WORLD AFFAIRSUkraine’s wars of symbols took an especially interesting turn on October 27.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, came to Kiev that day to pursue negotiations with his Ukrainian counterpart, Mykola Azarov, over energy. While policymakers and pundits debated the pros and cons of closer Russo-Ukrainian energy cooperation, FEMEN — a Ukrainian feminist group — staged a symbolically fascinating anti-Putin demonstration in downtown Kiev.

Six young women, bare-chested, clad in stylish, tight-fitting jeans, and wearing beribboned wreaths typical of traditional Ukrainian folk costumes, held placards and shouted slogans in front of the capital city’s most famous statue of Lenin, at the foot of Shevchenko Boulevard. The site is witness to periodic tussles between anti-Communists, who detest Lenin and want to deface his image, and Communists, who worship the Father of Communism and want to preserve it.

This time, the Communists were nowhere to be seen. After all, why worry about a few half-naked girls? Little did Ukraine’s Stalinists suspect that FEMEN’s topless protest could be far more destructive than anything the anti-Communists could do. One can always fix or clean a statue. Nudity, on the other hand, is freedom from social constraints par excellence; as such, it stands in diametrical opposition to the dictatorship of the prudish proletariat and Lenin’s baleful totalitarian legacy.

FEMEN’s demonstration made two more politically important points. First, the antics were an obvious dig at Putin’s painfully embarrassing attempts to project a bare-chested macho image. And second, FEMEN’s attire struck a symbolic blow against the Yanukovich regime’s determination to marginalize Ukrainian identity and reduce Ukrainian culture to a museum curio. The combination of svelte bodies, trendy jeans, and Ukrainian folk costumes loudly declared that being Ukrainian is both hip and modern. 

What the FEMENists had to say was also quite striking. Several of their placards read “Ukraine is not Alina” — a sexually charged reference to Alina Kabaeva, the 27-year old Olympic-medal-winning Russian gymnast rumored to be Putin’s girlfriend. Another read: “We won’t give ourselves to the dwarves” — another sexually charged reference to Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev, Russia’s diminutive leaders. The FEMENists also chanted “Putin go home” and “You can’t force us down so easily.” A spokeswoman stated, in Russian no less, that the group wants Putin “to know … that Ukraine doesn’t want to see him here. Ukraine knows why he came. He wants to break off parts of Ukraine. We won’t give him that. All of Ukraine won’t permit that. We simply reflect the views of all of Ukraine.”

Whether FEMEN actually reflects the views of all of Ukraine is debatable. Public opinion surveys show that significant parts of the population in the southeast of the country might be quite happy with giving Putin “parts of Ukraine.” And FEMEN itself, established in 2008 by a group of Kiev university students, has hardly become a mass movement. On the other hand, FEMEN probably does reflect the views of significant portions of Ukrainian students and its ability to attract media attention with well publicized happenings has transformed it into an important part of Ukraine’s ongoing symbolic wars.

Significantly, FEMEN has managed to combine several seemingly disparate ideological trends. The group is unquestionably feminist and hopes to shock Ukraine’s straightlaced society and sexist establishment. But it is also openly modern and nationalist, aspiring to a contemporary, independent, and liberal homeland. It has also adopted a progressively broader and more overtly political agenda — beginning in 2009 with actions against sexual harassment at universities, the Miss Universe competition, and sex tourism, then moving to protests against electoral fraud, the absence of women in the Yanukovich-appointed cabinet, and, now, Vladimir Putin.

Committed to “the principles of social awareness and activism, intellectual and cultural development” and “the European values of freedom, equality and comprehensive development of a person irrespective of the gender,” the FEMENists are clearly the intellectual and cultural offspring of the Orange Revolution.

Yanukovich’s Stalinist supporters will consider FEMEN to be one more reason to damn everything Orange. Ukraine’s young people, on the other hand, may take heart. The “Sixties” could finally be coming to Ukraine.

Alexander J Motyl

Ukrayinska Dumka


Great Britain The Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain has many branches throughout the country. Select a branch below to find out more information.