Femen firebrand Inna Shevchenko speaks

The Ukrainian activist on how she learned to stop worrying and fight the power

Arts+Culture Q+A
Inna Shevchenko
Melchior Tersen

To celebrate our Girls Rule issue, Dazed have been running a series of takeovers. We've played host to Angel Haze, Stacy Martin and Petra Collins. Today we're rounding off Girls Rule with a day of content curated by female protest group Femen. Inna Shevchenko selects the activist group's literary inspirations, we chart the dA-Zed of female protest and Femen react to the violence in Kiev with their own manifesto for change. Keep checking our Femen Day page for more throughout the day.

Taken from the February issue of Dazed & Confused:

Ukrainian activist Inna Shevchenko is no stranger to controversy. 
The Femen member’s topless actions aimed at challenging patriarchy and dictatorship – including cutting down a 13ft-high wooden cross in Kiev with a chainsaw – have achieved worldwide attention. Now she’s based in Paris and organising a globally expanded Femen under harsh media scrutiny following Kitty Green’s documentary Ukraine is Not a Brothel, which placed emphasis on the formative role of Viktor Sviatsky – a svengali-esque man with less than progressive views on women – on the group. 
We met Shevchenko in Copenhagen, where another new documentary, the Riahi brothers’ Everyday Rebellion, had just won the Audience Award at CPH:DOX. It places Femen’s work within the context of an upsurge of global resistance movements and shows its value at the more radical end of nonviolent protest.

Dazed Digital: How did you get into activism?

Inna Shevchenko: When we started we didn’t think we were becoming activists. It just came from not wanting to live like our mothers and sisters – following tradition, taking care of your appearance because you have to find a husband, catching the first man you can, getting married. I was burning inside, fed up, wanting to live differently but not knowing what that was. I became involved with Femen by accident. It didn’t look like a movement, it was just a group of girls thinking about fighting prostitution. I got a Facebook message saying: ‘We’re against prostitution. Are you with us?’ It had never really entered my mind before. There’d never been any discussion around me about such things. We started to meet and talk, at first just primitive talks about how we were fed up being harassed by guys on the street. It’s not like overnight you decide to become an activist. Life takes you there.

DD: You studied journalism at first?

Inna Shevchenko: I’d been an excellent student dreaming of journalism as a profession of independent free people. I grew up during Ukraine’s Orange revolution and that was when free journalists appeared there. Those people were so inspiring when I was 15 because they weren’t hesitating to ask politicians provocative questions. Here in Europe that’s fine, but there it was so new and radical. At 19 I was working as a press attaché for Kiev’s city mayor. It was my first job, and I had a big salary and could afford to live in an apartment by myself. But my romantic view of journalism was quickly crushed. You have to write what they tell you, and I was in a position where I had to tell others what to write. It was a terrible thing. It wasn’t a choice - it was necessary to quit.

“At first we did demonstrations with banners and megaphones, but no one reacted. Feminism is at that point again where you have to make people interested”

DD: Femen uses radical methods. Can you explain your strategy?

Inna Shevchenko: At first we did demonstrations with banners and megaphones, but no one reacted. Feminism is at that point again where you have to make people interested. People think a lot of things are done already, that there’s no need any more. We realised you can attract people by breaking rules and creating new ones. So we started taking off our tops, not for promoting beer or a sex club but to promote our political idea, and moving our body not in a sexy way but an aggressive way, running and screaming. Ukraine at that time was going from this Orange illusion of democracy back to dictatorship, to a Russian way of organising the political situation. For us, the younger generation, we were just terrified. So we did a radical thing. And it started working. In a different time feminists fought this idea of women as a sex object in a different way - cutting their hair and wearing a man’s suit to say, 
‘I’m the same, I have the same rights.’ 
We realised the problem is not the body but their point of view of the body, and that we don’t have to cover our body but their point of view. 
So we proposed to the world a new kind of naked woman: she’s a warrior, 
she’s aggressive, strong and beautiful, and we’re showing it. Femen action is dramaturgy of our idea.

DD: Being radical, you provoke extreme reactions.

