While this doesn’t have much to do with the usual themes of this blog, it is an interesting case study of media culture and political protest (and one that my Ukrainian studies background qualifies me to comment on).
A (western-style) feminist activist-performance group best known for (literally) exposing themselves to gain media exposure (with the help of happily obliging male photographers) chainsaws down a cross commemorating Stalin’s Ukrainian victims as an act of solidarity with anti-authoritarian punk-feminists Pussy Riot. (Those are the three musicians recently sentenced to two years in jail for their “sacrilegious” anti-government performance in a Russian church. More on them later.)
Probably unintentionally (though one has to wonder), the action aligns Femen with (Stalinist) patriarchal dictatorship in the ostensible cause of fighting (Putinist) dictatorial patriarchy. As a result it also, at least temporarily, unifies the (otherwise violently opposed) pro-western Ukrainian nationalists with the pro-Russian Orthodoxo-Putinists against Femen, and by extension against feminism, punk rock, and “decadent” western culture.
My Facebook post on this elicited a range of interpretations of her action, based on which I’ve created the following survey question:
In your view, is Femen activist Inna Shevchenko, who chainsawed down a cross commemorating the victims of Stalin’s Ukrainian Holodomor (famine-genocide) to express solidarity with Pussy Riot, (a) a feminist, (b) a media-seeking exhibitionist, (c) a KGB agent provocateur, (d) the fury of the Goddess, (e) whatever she says she is, or (f) none of the above (in which, case, what)?
For the record, (b) seems most popular so far (but it’s a very tiny survey sample of random FB friends).
More interestingly, the KGB infiltrator/agent provocateur theory — which I would normally resist, but which I’ve heard expressed by several Ukrainians now — has some genuine explanatory strengths. Let’s think about them:
(1) Shevchenko’s action provides seemingly clear evidence for the Russian government case against the Pussy Riot girls, which is that they and others like them are “dangerous” to church, state, and traditional social values.
(2) It builds public support for Putin’s flagging authority among the conservative (authoritarian, anti-Western) Left and Right, both of which camps can say “See how crazy those westernized liberals are!”
(3) It drives a wedge between the fragile coalition of pro-Western Ukrainian liberals (who would support punks’ and feminists’/women’s rights) and anti-Soviet Ukrainian conservatives (who will side with church & state on this issue).
(4) It raises the likelihood that the Ukrainian government will try and possibly jail Shevchenko for vandalism of public property (or something like that) — which will serve to deflect Western attention away from Putin and Pussy Riot (after all, what do we expect from Russia?) and toward Ukraine and its jailing of a feminist (but Ukraine wanted to westernize, no?), which in turn would lead to the further marginalization of Ukraine’s European aspirations… and, ultimately, to a closer embrace of Ukraine within Russia’s motherly fold.
(5) And it physically destroys a potent symbol of anti-Soviet and anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine.
(Note: The Russian Orthodox Church has since asked for clemency for the Pussy Riot girls. Ukrainian national and religious activists, meanwhile, are mostly appalled by the action. The cross had been put up without official government support by the once-outlawed Ukrainian Catholic Church in 2006, not by the long officially supported Russian Orthodox Church, which the Femen protestors had recently protested against.)
Femen is clearly aiming for a global audience, and their images of Putin chainsawed & bloodied are pretty powerful. They are a media-savvy group, students of McLuhan and Greenpeace (with their “media mind bombs” use of visual images) as much as of Gloria Steinem and bra-burning feminism. Here another of my respondents’ views — that her cross demolition was simply an ill-considered object, a matter of “Act now, think later” — makes for a more parsimonious explanation of her act.
As for the “fury of the Goddess” scenario, there’s Femen’s work against women’s exploitation, including the high levels of prostitution and sexual slavery associated with countries like Ukraine, which they reference in this interview here, where they say that their “God is woman.” On the other hand, Femen founder Anna Hutsol, who blogs at Ekho Moskvy, says about Shevchenko’s desecration of the commemorative cross:
«Данным актом Femen призывает все здравые силы общества нещадно выпиливать из мозга трухлявые религиозные предрассудки» (“With this act Femen calls upon all healthy powers of society to mercilessly cut all mouldering religious prejudices out of their brains”)
— which tells us they don’t exactly discriminate between Ukrainian Catholic and Russian Orthodox — and if you know the difference between the two, you know the diametrically opposed political roles they have played in the country — or, for that matter, any other variations of religion. That would presumably include Goddess religion, unless of course that strain doesn’t include prejudices.
What all this tells us, I think, is that activism, media, politics, and religion are all thoroughly intertwined in interesting ways in the post-Soviet world. The western media rarely understands the cultural nuances surrounding events in Russia or Ukraine; and in the post-Soviet east, the conspiratorial paranoia bred by a system of spy-versus-spy machinations lingers heavily. Groups like Femen are intended to inject a breath of fresh western air into the smoky, vodka-stained corridors, but end up merely adding to the general paranoia.
Then there’s Pussy Riot itself. Their closing trial statements are brilliant, lucid, deeply articulate and historically (and even philosophically) well informed. They make for transfixing reading. More on that in a future post.
Note: I’m indebted to several FB friends (especially Adrianna and Solomiya) for parts of this analysis.