movements. But instead of being embarrassed or feeling that our movement was founded on questionable grounds, we consider it a lesson for how vigilant you have to be of the different forms of oppression patriarchy can take. Femen managed to free itself from his control, and when Inna moved to Paris and started up the French Femen HQ, that really marked a new start for the movement.”
Pauline joined Femen in December of 2012 because she was attracted to the idea of street feminism that puts thoughts into action. To her, Femen represents a more accessible way to be a feminist, in a younger, more dynamic, more courageous way. “I have been part of the very core of Femen for almost a year, and I have never encountered or had any interaction with this guy, which proves that he was never part of our decisions. I am proud of every action I have participated in and none of them were orchestrated by anyone other than the girls involved in the action. We refuse to let our combat be stolen by these stories that belong to the past of the movement.”
Femen activists annoying a load of fascists in Paris.
Green’s film suggests that Victor Svyatski’s involvement in Femen was to "get girls". But surely he could have found easier ways of getting laid? There’s undeniably something sinister about the existence of a behind-the-scenes, Charlie's Angels figure pulling the strings, particularly as he was treating some of the girls badly. But whatever his true intentions were, and even if he was a key operator whose ideas are still picked up by new recruits who don't necessarily know who he is, it's unfair to dismiss the entire movement.
Femen has clearly evolved and taken on a life of its own, expanding into new countries and establishing new leadership as it goes, some of whom have never even heard of the shadowy patriarch who was there pulling the strings in the beginning. And sure, the news of Svyatski's role as an early publicist and puppet master is a disappointing revelation. But would you dismiss the entirety of the punk movement just because it was invented by Malcolm McLaren?
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