Inna Shevchenko: Yes. We’d never have developed an international movement and I’d not be sitting here in front of you if this did not work. I can explain, but the reaction we’ve gotten is the best answer as to why it’s needed and what it does for a society.

Inna Shevchenko
Inna Shevchenko Photography by Melchior Tersen

DD: Are you scared when protesting?

Inna Shevchenko: It would be silly to say we’re not, but the fear of everything around us is bigger than the fear of being beaten up. The situation was at its most dangerous when we were in Belarus. The KGB took us into the forest and we were tortured for 24 hours. In my head I resigned myself to the idea that I would die that day. That changed completely the way I understand myself, the world and my activity, my thoughts, goals and vision. 
You check yourself and understand what really matters. After that situation I have only one real fear – to be imbecilic and passive. Losing teeth can be fixed.

DD: Do you feel solidarity with other resistance movements?

Inna Shevchenko: Of course, even though we fight different things in a different form. I would never criticise any other form of activism or feminism, even if I have a different opinion of what works and what doesn’t. Yesterday I had an interview with a guy who asked me, don’t I want to live a normal life? For me this is the normal life. It’s not normal to be apolitical and not talking about such a fundamental thing as women’s rights, and when you agree with such an ugly system. 

“The Belarus KGB took us into the forest and 
tortured us for 24 hours. After that my only fear 
is being passive. Losing teeth can be fixed”

DD: Why did you leave Ukraine for France? Was it just too dangerous?

Inna Shevchenko: Yeah. I already had plans to go to Europe to start branches, to make this movement work better and on a bigger scale. It was also about taking the movement from Viktor Sviatsky. 

DD: How did he come to have so much power within Femen?

Inna Shevchenko: He didn’t have as much power as everyone wrote when Ukraine is Not a Brothel came out. I wish journalists would actually watch the film, and then write. Kitty cut it a lot and it’s a made-up story somehow. 
She’s enjoying it because she made a big scandal, which was what she wanted. But we’re not fighting with her because we chose to tell the story about Viktor and she didn’t twist it as much as the media have done. It was hard because people started to scream that we’re not authentic feminists. We’d already changed and developed the movement into an international group. He cannot do anything now. It’s proof of how deep patriarchal culture runs when people go: 
‘Oh, there’s a man, of course it couldn’t work so well without one.’

DD: How was working with the Riahi brothers?

Inna Shevchenko: Personally they’re very close, because when I fled from Ukraine I crossed the border into Poland and didn’t know what to do. In Ukraine there’d been 20 guys around my apartment and I’d jumped out the window. 
We’d been planning to shoot in Kiev, and when I told them what had happened they arrived the next day in Poland. They were the only people around me 
I knew. It was support. I like them, they’re cool. They’re not like Kitty, who is just a director wanting to make a cool film; they understand politically, since they’re Iranian and also fled their country.

DD: Do you miss Ukraine?

Inna Shevchenko: I miss Ukraine and that we cannot do action somewhere it’s needed. 
It was a choice to be imbecilic or in jail, or far from my country. 
But I’ll continue activism and I feel that we succeeded in moving the headquarters to France. Everyday Rebellion shows that the first step was taken – that the revolution is starting. People may think that sounds a little romantic but I do believe that with all these rebellions all over the world, you see people care about each other and the situation. There’s a moment in the film when we’re screaming, ‘Freedom to political prisoners,’ and then it moves to Iran and they are screaming the same in Farsi, and you think, 
‘This is it, we’re living in the same world and we want the same for it.’

DD: Do you believe protest must always be nonviolent?

Inna Shevchenko: We’re aggressive, but nonviolent. Aside from morality, even logically, you cannot fight with Molotov cocktails against much bigger weapons. We like to make Lukashenko, Berlusconi and Putin look ridiculous because those guys love to remind the world how powerful they are. Pussy Riot were in jail not because they are a real danger, but for Putin to remind the world that he’s a big dictator.

DD: Anything else you’d like to say to our readers?

Inna Shevchenko: I wish everyone would be afraid of being imbecilic in this world. This is the only fear you have to have, 
no others.

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