One day last summer, Inna Shevchenko went into a forest outside Kiev, capital of the Ukraine, to learn how to use a chainsaw. The lumberjacks who were instructing her couldn’t work out why she was so keen. “They thought I was just a crazy blonde,” she says, shaking her white curls.
The next day she went to a hilltop overlooking Kiev, and stripped to a pair of red denim shorts, heavy boots, leather gloves, and a mask to protect her eyes. The Pussy Riot verdict was due that day, and in tribute to the Russian punk activists — and to mark her opposition to all religions — Inna proceeded to chop down a 13ft wooden cross that had been there since 2005. It wasn’t easy. “When I started to cut it, I thought, ‘it’s not possible to destroy it,’” she says. But after seven minutes it fell, and she posed against the stump for invited journalists. With “Free Riot” scrawled across her bare breasts, she held out her arms to mirror the figure of Christ now lying on the ground.
Death threats arrived instantly. She says there were official calls for her arrest, and Russian TV reported that the cross was a memorial to the victims of Stalinism. Inna denies this, but anger towards her sharpened.
A few days later, she was woken at 6am by the sound of her front door being kicked in. She escaped, jumping through a back window, then down from a first floor balcony, and made her way to Warsaw with $50, a mobile phone and her passport. Some days later, she travelled to France, where women had expressed interest in joining Femen, the feminist group she runs with three Ukrainian friends.
Femen’s aims are straightforward, broad and radical. A war on patriarchy on three fronts, calling for an end to all religions, dictatorships and the sex industry. The group has been offered a space in a rundown theatre in Paris as headquarters.
Here Inna, 24, is giving a training session with 20 young Femen activists. She is giving instructions on the correct stance — feet apart, firmly rooted, aggressive. Femen warriors never smile, she says, they are not there to please anyone. The group has been protesting topless since 2010, using their bodies to attract attention, to lure journalists, and they have been roundly criticised by some people, who accuse them of playing into sexist stereotypes.
In a room covered with posters and murals — ‘F**k Religion’, says one, ‘Go out! Undress! Win!’, says another — the activists stand in rows, screaming slogans at each other. They’re dressed in T-shirts and tracksuits, occasionally stopping to swig bottled water. This is gym class for the revolution.
“Not a sex toy,” they scream. Then “Poor because of you” and “In gay we trust”. One by one, they take to the middle of the room, to show how they would behave at a protest. One new member shouts “Pope No More”, before two other activists launch themselves at her. For a moment all three are mid-air, then they hit the ground and start struggling in a blur.
Inna has told them they must move constantly, to avoid being covered; their slogan will be written across their bare chest and back, and they need it to be seen. One woman fights hard, still screaming, occasionally breaking free, running a few paces, only to be brought down again with a brutal thwack. Finally, Inna calls a halt, and the woman stands up with blood running down her arm. There is clapping, cheering, congratulations.
As the activists start the next stage of training — situps, press-ups, running-while-screaming — journalists and cameramen swirl around. There is no attempt to hide the fact this session is being played out for the press. As women fight, Inna comes up close to them, in her denim hotpants, hooded top and Converse boots, instructing them to look at the camera. It doesn’t matter how many people come to a protest, she says — if there’s one camera, that’s what they need to target, to get their message out to millions.
On some level, this is working. Each time Femen stages an action, videos pop up on websites worldwide. But are their breasts obscuring their message? Their message can also get lost in the breadth and sprawl of their protests. While other groups focus on one or two issues, Femen are everywhere.
The group has also been accused of deploying only young, slim, beautiful women. But a new book about Femen, just published in France, features photos of women of different shapes and sizes on demonstrations, pictures I’ve never seen elsewhere. The media, unsurprisingly, pick the most obviously attractive photos. Inna says they have never chosen women according to their looks, or weight; the only proviso is that they have to be well-prepared.
Their actions have sometimes been dismissed but there is no doubt the women of Femen take serious risks. In late 2011, for example, Inna and two other activists travelled to Minsk, in Belarus, to protest outside the KGB offices against Alexander Lukashenko, the man often called Europe’s last dictator. While they expected to spend New Year in a Belarus jail, they allege that they were, instead, abducted by secret service agents and threatened with death — a claim the Belarusian KGB denies.
Their campaigning is unified by one central aim: to use their breasts to expose corruption and inequality wherever they see it. “One of the main goals,” says Inna, “is to take the masks off people who wear them, to show who they are, and the level of patriarchy in this world, you know?”
She says they also want to reclaim women’s bodies for women. “A woman’s naked body has always been the instrument of the patriarchy,” she says, “they use it in the sex industry, the fashion industry, advertising, always in men’s hands. We realised the key was to give the naked body back to its rightful owner, to women, and give a new interpretation of nudity ... I’m proud of the fact that today naked women are not just posing on the cover of Playboy, but can be at an action, angry, and can irritate people.”